The whole world knows Qatar for its amazing hospitality offering, the great job it did hosting the World Cup 2022 and lots more. But we know there’s a hidden side to both Doha and the country, one that, usually, only us locals get to experience. So, over the following pages, we go behind the scenes in Qatar to discover the things you only know, when you know!
FOODIE HIDDEN GEMS
Thomene’s Vegan Pop-Ups – born in Qatar and going regional, learn more in our mini-interview.
Fancy something a bit different? Take yourself to Bandar Aden in Souq Waqif for some really good authentic Yemeni food. You can eat with your hands and there’s the option to sit in traditional style on the floor. Many dishes are served for sharing on large platters and make sure you try the freshly baked bread, it’s something people, rightly, rave about.
Halul Café is found near Doha port and is like a taste of old Egypt with is straw roofing and red, patterned seating. The menus are all in Arabic, so you may need to ask for help, and prepare to be surrounded by men playing board games and enjoying what we’re told is some of the city’s best karak – surely worth a visit just for this. It’s open early, so head down for an egg sarnie for brekkie and take in the sights and sounds around.
If you’re missing good old British fish ‘n’ chips since the sad departure of the Frying Scotsman, you can still get your fix at The Chippy, affectionately known as Chippy’s, where they promise the potatoes are peeled and cooked every day – none of your frozen stuff here.
And, while far from hidden, everyone should check out the food trucks at Lusail Marina Food Arena just for the sheer innovation of some of the designs, which are great fun.
We chatted to Thomene Dilley Founder of Food by Thomene, who runs vegan food pop-ups around the country, to find out more.
How did you get involved with the pop-up restaurants, are you a chef as well as a musician?
I am indeed a plant-based chef and a vocalist. Music and food, what more do you need!
I’ve been involved with plant-based food creation in Qatar since 2016 when I started making food for various people as there weren’t many exciting or healthy choices around at the time.
I was approached by the GM of the Marriott Marquis in 2020 about doing a plant-based pop-up at their restaurant Crossroads. I also took part in a foodie panel discussion about food trends and fare in Qatar. It was filmed along with an episode as part of a docuseries they were doing.
I worked alongside their team and created two sold-out evening brunches at Crossroads through a vegan pop-up concept. I created a complete vegan menu and their exceptional team of chefs worked with me to prep and create the food. It was so successful I have decided to make it a regular event and do popups at various other restaurants.
What’s the message, are you trying to educate people about vegan food?
I tend to use the wording ‘plant-based’ as it feels more inclusive. Sadly, some people associate the word vegan with a rather militant lot wanting to convert you to this lifestyle immediately. My approach is without judgement. My aim is to always create food that is delicious and hearty and to not only make plant-based food more readily available for us plant eaters, but also to open up a whole new world food wise for those still eating meat and dairy. By veganising some of the good old comfort foods like bangers and mash, fish and chips, shepherds’ pie and various other dishes, I am trying to help them make the transition easier. Food and music have no language. They simply bring people together. It is beautiful.
I’m working on a cookbook [we’ll be following up on that] and the next plant-based pop-up will be at Senõr Ritas Tex Mex in Lusail on May 12. I’ll be presenting a vegan Mexican menu veganising popular Mexican recipes.
The vegan pop-ups have become a very popular concept here in Qatar. I have been approached by chefs and GMs outside the country about it so I’m in the process of expanding it throughout the rest of the Middle East. By creating these pop-ups, I am giving everyone the opportunity to taste great plant-based food and to cull the idea that veganism/plant-based food is just about sprouts and salads. It is a culinary explosion of beautiful flavours, colours and textures.
Connect with Thomene foodbythomene.com
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK BEACHES
To be fair Zekreet Beach is not exactly a secret, but it’s about 90km out of Doha, so it’s still usually quiet. Set along a limestone escarpment featuring pillars and mushroomshaped rock formations, the clusters of outcrops have a magical quality. Overnight camping is permitted and it’s a great place to escape light pollution for a spot of star gazing. However, be aware there are no shops nearby so, make sure to take everything you need. Also look out for ruins and ancient forts to visit on the Zekreet Peninsula.
Azerbaijani Beach is where the desert meets the sea with fine sands and crystal-clear waters. Set in a small cove on the country’s northeast coast, it is surrounded by mangroves making it a great spot for bird watching. It does get busy but Jet Skis and boats aren’t allowed so the waters are safe for bathers.
