At the hub of political, economic and social activity in Saudi Arabia, Riyadh is also home to an extravagant and vibrant dining scene, where locals and expats alike have an unsatiated appetite for the hottest foodie favourites and the latest restaurant openings. This cosmopolitan city boasts Michelin-star restaurants alongside hole-in-the-wall spots, international food chains and startups inspired by global trends.
If you’re looking to sample the local fare, here are five of the best places to try in Riyadh.
Clink drinks at Al Masaa Café
If you want to witness the opulent lifestyle of Riyadh, head to the largest coffee shop in the world, Al Masaa Café. The cafe sits on a busy road opposite the Kingdom Centre, a 300m-tall landmark tower and the third largest building in the world. Sit outside watching the Kingdom Centre facade reflect the clouds as they go by whilst sipping on an iced cappuccino or a rich strawberry, banana and avocado smoothie. As the sun sets, Al Masaa Café illuminates and becomes lively with the dazzle of surrounding skyrises and locals who come here for Arabic coffee. If you’re lucky, you might just get to see some coveted Ducatis and Lamborghinis speeding down the road in all their glory.
Brunchin’ at Bistro by Tao
Start a luxurious weekend off right with brunch at Bistro by Tao, a zen space in the middle of palatial villas. The Oriental-chic look and feel of the restaurant makes it one of Riyadh’s most Instagram-able spots. Amidst selfies, brunch chatter and Ed Sheeran playing in the background, the bistro represents the global influences of a modern Riyadh. For breakfast purists, there are plenty of options like the ricotta cheese pancakes served with honeycomb butter or traditional fuul (fava beans) with special spices. For brunch, try the huge fusion platter that has everything from grilled halloumi skewers to shakshouka and even Indian-style carrot pudding served on a banana leaf.
Reviving tradition at Najd Village
To experience the heritage of Riyadh, plan a trip to the newly refurbished Al Bujairi district of Ad’Diriyah – the location of the first Saudi capital established under the emir and the original home of the Saudi royal family. The site also marks the beginnings of the country’s affiliation with the teachings of Wahhabism.
Visit Al Bujairi during golden hour to witness a spectacular sunset over the restored area, dotted with rivulets and lush palm trees. After an evening of exploring alleyways, green spaces and the souq, settle in for a Najdi dinner in the fascinating Najd Village restaurant. The colourful, painted doors are a gateway to a different time in Riyadh. Men flipping bread in earthen ovens, servers walking around with huge platters laden with meat and rice, artefacts placed in nooks and crannies, and traditional Arabic-style seating is a pleasant change from the norm.
If you’re feeling adventurous, try the hashi (camel) meat cooked in tomato sauce or chopped sheep liver. If you'd rather play it safe, try the classic lamb kabsa, a fragrant lamb and rice best eaten with your hands, or the Najd temman, rice cooked with chicken and vegetables. Wash down the heavy meal with a fenjan (cup) of Arabic tea generously garnished with lemon and mint.
Indulge with Mom’s Flavour
In the comfort of Mom’s dining room — replete with homey decor and cosy settees — sit back and enjoy decadent, comforting cakes and pastries at Mom’s Flavour. The cafe takes on an Arab spin on classic desserts like the British sticky toffee pudding, which is transformed and served as a hot, sticky date pudding with sauce and ice cream. Ricotta hot cakes, inspired by Australian bakeries, are served with Nutella and rahash (a fudge-like mixture made of tahini). The Lotus Volcano is a cross between muffin, pancake and soufflé, smothered in Lotus biscoff spread and salted caramel sauce. This is comfort food upgraded with a dash of international flavour.
Quick eats at Zaatar W Zeit
Borrowed from the Levantine cuisine, manakeesh is a flatbread usually made into a sandwich with zaatar (thyme and sesame seed) or labneh (Greek yogurt). Although there is no dearth of places serving up manakeesh in Riyadh, the urban eatery Zaatar W Zeit is popular with locals for its inexpensive and fresh offerings. To savour two flavours in one, go with the zaatar and labneh wrap, which comes with a half-and-half spread. Another good option is the taouk wrap, bursting at the seams with spiced chicken, fries, pickles and garlic mayo. With several locations around the city, Zaatar W Zeit is an ideal quick-eat for the busy life in Riyadh.