It's a bit limited, wouldn't you agree? The Muscat dining scene we mean. There is probably around a handful of high end restaurants, the odd interesting mid-priced place, but mostly unenventful grill houses, chain restaurants and burger joints. Granted, it's easy to find a real good Indian meal for next to nothing, but we would like a bit more variety. More liveliness. It would be good to see more interesting restaurants opening. La Brasserie in Muttrah looked like a very welcome addition, but failed to impress us so far (a review will follow after a next visit). Ubhar (in Bareeq al Shatti) has an interesting concept, but is extremely lonely in its sort.
So why isn't more happening? In our opinion there are a number of reasons. In no particular order, and without having done any scientific study on the subject:
1. Hotel chains
Most fine dining restaurants are located in the four and five star hotels, since they are the proud owners of a liquor license. A logical situation, but also one that prevents adventurous culinary things from happening. Although there is certainly enough talent among the hotel chefs, the restaurant concepts of the hotels do not always allow it to show. Tuscany and Capri Court, to give just two random examples, are good restaurants, but we can't help but think they would be much better if their chefs had to fight for their reputation as independent restaurateurs, instead of working within the safe hotel environment. The InterContinental, to give another example, has a highly talented and motivated crew, but lacks the restaurant to give them a podium.
2. Lack of culinary culture
We know what we're talking about here. Our home country doesn't exactly have the French or Italian gastronomical heritage to fall back on. Just 25 years ago, there wasn't much to do in the restaurants of our cities. Yet, that has rapidly changed. Increased standard of living, education of chefs and more demanding guests are just a number of reasons for the giant leap in quality. The current situation in Oman is very much comparable to that of Northern Europe some 25-30 years ago. So it may just be a question of time. It is good to see that the hospitality academies are trying to educate young Omani chefs, but it will take time before they reach a high level. Meanwhile, the average Omani doesn't seem to have a huge interest in gastronomy, least of all in their own Arabic cuisine. Countries like Syria and Lebanon have a bustling dining scene, where traditional dishes are held in high regard. Either modernised or traditional, the level of cooking is much higher than can be seen here. We are afraid it is lack of interest, and the average Omani would rather eat a Big Mac. A saddening thought.
3. The difficulties of setting up a business
We have a huge respect for anyone who makes the effort to start a new business. Starting something new is always incredibly difficult. And we realise it is nearly impossible to start your own fine dining restaurant in Oman, outside of a hotel, and with liquor license. There is a clear reason why licensed restaurants outside hotels are mostly owned by big companies. Otherwise they couldn't exist. And serving your scallops without a glass of Chablis is just a lot less attractive for your guests. So what do you do if you want to start your restaurant business in Oman? Right, you get hold of a franchise license of a chain that has well proven itself and you go for the easy money. Or you take the well paved road of offering pasta, burgers, kebabs and steaks. Can't go wrong with that one!
Taken these factors into account, our best hope for new and exciting restaurants are new hotel openings. That looks rather bleak at the moment, thanks to the economic downturn. The hotels in The Wave are delayed until around 2013, and the Four Seasons and other Jebel Sifah hotels will open from 2012 on. We don't know what the current status is on the ambitious plans for the InterContinental hotel, and the Bausher Fort Hotel (see the Omran webpage for this), but we fear those are long term projects as well. Maybe the Royal Opera House and its surrounding area will bring us something new. Let's hope so.