Just over two decades ago, Abu Dhabi was a sleepy capital in a young nation. In 1990, there were few – if any – of the modern skyscrapers that line its Corniche today. The Emirates Palace, an iconic billion-dollar hotel and classic first sight-seeing stop, had not yet been constructed. There were no modern shopping malls, and many of the restaurants that were open back then have long since closed their doors.
Isfahan Nights is one exception.
The Persian food restaurant opened in 1990 – just 18 years after the seven Emirates unified to become one nation – making it one of the oldest restaurants in Abu Dhabi. It may have moved locations in 2000, but Isfahan Nights still is an institution.
Too bad there aren’t many customers there.
Just after dark, the illuminated sign of Isfahan Nights casts a red glow on the outdoor seating area (and your food if you choose to eat outside) in front of this street-side restaurant. Inside are a dozen more tables under fluorescent lights, but not a lot of people. It is almost empty on a Friday night at dinner time.
Still, the outdoor tables are comfortable and welcoming, and the food at Isfahan Nights is decent.
Before even perusing the menu, servers bring out a bowl of dark red tomato lentil soup, salad with lemony white dressing, and fresh greens. Portions are large, and come with extra touches and side dishes. There is nothing inherently spicy on the menu, but servers provide a plate of whole green chilies to complement what is otherwise a flavorful but fire-free selection of dishes.
The chicken yogurt tikka is served kebab-style, in glistening yellow pieces just pulled off a hot skewer, next to a mound of yellow and white rice dotted with fresh mint leaves and dried red currants. A cup of creamy dill-yogurt sauce comes on the side. The ghormesh sabzi, a classic Iranian staple of home cooking, is a thick stew-like green sauce with herbs and black pepper poured over boiled chunks of chicken.
Dinner at Isfahan Nights feels like a meal cooked by a friendly neighbor who’s invited you into his home or backyard – if that backyard was located just below a dilapidated travel agency off of a busy street downtown. The food is delicious, the waiters are attentive and helpful, and the restaurant has a lot of heart. After a meal, it’s clear why Isfahan Nights has survived Abu Dhabi’s fickle restaurant scene for so long.
But how much longer it can remain here with so few customers is another question. A steady stream of take-out orders frequently takes off on the back of a single motorbike, though, so perhaps the delivery side of the business can keep the place running.
Iranian-born owner Masoud Hossain has been living in the UAE since he was just a young child. Neither Hossain nor his staff members at Isfahan Nights speak much English, but that doesn’t stop them from coming over immediately and frequently to chat and to answer questions about the food, about Iran, family, or traveling.
If Hossain is worried about business, it certainly doesn’t show. He has, after all, managed to keep the restaurant open to cook homemade Iranian classics for residents of the UAE for nearly 30 years.
Isfahan Nights: see the menu
Address: Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoom Street (Old Airport Road next to Sony Building), Abu Dhabi, UAE
Telephone: +971 2 446 6122
Camels Fire: (nothing spicy on menu)