- Nia Alexander Campbell
The Restaurant Scene in Doha
Quick list of restaurants options in Doha
Quality of American food chains in Doha vs. in the U.S.
Accessibility of different types of restaurants
The normalcy of eating out
The incredible delivery service and the madhouse that is drive-thru parking
My favorite food moments: Fast food veggie burgers, French fries, and ice cream
How I felt bringing home leftovers in Doha vs. the U.S.
Grocery store kiosks and street food
Quick list of local foods and what they are
Final thoughts on being able to experience new food and familiar favorites
I couldn’t escape the golden arches or the Hardees star even halfway around the world.
Some people at home were surprised to hear about all the fast food options in Doha, presumably because they thought Qatar was a fledgling developing country buried halfway beneath the sand. I can’t tell you why they thought this, but I will assure you as I assured them: Qatar is undeniably developed and comes with an array of sand-less dining options.
Before I begin telling you about my memorable dining experiences in Doha, let me give you a rundown on the kind of dining I am used to experiencing in Richmond.
Richmond has plenty of options when it comes to eating out, but it really depends on what part of Richmond you live in. I happened to have grown up on the side of Richmond that doesn’t provide a lot of options; we have pizza joints, burger joints, chicken joints, a suspicious fish joint, four takeout Chinese joints (but two of them burned down), and two Mexican restaurants, one of which made me sick. To add, many of those restaurants don’t cater well to vegetarians and, let’s face it, eating out is just more expensive than eating at home.
With this established, you may have a better understanding of why the food scene in Doha completely blew my mind. Not only were there a ton of options, but there were more vegetarian options than I anticipated and many of those veggie-friendly menu items came from the least likely of places.
Wait, let me list for you some of the food choices to be found in the desert:
The Cheesecake Factory
Cold Stone Creamery
The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf
TCBY (The Country’s Best Yogurt)
Remember, though, that no restaurant on that list serves pork products (yes, including pepperonis) and all the meat served is halaal, meaning the animals were slaughtered in an Islam-approved way (Sharia law).
A drink from The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf at VCUQ. It was the best overpriced iced drink I had ever had in my life: Dark chocolate, strawberry goo, a bit of caffeine . . . it was a Happy Valentine’s Day to me.
You may have noticed a bunch of American chains on that list, and like many Americans, I have eaten at most of them more than a few times in my life. So how did I feel being an American having to experience American food in a foreign country? Let me put it this way:
I was mad at America, ya’ll.
If I listed images like hair in your food, cold French fries, greasy bags, cardboard in your ice sundae (yes, that happened), broken ice cream machines, and men fighting employees over straws, you wouldn’t be but so surprised to hear those things associated with an American restaurant, right? Buzz words like “grimy”, “greasy”, and “slow” are just par for the course when you pull up to a drive-thru, or have to clear suspiciously wet napkins from your booth seat, or wait an hour for cold appetizers. It’s casual dining and fast food, a high-class dining experience just isn’t part of the expectation.
Well, boy did Doha prove me wrong.
The fries were always hot, the straws were always in the bag, the ice cream machines were alive and kickin’, and—most importantly—those places were clean (and decorated nicely, might I add. Some of the restaurants in my neighborhood haven’t been updated since 2005). It was like living in the casual dining twilight zone.
Burger King, Al Rayyan
I will admit, though, there were more stray cats comfortably hanging around restaurants than in America. Here we have a cat eating hamburger meat outside of McDonald's.
In addition to the familiar places, there was also a wide variety of international restaurants: Syrian, Greek, Turkish, Lebanese, Japanese, Indian, Mexican . . . okay, I didn’t like the Mexican place, but everything else was good (especially Zaoq, a Pakistani restaurant).
Classy Lebanese, casual Arab food, falafel at a sushi restaurant, and food court Vietnamese. Doha had everything.
There was also some Gordon Ramsay restaurant, a substantial amount of (good) hole-in-the-wall’s, lots of cafes, and a surprisingly large number of dessert joints.
Dessert at Cacao and tea at Fanajeen
The normalcy of eating out
Did anyone else grow up asking for McDonald’s every day after school and in response your parents would say, “Do you have any McDonald’s money?” Though the sass may have rubbed your 8-year-old self the wrong way, the fact of the matter is that eating out was as expensive then as it is now that you’ve grown up.
That in mind, I was accustomed to only eating out on birthdays, Pizza Fridays, or days where everyone was genuinely too busy or tired to cook. This is why it was really odd to observe how often people—especially students—ate out in Doha. Sure, I know college students have a reputation for ordering too much takeout while simultaneously falling into student debt, but the young people in Doha seemed to take it to a new level. The only difference, it seemed, was that they actually had the money to spend.
Sometimes it was dinner, sometimes midday dessert, and sometimes it was just coffee and croissants, but I noticed people eating out—or ordering in—multiple times a week, or even multiple times a day. I’m not making any judgments; eating takeout—alone or with friends—can play a part in some of the most satisfying experiences life has to offer, but, eating out so often was a norm I wasn’t accustomed to. Essentially the only times I ate out in Doha was when someone else offered to feed me.
Al Majles Al Arabi Restaurant, the first restaurant I visited in Doha. It was a treat to all of Education City's exchange students.
Delivery on fleek
Part of what makes eating restaurant food so normal is that it’s so easy, Qatar’s food delivery game is fire.
The norm in the U.S. is that two types of restaurants consistently deliver: Pizza places and Chinese food joints. With the onset of services like Uber Eats, EatStreet, and GrubHub, however, getting food delivered from other restaurants is slowly becoming a norm. Cool, right?
But you know what’s cooler?
