Eight restaurants specialising in the nation's cuisine
Time Out Bahrain staff
Too often Middle Eastern restaurants serve a mix of Levantine cuisine with only a sprinkling of Khaleeji (Gulf) dishes on the menu. But if you want something purely local then we recommend one of these eight spots for a taste of what a real Bahraini kitchen is all about. We tried old favourites and new openings and here’s the best of what we found.
Basta 23 This branch of Basta 23 may be located in a mall but that in no way affects the quaint, traditional vibe they have going on in there. The walls are plastered with old Bahraini posters and funky graffiti, as Arabic TV shows run in the background. The menu has some great authentic dishes and they taste just as good as they sound. We particularly recommend their shakshooka and samosas, alongside a nice steaming pot of karak. Once you’re sufficiently stuffed you can then wander around Riyadat Mall which is home to a treasure trove of local, creative businesses. Open Sun-Thu 11am-10.30pm; Fri-Sat 9.30am-11pm. Ramadan timings: Thu-Sat 4pm-11pm; Sun-Wed closed. Riyadat Mall, A’Ali (7777 2323).
Chai Café While Chai Café is extremely authentic don’t expect some sort of hole in the wall. This traditional chai shop is spotlessly clean with state-of-the-art stainless steel utensils and machines, and the best of ingredients brought in from around the world. It isn’t devoid of character either. It’s cosy with outside, downstairs and upstairs seating featuring wooden benches and a menu that encompasses everything the owner remembers from his childhood including a whole range of teas from green to saffron, karak to Moroccan. Our favourite has to be the sweet and milky chai karak that’s served in an edible biscuit cup. It’s not just all tea though, as the food offerings are eclectic, with breakfast dishes like balaleet and shakshooka to bagels and roti sandwiches topped with Chips Oman and cream cheese. They also do takeaway and delivery. Open Sat-Thu 7am-1pm, 4pm-10pm; Fri 7am-11am, 5pm-11pm. Ramadan timings daily 8pm-3am. Sanabis, opposite Bahrain Mall (1700 1727).
Emma-Wash This funky café along Budaiya Highway has become an institution for a true Bahraini breakfast among locals and visitors alike. It’s a simple place but with plenty of character – you can sit outdoors or inside on the benches or in a majlis seating area surrounded by walls that have been scribbled on by eager patrons. In the middle, you can see the kitchen preparing the food which is served immediately, still steaming, in small pans. You order by ticking the boxes next to what you want on a small paper menu, which is complete with all the Bahraini favourites like balaleet, mahiawa with cheese, eggs with tomato and, of course, chai. Everything is so flavourful and delicious you scoff it down fairly quickly so be careful not to over-order! Open daily 6am-1pm. Ramadan timings daily 10pm-3am. Budaiya Highway, on the same strip as Fish World (1730 9030).
Haji Gahwa Haji Gahwa, more commonly known as ‘Haji’s Café’, has garnered somewhat of a stalwart reputation for its seriously local offering. The café lays down an alleyway in the Manama Souq, just to the right as you walk through the Bab Al Bahrain arch. There’s no menu – you just order your favourite Bahraini dishes depending on what time of the day it is. Breakfast, served between 5am and midday, sees all the usual culprits like eggs with cheese and balaleet. Then lunch is served until 5pm where you’ll find a range of biryanis and curries on the menu, which come served with plates of salad, sauces and watermelon. Meanwhile, dinner is all about the grills and is served right up until 9pm. There’s outdoor bench-style seating where the walls are dotted with old Bahraini photographs, and indoor public or family sections that make for a lovely setting. You just can’t get any more local than this. Open daily 5am-9pm. Closed for renovations during Ramadan. Bab Al Bahrain, Manama Souq (1721 0647).
Leyan Café & Restaurant This newly opened café and restaurant in Cypress Garden is offering Bahraini food with an international twist. Think hamburgers with local ingredients for example. Buried down the left-hand alleyway of this outdoor commercial complex, Leyan is a clean and well-appointed restaurant that you can sit back in and while away the hours. Up until recently, they’ve only been open for breakfast but during the holy month they’re offering nightly feasts while post-Ramadan they’ll start opening for lunch too. Their breakfast, which we’ve had the pleasure of trying, is super traditional with classics on the menu such as eggs with tomatoes, dahl and samboosas – to name a few. There are no frills, just good, wholesome food in a family spot that’s looking to be a bit different from the crowd. Open daily 8.30am-12.30pm. Ramadan timings daily 7.30pm-1am. Cypress Garden, Budaiya (1700 7100).
Saffron by Jena Bakery Saffron by Jena Bakery, or Za’fran in Arabic, has become a big hit in Bahrain for offering a taste of the local culture to residents and tourists alike. It was originally part of the renovation project in Muharraq’s Souq Al Qaisariya initiated by Bahrain’s Ministry of Culture. In this beautiful branch, in an old renovated house, you can see the original floor beneath glass walkways. You won’t find a menu, but a bunch of tasty, traditional foods served in customary Bahraini fashion. You’ll also find another stunning branch in Arad Fort where you can easily spend a few hours enjoying a true dose of Bahraini culture. On top of that, there’s a small café in the renovated section of Bab Al Bahrain where you can stop off for a snack and some chai while wandering the Manama Souq. Open daily 8am-10pm. Ramadan timings daily 6pm-2am. Near the NBB strip, Muharraq (1362 3191).
Tikka Tren Tren Arad Tren tren pronounced ‘turin turin’, which is apparently a nod to the Pink Panther theme tune, may be a bit of a hole in the wall but it’s famed for serving some of Bahrain’s best tikka and lamb chops. As opposed to many other Bahraini restaurants that solely offer breakfast options, Tren Tren is all-out dinner. Just drive by, give a honk and order the meat and poultry of your choice and enjoy with some traditional khubz (Bahraini pitta bread). Alternatively, settle down in the small but basic eat-in seating area. Open 5pm-2am. Arad, Muharraq (1767 6559).
Villa Mamas Nestled in a rather derelict compound in the heart of Saar is this surprising and refreshing venue run by Bahraini restaurateur Roaya Saleh. Villa Mamas’ décor is bright and fresh with rustic Mediterranean influence, as is the menu that features items from across that region but also includes plenty of Bahraini favourites like biryani with a gourmet twist. We love everything about this place and it’s fast become a Time Out favourite for any meal of the day, but it’s also one to watch as Roaya aims to take her brand 'Mama Gourmet' global, according to Caterer Middle East. We wouldn’t expect anything less from the lady that brought Bahraini cuisine to the mainstream on the island. Open daily 8am-11pm. Ramadan timings daily 6pm-2am. Saar, opposite Saar cinema (1730 5031).
On the menu A brief introduction to some classics.
Balaleet A salty and sweet breakfast made of vermicelli topped with an egg omelette.
Madrooba Like a stew, Madrooba is made up of chicken, jareesh (cracked wheat), tomatoes, a range of spices and chillis.
Mahiawa A sauce made from fish and spices, and often served on crisp flat bread.
Ouzi This is made in many ways across the region but it's usually spiced rice and a meat of your choice like lamb or goat.
Shakshooka This dish is made of scrambled eggs with peppers, spice and tomatoes, and traditionally eaten at breakfast.
Tikka Skewers of chicken or meat are grilled and traditionally served on bread with leaves, tomatoes, lemon and onions.