Turning a furniture showroom into a cosy family restaurant that reflects a lost heritage was like inventing the wheel, writes CLARK KELLY
The hospitality industry often attempts to recreate the sense of being at home, but inattention to detail and careless service can destroy the effort in one fell swoop. SimSim restaurant in Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach Residence neatly sidesteps all that.
Stepping past the high-arched façade into this charming new independent eatery on The Walk is like entering a warm Levantine home. A set of low sofas invites you to sit down and visit, while the wall above features old pictures of Palestinian families are everywhere, many with people in Western dress. Another wall is completely dominated by blue and white ceramic plates from Hebron.
Design elements: SimSim features
a high-arched façade
Since the downstairs is often full, you may be offered a table on the first floor. Simply climbing the painted metal staircase offers a voyeuristic peek into this land that is so close and yet so difficult to get to. A hand-blown glass sculpture commands dramatic attention, while Arabic sayings or wheat raffia plates and chairs, mounted on walls at odd places, denote simpler, olden times in Palestine. And as you turn, you spy jars and jars of olives, neatly arranged in rows across the breadth of one wall, reinforcing the Levantine signature and bringing to the fore the vast heritage and culture destroyed by unending war. By this time, even the most world-weary guest has been won over, transported magically to Palestine. It’s hard to believe that only a few months ago, this restaurant, which can seat 150 people at once across three spaces, was a furniture showroom.
One diner, owner Rula Saad tells me, was in tears over an old fashioned pantry cupboard on the ground floor of the two-storey venue. “In Arabic, this is called a namleyah – literally translated as the anti-ant cupboard. In the old days, the wire mesh on the front of the cupboard was meant to keep ants away from the food inside. For us, it was one of many personalised touches, but for our guest, it was a heart-breaking memory from his grandmother’s home,” she says.
“Different people love different things – while the food has met with univocal appreciation, it is always insightful to see how different elements of the interiors trigger differing emotions in people.”
Rula threw up a career in marketing to run her own business, determined to make a difference and demonstrate exactly how restaurants should be run. As with any enterprise, friends and family helped her get started, but it was a former colleague and compatriot whom she turned to for help on the interiors.
Azza Al Sajdi, a young woman who is slowly making a name for herself in the field, worked on all elements of furniture and accessories within SimSim. She designed most of the interior elements and then had them made to order around the region, only buying a couple of accessories off the shelf. The construction, civil works as well as kitchen were done by local fit-out and civil works contractors.
Both are Jordanians of Palestinian origin and were keen to display forgotten aspects of their vibrant culture.
“The idea was to showcase and express Palestinian folklore, heritage and history through the interiors of SimSim, and most importantly, to do it in contemporary style. The restaurant combines modern and contemporary with traditional and folkloric. The idea was to present Palestine in a unique way,” says Azza.
“In essence, SimSim is an urban and contemporary space designed in eclectic style. All the warm accents come in with nods to traditional crafts, and carefully recreated echoes of everyday life.”
Rula agrees. She says many Palestinians and Jordanians of Palestinian origin – especially people from her parents’ generation – remember simpler, nicer and happier times in their native lands. At family celebrations and festive occasions, they nostalgically remember the small details of everyday life across the Levant – warm hospitality and hot meals in cool spaces where people met and laughed. It was a combination of all these elements that formed the fundamentals of SimSim’s interiors, she explains.
Rawness and a cool contemporary feel were intended when creating the space, Azza elaborates. “This meant that a brick wall was left as is, and only painted. This is to keep a simple background to the folkloric accents but also, to denote simplicity as was the case in the olden homes of Palestine pre-1948,” she says. “The tiles were used as close as possible to a concrete feel, in order to complete the airy simple, plain and contemporary space.”
Restaurant interiors: A showcase of
The walls are a cool and warm off-white shades throughout, so that the accents and design elements are shown off to their best. This serves as a good background for the many colourful accessories, which truly transform the space.