Al Jassasiya Beach is said to be one of Qatar’s most beautiful and, on a midweek visit, you might well get the space to yourself. Other than rubbish bins, there are no facilities – the nearest washroom is at a service station around 20 minutes away – so make sure you’re prepared for some splendid isolation.
Fuwairit Kite Beach qualifies for this feature because it’s new and funky. There’s a hotel and loads of water sports facilities making for a great mini-vacay experience. See the mini-feature at the end of this cover story.
Somewhat surprising for a desert land, the Al Thakira Mangrove Forest is among Qatar’s oldest and largest forests and a real ‘must visit’. A wetland preserve, the fabulous ecosystem attracts migratory birds such as herons and flamingos and the area can be visited on a kayak tour – available even for beginners.
UNESCO Al Reem Biosphere Reserve is found in the northwest of the country and includes gravel plain grazing areas where gazelle and Arabian oryx are found as well as farmland, wildlife breeding centres, artisanal fishing communities, date palm plantations and semi-nomadic animal husbandry. It’s one of Qatar’s most significant reserves and enjoys excellent Government protection.
To reach Al Karaana Lagoons, stay on the Salwa Road (Q5) and take the junction after the Karaana turn and you’ll reach some local signage. Formerly highly polluted with water from a nearby treatment works, in the mid-2000s the Government carried out a serious clean up and now the pools are lush and green supporting lots of birds and fish. Even birds of prey have been reported. It’s a great place for walking and a picnic but, again, there are no facilities so, take what you need.
The largest of the accessible sinkholes in Qatar, Musfur Sinkhole is thought to be between 325,000 and 500,000 years old. Its opening is around 12 metres wide and it drops almost 100 metres into the earth. There are some interesting rock formations and crystals at the base of the cave but, as you would expect, it’s also dark so, take a torch.
WEIRD AND WONDERFUL
Qatar Film City is indeed a weird and wonderful spot. Found near Dukhan on the Zekreet desert peninsula it is a replica ancient Bedouin village. It’s thought to have been built as maybe a film or TV location but nobody really knows. What’s certain is that it’s totally deserted and a bit creepy, though great fun to explore and you can have fun tramping through the village square and climbing the turrets.
In the same area, look out for Richard Serra’s East-West art installation. This breathtaking sculpture in the Brouq Nature Reserve spans over a kilometre and comprises four steel plates, each over 14 metres tall. To guarantee perfect alignment, Serra examined the topography of the land and beautifully enhanced the vast, desolate space in the heart of the desert. The result, though slightly eerie, is spectacular and both contemporary and timeless.
About 40km southwest of Doha, you’ll discover the Singing Sand Dunes a group of high, crescent-shaped dunes which make an strange singing or whistling sound when the wind’s blowing in the right direction. Don’t want to wait for a breeze? You can trigger the sound by walking or sliding down the dunes. Located in the northeast of Qatar, Al Jassasiya is the most impressive of Qatar’s dozen rock-carving sites. It comprises a total of 874 carvings, known as ‘petroglyphs’, the earliest thought to date from Neolithic times. What may appear to be a deserted sandstone quarry is a heritage site packed with mystery. The carvings feature various shapes, including rosettes, fish, ostriches and cup marks. Carvings of dhow boats, which remain in use to this day, offer a direct link to a long ago past.
There are plenty of bars and restaurants to find live music in Doha, but where do you go if you want something other than a hotel resident band? Turns out there are quite a few spots and a good place to start would be the Doha Players Open Mic Night which takes place at the Shamrock Tavern, Magnum Hotel, on Mondays from 7pm.
It’s run by university English teacher Philip Wren from Mississippi, who’s been in Qatar since 2015, and took over when former organiser Peter Gibson left around 2018. During covid, the open mic even went online with a Facebook Watch Party event.
Philip says: “Since then, we’ve been at The Shamrock Tavern, run by the amazing Garvey Brothers, Chris and Melvin. Due to some red tape beyond their control, stand up has been less common there [than at previous venues], but a plethora of amazing musicians have taken the stage as solo acts or bands and throughout the Open Mic history, many local bands have formed, such as Hot Mess, Cats With Manners and many others. The stage is open to anyone of any level, from seasoned professionals like Faraway Martin to Sarah Bolka, who plays with passion and talent, though she isn’t a full-time musician.
