Dubai, UAE (CNN) — Big and blingy is not always best in Dubai.
While the glitz thrusts further skyward or deeper into the Arabian Gulf, one humble fish restaurant in the shadow of the luxury Burj Al Arab skyscraper hotel bucks the trend.
Bu Qtair peddles simple seafood and fresh fish cooked in its famous “secret recipe,” attracting some of the city’s highest rollers to its modest surroundings.
“Some of the tourists who visit us stay in the Burj Al Arab,” says owner Matar Al Tayer. “But they tell me they prefer the taste of the fish here over anywhere else in the city. It is the flavor that has remained the same for 30 years.”
Bu Qtair’s simple fare has been attracting expats, tourists and Dubai residents for 30 years.
Al Tayer opened his first fish shack overlooking Jumeirah beach in the 1980s to cater for the growing expat population flooding in from South Asia and the Middle East when oil boom money was starting to transform the UAE.
His prominent Emirati family once made a tough living through fishing and pearl diving, living alongside fellow fishermen on the then-undeveloped stretch of coast. As the outsiders poured in, the local Bedouin and fishermen who’ve always been the masters of this arid land, found themselves sharing it with others.
That’s when Al Tayer had his “lightbulb” entrepreneurial moment.
“There was not a single café or restaurant dedicated to those fishermen, so I thought to fill that gap by opening a small shop in which I serve Indian chai karak and paratha,” he says.
The young Al Tayer opened a small kitchen serving special Indian tea and bread on an empty yard overlooking the beach near the fishermen’s dormitory.
He named it “Bu Qtair,” a local term Emirati pearl divers used to name the spots where sweet water gathered naturally along the coast, and where they used to wash themselves after a rigorous day of diving. Al Tayer’s venture, however, proved to be an utter failure.
“For four years, I did not attract any customers. Fishermen were used to preparing their food themselves,” he says.
It all changed one day when he asked his part-time Indian cook Mousa to prepare food for his family’s fishermen after a long day at work. Mousa, who worked in the kitchen of another local family, took some of their fresh catch and served it to the hungry fishermen.
Neither of the men would have guessed that would be the start of Bu Qtair’s journey to stardom, firstly among Indian expats, and later among all of Dubai’s residents.
Fish or prawns? It’s that simple.
Despite its growing reputation, the restaurant remained in its unpretentious location for more than three decades as the entire area around it was swallowed up by the desert megalopolis.
The fishermen’s dormitory was rebuilt, the fishing boats started sharing their docks with luxurious yachts, and Jumeirah became home to luxurious landmarks, such as the opulent sail-shaped Burj Al Arab, the man-made island Palm Jumeirah, Dubai’s only Four Seasons Resort, and myriad other exclusive hotels and boutique cafés and restaurants.
In the area around the restaurant, it was not uncommon to see Range Rovers, Mercedes and other sparkly SUVs parked up while their owners sat on plastic chairs on the sandy lot out front to enjoy the same few menu items it’s been serving since 1986.
A few years ago, Bu Qtair moved to a bigger premises, with a lit and air-conditioned indoor area.
It remains, however, close to the fishermen in Jumeirah, who are now only a fraction of the diverse crowd that goes there to enjoy the fried fish or prawns dish, with a side of paratha bread or rice and curry sauce. Its reputation has garnered extensive coverage by local and international media, including American TV chef Anthony Bourdain, who featured it in one of his gastronomic trips.
The only real change today is that the fish does not come straight off the boats.
“Today we cannot buy fish straight from fishermen,” says Haroun Rasheed, Mousa’s 36-year-old nephew, who joined his uncle in the UAE in the early 2000s and has been managing the restaurant for the past 15 years.
“The municipality requests from us buying it from the fish market in Deira (in old Dubai).”
The restaurant, however, remains true to its origins, unmoved by the city’s transformation around it and still fiercely protective of the “secret recipe.”
Bu Qtair is a minnow, but worth its weight in pearls.