Olives, naturally, are a signature theme that run from food to décor. While the olive wall stops you in your tracks and there are olive trees everywhere in the photographs, there’s even an actual tree upstairs, in front of a wall covered in Arabic sayings. “Olives and olive oil are symbolic of Palestine and its lands,” Azza says. “The olive tree is a symbol of the Palestinians’ deep-rooted connection to their land. Ancient olive groves in the West Bank have been destroyed, and many olive farmers no longer have access to their traditional lands. At SimSim, the many shelves featured within the olive wall, for example, makes an impactful statement,” she adds.
There are wooden tables everywhere, teamed with a combination of solid wood and lounge-style chairs, sofas and banquet seating, much of it upholstered in a velvet finish. Although ordered and made in Dubai, these underscore values closely associated with the restaurant: natural and familial.
Two corners emulate urban/modern Palestinian home-style lounge sittings with Palestinian embroidered cushions and old family portraits. These corners were instated as accents to re-live the warmth and richness of colour in Palestinian homes, Azza says.
With accessories so central to the design, Azza and Rula went to great lengths to ensure everything was sourced from authentic suppliers – in Palestine wherever possible, and close by when not.
Striking features: A hand-blown
glass sculpture commands
Some accessories were directly sourced from Palestine, Azza says, such as the traditionally made (mostly blue and white) Hebron ceramic plates that are a well-known handicraft from the country. “It is one of the few features not modernised or tweaked, as they were bought off the shelf from a Hebron-based supplier. The rest had to be sourced from Egypt and Jordan as it was logistically difficult to source these from Palestine in the large quantities and short timeframes we needed.”
Hebron is also known for its blown glass and three hanging structures of three different colours were made to showcase the importance of blown glass in Palestinian heritage.
Sourcing the old photographs was a particular challenge. They were painstakingly collected from Palestinian families to resonate with “our theme of an aching nostalgia”, Azza says. Most of the pictures were taken in Jerusalem, Nablus, and other Palestinian cities prior to 1948.
“The pictures are of real people from the same land, but their dress and expressions reflect another time in life,” she says. “We believe it adds to the contrast we wished to create – between old world charms and modern finishes.”
Other challenges were site-specific. “I don’t think I can fully relive the challenges we faced at the start of this project when we embarked on converting a space that was a furniture showroom into a full-fledged restaurant,” says Rula. “We had to do everything from scratch including major works like building bathrooms and creating a full kitchen.”
Creating a kitchen from nothingness was a daunting challenge, she says. “A professional restaurant kitchen is vastly different from home kitchens, and besides our own needs, we had to ensure that it covered an array of regulations and requirements pertaining to health and safety. The results were worth the wait though – we have a thoroughly professional and fully equipped kitchen for our team of 27, and it is a space that I am very proud of.
“The other main problem was the shortcomings in electricity, water and air-conditioning (district cooling services) which were simply not adequate for a restaurant. I can truthfully say we had to invent the wheel, and it went on for a long time…
Contemporary space: Wooden
tables have been teamed with
solid wood and lounge-style chairs
As a concept designer and decorator, Azza says putting the emphasis on the furniture and accessories ensured there was minimal fit-out work. But she had challenges too – with the floor. “Halfway through the project we had to change the fit-out contractor. By then, the location of the staircase and the flooring also had to change, and were not what was originally planned,” she says.
“The flooring was a fundamental feature for the original concept of the interior space and therefore this posed a challenge. Since we were unable to follow this concept, we went with the closest available option to create the required look, and ordered ceramic tiles that emulate a raw stone finish (this is similar in colour to a concrete finish, and has an old style raw stone feel). It is not exactly how I as a designer would have liked it, but it is the closest possible.”
One area where neither compromised was in terms of attention to detail. A romantic theme runs through the placemats, the menu, the cushions and the wallpaper – that of the Arabic male headdress. “Elsewhere in the Levant it is known as keffiyah, but Palestinians prefer to call it hattah. The hattah in black and white is a symbol for the Palestinian identity. While the menu, the placemats and the wallpaper represent this in various grades of paper, the cushions are in fabric,” she says.
When you’ve finished your meal – which is drawn from Rula’s roster of assorted aunts and relatives – the bill arrives in a little basket held by a tiny, hattah-clad doll whose expression speaks volumes. It’s just the sort of thing you could expect to find in a family friend’s home.