Riyadh is a city that holds fast to its conservative Arab traditions, but as the destination attracts more international travelers, a modern vibe is emerging. Just one glance at the skyline and you’ll see the mix of old and new. You might say that Riyadh is a city in transition — in its tourism offerings but also in its food.
The city is a melting pot of cultures and the cuisine of Riyadh draws from a wide range of ethnicities. And while many restaurants in Riyadh strive to offer guests a traditional Saudi experience, others are adding a side of modernity to the menu.
Traditional Saudi Dining
Saudi food is heavily influenced by Turkish, Indian, Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian cuisines, and it’s this style of food you’ll find on the table in many homes. If you’re looking for one of these authentic, home-cooked meals, visit Najd Village. The decor is akin to what you find in Saudi homes, with local artisan wall hangings and knick-knacks displayed on bookshelves. And just as Saudi families do, you’ll dine sitting on floor cushions. The menu features two local favorites, moqalqal, a peppery lamb dish, and matazzez, Saudi dumplings. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can try the regional specialty, hashi (baby camel).
Sharia law dictates the dress of both men and women in Saudi Arabia. While women are covered head to toe, men wear long thobes and keffiyeh, the traditional Middle Eastern headdress with the iconic red and white checkered pattern. Restaurant Bialah embraces this tradition and has taken a nod from the keffiyeh and created wall panels using the iconic red and white fabric. Locals blend into the background of this Saudi fusion restaurant that serves dishes such as taco beef mugalgal and pain perdu kleija.
If you don’t have time to visit any of the opulent palaces in the region, plan an evening at Set Al Sham, and you’ll feel as though you’re dining in a Syrian palace. The decor transports diners directly to Damascus with murals and architectural details of Syrian life. Private dining rooms are a bit more rustic and old world with wooden accents and lanterns. If you want to try a wide range of Arabic food, this is the place. The Syrian-born chef at Set Al Sham serves a Middle Eastern buffet with Lebanese favorites such as falafel, shwarma, kebabs and hummus.
Speaking of opulence, be sure to enjoy high tea at The Mansion, an over-the-top palatial cafe designed to be fit for a king. On the menu? Select “Arabian Nights,” a sharing menu that features a gramophone filled with Middle Eastern delights including manakeesh, kofta, halloumi sandwiches, and a number of saj pastries.
Tradition Invites Modern Culture
Riyadh’s younger generations are driving the region’s contemporary art scene with a number of up-and-coming artists. Alāan Artspace is a gallery that showcases local artists’ work, but is also intended to be a space to bring the community together. The word ‘Alāan’ translates to ‘now’ in Arabic, and according to the owners, “the space is intended to reflect the energy of the art scene in Saudi Arabia and the feeling in Riyadh that a space such as this is long overdue.” In addition to the gallery, Alāan Artspace houses a coffeehouse and restaurant, where the menu is as eclectic as the artists themselves. The globally inspired menu includes the regional favorite Coca-Cola chicken (chicken breast simmered in Coca-Cola, ginger root and lime zest) in addition to eclectic offerings such as shrimp and forest mushrooms, seasoned with leeks and coriander, served with risoni pasta.
Modern life encroaching on Riyadh is evident in the skyscrapers taking shape over the city against the backdrop of the historical structures. The stunning skyline is a study in contrasts and a chance to ponder how this international destination balances tradition with modernity. Mondo at InterContinental Riyadh gives a nod to the city’s more contemporary appeal with an Asian-Western fusion menu, elevating traditional tagines and curries to satisfy more modern palates. It’s been recognized as one of the most romantic restaurants in Riyadh, in part due to its floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over the changing skyline.
You might not expect art deco in this part of the world, but a favorite dining spot of the royal family is the art-deco sushi bar Spazio 77. Located on the 77th floor of Riyadh’s second tallest building, the Kingdom Tower, the restaurant is yet another reminder that Riyadh is changing. Notably, the restaurant features Saudi Arabia’s first Oxygen Bar, which attracts a more contemporary crowd. The Victorian-style decor in the main restaurant is fitting for the menu, a mix of French, Italian and Japanese cuisine.
In keeping with Saudi Arabia’s Muslim roots and conservative views, you won’t find alcohol on the menus or at any late-night spots.
To discover Riyadh and experience its unique culture, consider booking Club InterContinental at InterContinental Riyadh, where a dedicated Club InterContinental team will personalise your experience with their insider knowledge based on your preferences, amongst other benefits such as exclusive lounge access and a private check-in.