Hotel bars and restaurants are thriving across the Middle East. With 37% of revenue stemming from food and beverage – a figure that grows every year – the region leaves the rest of the world in the shade. According to STR Global, Dubai is the most profitable market on the planet for F&B, while Doha generates more revenue from this source than it does from rooms.

This situation is far removed from what you might encounter in Europe or North America, where restaurants are typically ancillary to the profits on an overnight stay. In the Middle East, there is far less competition from independent restaurants, and real opportunities to entice local and passing trade.

This is good news for those that get it right. Any restaurants or bar that is ahead of the game has a strong chance of boosting footfall, while cementing the image of the hotel in which it operates as a culinary destination.

On the other hand, rivalry is fierce, and is growing more so. No hotel restaurant, however popular, is invulnerable to the threat of others opening down the road.

Big ideas

"Hotel restaurants are a very demanding market," says Ashley Saxton, manager of food and beverage resort operations at Atlantis the Palm, Dubai. "From our side, it’s a constant battle to keep coming up with the next big idea, or big contract.

"All it takes is for service to flip, or for the next hotel to bring the next biggest idea, and before you know it, all your guests have gone elsewhere, so you have to constantly up your game."

Atlantis the Palm currently boasts 23 restaurants, ranging from the famous Japanese joint, Nobu, to the newly opened Schwafel, which serves typical Arabic street food.

In a resort of this size, you cannot get by offering casual dining alone: it is vital to have every base covered, from buffet food to bar snacks, by way of signature restaurants and fine dining.

"The word I would use to describe it would be ‘diverse’," says Saxton. "I don’t think many hotels – not just in Dubai, but worldwide – offer the variety or the quality that we do.

"If you want to stay ahead of the market, it’s immensely important to have a wide variety of choices, because the number of options here is huge."

In fact, the region is something of a playground for restaurant-goers seeking something new. Given the demographic breakdown – an unparalleled mix of locals, expats and visitors from every corner of the world – F&B directors are well aware of the need to cater to every palate. This is a market that rewards heterogeneity and frowns upon narrowness of scope.

Teatro at Park Rotana Abu Dhabi, takes this philosophy to its extreme. It offers a mix of Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Italian cuisines, making it an international restaurant in the most literal way.

"Being located in a cosmopolitan city in a diverse country makes it crucial for us to ensure that we are catering to different nationalities and offering various cuisines within one outlet," explains Ameya Sapre, the hotel’s food and beverage director.

"We understand that doing so might place the outlet at risk of losing its identity," she continues, "but we are very particular about Teatro’s place in the market, where it has successfully differentiated itself from other restaurants that offer a mix of cuisines."

Variety is the spice

It isn’t just Teatro that might worry about loss of identity. Prioritising diversity may come at the cost of cohesiveness; by and large, hotels respond by promoting certain restaurants to their in-house guests, and others to external clients.

Take the Thai-inspired hotel, Dusit Thani Abu Dhabi, which regards itself ‘as a trusted symbol of Thai values’, and the signature restaurant of which, Benjarong, is in keeping with its overall themes. This does not preclude the addition of other eating options (albeit with Thai flourishes) that may entice a wider clientele, though.

"Keeping true to Thai hospitality, we make sure we offer something for everyone," says Rami Zok, director of food and beverage. "The hotel offers a variety of dining concepts: Benjarong is suitable for guests who appreciate authentic Thai cuisine; the international all-day venue, Urban Kitchen, provides theme-night dinners, while the Mediterranean-inspired Capital Grill and Bar attracts our business clients. A kids’ corner has been included in the ‘Wok with me’ Friday brunch to attract families on the weekend."

Saxton estimates that at Atlantis the Palm, the split between in-house guests and external visitors in restaurants is roughly even. Obviously, the proportions vary depending on the restaurant in question – some being suited to in-house guests, others to Dubai residents looking for something different – but a heartening number of outside visitors make the journey to the resort.

The same applies at Park Rotana, which caters to very different crowds at Cooper’s Bar, Teatro and Ginger All Day Dining. Sapre contends that the split has a lot to do with timing. Whereas around 85% of those eating breakfast are staying in the hotel, the mix changes at lunchtime to around 40% hotel guests. By dinnertime, it drops to just 25%, as the post-work crowd stops by for a drink or meal.

So, how can a hotel tap successfully into this latent customer base? For Saxton, it’s simply about being the best in class, without compromise: hotel restaurants can no longer expect just to open their doors and see guests flock in.

"The bar is rising across the UAE," he says. "We’ve always had a lot of restaurants and bars, but now we’re seeing a lot of celebrity chefs and Michelin-starred restaurants coming in from overseas. These bring different produce, styles and concepts with them.

I think this is going to be a major trend: everyone’s going to compete to get the biggest names within their restaurants, and as the competition increases, the demand will grow."

Bigger and better

This swing towards bigger and glitzier names has happening for a while. Gordon Ramsay’s Verre (Hilton Dubai Creek Hotel 2001-2011), arguably spearheaded the trend, but was widely believed to have lost its edge in the face of growing competition. Today, Intercontinental Dubai Festival City includes an award-winning restaurant by the three-Michelin star French chef Pierre Gagnaire; Gary Rhodes’ RW1 opened at Grosvenor House Dubai last year and Atlantis the Palm plays host not just to Nobu, but also to a venture by Italian celebrity chef Giorgio Locatelli. Other hotels house international fine dining chains including Hakkasan and The Ivy.

At the same time, a quiet counter-trend towards more locally developed food concepts and greater authenticity has emerged.

"In Abu Dhabi, restaurants are starting to use more and more local and sustainable produce rather than importing all the ingredients," says Rami Zok. "We have also noticed guests are health-conscious, and are increasing our culinary offerings to appeal to those wishing to make smarter food choices. At Dusit Thani, every cuisine is prepared with fresh, seasonal, nutritionally balanced and wholesome ingredients."

"We are seeing a trend towards healthy dishes," agrees Sapre. "All restaurants will be focusing on these matters more, and I believe we will start seeing awards for the best sustainable outlets in the near future."

A hotel restaurant, it seems, may sink or swim based on how attuned it is to the local market. How are guests’ preferences changing? How can they be better targeted via social media? What is the competition doing, and what can be done to top it? These are all questions F&B directors might ask, while taking care to ensure their offering tells a story and strikes an emotional chord.

"It’s important to look at all your restaurants and redevelop them, keeping up with the times and trends and the constant change the region demands," says Saxton. "Whatever we do, it has to be the best in the market in terms of cuisine, service and the overall experience."

This isn’t a simple task, and requires that all F&B directors up their game, but as the Middle East fast becomes the global benchmark for hotel food and beverage, there are exciting times ahead for the hotels that manage to keep pace.