“The Open Mic community is my family away from home. Everyone is kind, supportive, and uplifting of everyone who gets on stage.
“I do the organisation and MCing of the event, but I couldn’t do it without the help of some great members, past and present, but specifically Peter Gibson, Barry Romberg (who has sadly returned to Alaska) and Tom Kirkwood.”
You can register to take part at https://signup.com/go/UJqttga
You’ll also find tonnes of local talent at The RPM Festival, organised by The Backyard in collaboration with Rockaway Beach – both of which put on events throughout the year. After a really strong start last year, it’s back for a second edition this month on May 11 and 12 and will feature more than 15 live bands playing a mix of pop and rock music.
The aim of the festival is to bring together local talent on one stage, giving them the opportunity to showcase their skills and reach a wider audience because, according to organiser Meli Candela, “music unites everyone” and this year’s fabulous lineup features:
Stiff Upper Lip
50 Shades of Blues
Alicia & the Elites
The show runs from 6pm to 12pm Thursday and from 1pm to midnight on Friday at The Backyard at Doha Golf Club. Find tickets at www.thebackyarddoha.com
We caught up with a few of the performers who’ll be taking part.
Thomene Dilley doesn’t just cook. She’s also a talented musician who’ll be on stage with her new band Stiff Upper Lip. She says: “We’re a seven-piece rock band. Every member is epically talented and I chose each member for that exact reason. I started off as a resident singer at Grand Hyatt a few years ago, thanks to my friend Nicholas Chrisostomou. I then joined the local music scene and joined another band a year before covid hit. Some beautiful collaborations came out of the pandemic when all bands and musicians shared creativity online with sone crazy fun songs and some deeply emotional. Music got us though!
“Stiff Upper lip consists of Vas on lead guitar. He will make your toes curl. His solos are insane. It is as if he is a part of the guitar. Besides me on lead vocals, we also have Youssef as our second lead vocalist. His range is incredible and some notes I am convinced are only audible to animals. He is talented with a great stage presence. Dan is a master on keys. He not only composed music but owns an insane number of guitars and equipment. Stu on rhythm is not only talented on the guitar but sings beautifully and has written and recorded some incredible songs. Phillip on bass is just a presence on his own. Talented nimble fingers with a southern drawl when he sings and speaks. And there is Dario! King of the percussion! Humble, raw talent and a beautiful singing voice too. We do all the epic anthems and all the songs we love.”
Philip Wren of Aleetheia, not surprisingly, got started at the Open Mic nights. He says: “I met two amazing musicians and formed Cats With Manners with them, one of the few acoustic trios in Doha, until they both returned to Canada. But through that, I’ve started a new multinational band called Resident Aliens [they played last year’s RPM] with Alicia Glenn from Canada, Ryan Law from the USA, Patrick Somuah from Ghana, and Eduvegio Momongan from the Philippines. We’re a fun, pop rock focused band who play fun covers from many decades as well as some original music by different band members. I also play bass in a hard rock band called Aleetheia, with talented members from Greece, Brazil, the USA and the UK – we’ll be playing at RPM this year.”
Moxies are Quincy Mallari on vocals, Jhen Bisnar on rhythm guitar and vocals, Neil Ryan Rodriguez on lead guitar, Eli Abejo on bass and Henry Tan Jr. on drums. Quncy says: “We are common friends who are also musicians. We mainly play alternative rock from the ‘90s and 2000s up to the latest with a mix of pop, punk-rock and ‘80s. Our biggest musical influences are from Oasis, U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana and Foo Fighters through to Incubus, Green Day, Muse, Amy Winehouse and more.” And, though the band do write their own songs, they generally don’t play them publicly, so if you catch their spot… you could just ask.
Aside from the regular festivals, keep your eyes open for live music nights and mini-fests at Vikings Club, the Aviary Club, Misturado and Señor Ritas Tex-Mex among others. ✤
They Seek Him Here…
If there’s one Qatar entertainer you don’t want to miss it’s Kerry Suek in his alter-ego as Al Bis – an Arabic take on Elvis. Kerry’s been in the country for 18 years and is described as one of ‘Qatar’s treasures’ who does an insane amount for both friends and strangers and is deeply loved by the expat community. His act is a satirised, Qatarised version of The King’s songs which always gets a great reaction. He may pop up at RPM but, if not, watch out for details of the next Rockaway Beach Festival.