In Doha, it’s expected for restaurants—any restaurant—to have a delivery option. KFC, McDonald’s, Dairy Queen, P.F. Chang’s, you name it and the place probably delivers. It’s not like Uber Eats in which you have to go through their services to get your food, no, restaurants in Doha do it directly, there’s no middleman.
Then, for the restaurants that don’t normally deliver, there’s the Talabat app, which is a middleman service used to fill in the gaps or make ordering easier when a group of people want food from different restaurants. The delivery fee through Talabat typically lingered around 5 riyals, about $1.37, but alas, getting Doha food delivered right to my door remains on my bucket list.
There’s also drive-thru . . . parking
I know, it sounds contradictory, but another thing that makes eating out easy is that fast food places will bring the food to you. No, not like delivery, more like . . . a parked drive through. Let me explain:
You know how you can pull up to McDonald’s and you can either: A) Park your car and order inside or B) Go through the drive-thru? Okay, well, not all fast food places in Doha had drive-thrus because some are in tight strip malls, so instead of driving through a car line you can just park your car, honk your horn, and someone will come out of the restaurant and bring you a menu. Then you look through the menu, make your order, get your food, pay your money, and leave.
It’s a simple process, right? Well, this simple process seriously caught me off guard. Imagine you are chatting with your friends in the car as you all pull up to a Burger King. The driver parks, you unfasten your seatbelt, and you continue the conversation as you exit the car and walk toward the restaurant, but then you realize the rest of your posse is still seated, staring at you in confusion through the dusty windshield. The driver honks the horn, you wonder why the heck she just honked at you, but then suddenly a waiter in a black BK hat rushes pass you to hand a menu to your friends in the car. He awkwardly nods at you, and you realize you’re standing in his spot, the space on the sidewalk where he’s supposed to wait to hand menus to other honking cars.
Yeah, an awkward moment with a smidgen of culture shock thrown in there, but eventually I got used to it.
Now, you may be thinking to yourself that this sounds a bit chaotic; you may be picturing a sea of pedestrians, cars, motorbikes, and Toyota Landcruisers crowded together in a narrow strip mall. Some cars are parked, some are trying to enter, some are trying to exit into the mess that is 5 o’clock Doha traffic, and some are awkwardly stationary with their hazard lights on, boxing in other cars. Horns are honking, high beams are flashing, delivery bikes are weaving in between traffic, and waiters are bobbing in between open car windows with trays, drinks, and menus.
Well, if that just so happens to be the exact image you are picturing, congratulations, you are correct! It was terribly chaotic compared to what I was used to back home, but the funny thing is, I got used to that too.
Some girls in class had extra takeout. It's fried shrimp and a dumpling.
Now, let me share my favorite food highlights
Fast food veggie burgers
McDonald’s, Dairy Queen, and Burger King all had veggie burgers, a pleasant surprise for a vegetarian (okay, I’m a pescatarian, but still). Sure, the McDonald’s one was basic, the DQ one had too much ketchup, and the BK one was spicier than anticipated, but they all were genuinely good as far as fast food is concerned. What’s better is that they all came with stuff, you know, like lettuce, onions, pickles . . . the stuff that makes a sandwich more than just bread and a bean patty.
When it comes to the seafood-eater in me, however, the fast food sitch was pretty lackluster primarily because the restaurants that did sell fish didn’t seem to keep it in stock. Over the course of four months the only fishy fast food I was able to snag was a filet-o-fish from McDonald’s. In fact, I chose to snag it twice, which is worth mentioning because if you’ve ever had a filet-o-fish, it’s not the sort of thing you ever desire to put in your mouth for a second time. To my surprise, though, the filet-o-fishes in Doha tasted notably less suspicious than the microwaved sea square blanketed in cold cheese on a flat tartar-sauced bun I was expecting.
A filet-o-fish. The box is kind of pretty, right?
French Fries & Ice Cream
French fries are my #1 favorite food and ice cream rolls in at a close second. Not only do they pair well together (and don’t you fight me on that), but they were also some of the best snacks I had my whole time in Doha.
When it comes to French fries, they aren’t all created equal, and because I love them so much, I felt compelled to highlight the Doha French-fry winner: Hardees.
Oh yes, I had a thing for Hardees’ curly fries, a delicacy unavailable in Richmond. Sure, we have Hardees, but their French fries have a creepy aftertaste and curly fries aren’t on the menu. We’ve also got an Arby’s, which does sell curly fries, but most peeps I know (myself included) don’t frequent Arby’s because it so expensive otherwise and were only three within convenient driving distance. Then there’s always the frozen grocery store ones, but c’mon, baking them in the toaster oven does not give you the same results as an industrial deep fryer.
So, yes, Hardees had my heart and I sought after their fries every chance I got.
Graduation curly fries.
You know what else I sought after, often amid munching on my fries? Ice cream.
Here’s the thing, though: The past three years of evidence suggest I am lactose intolerant. This means that when I do eat dairy, I have to be very careful in terms of quantity and quality.
What does that mean?
Well, like French fries, not all ice cream is created equal (especially when the differences can result in feeling hella sick). Cheap ice cream is less dense, which means there’s an abundance of air (or some other filler) in the ice cream . . . think of cheap ice cream like 1/3 sugar, 1/3 cream, and 1/3 air. Quality ice cream is denser, so there isn’t an abundance of filler; it’s more like ½ sugar and ½ cream. Further still, higher quality ice creams tend to use higher quality ingredients, which means that the cream they use probably has a higher milk content than the cheap ice cream’s cream.
This is the reason why, as much as people hate it, I don’t like eating at Coldstone Creamery. Their ice cream is amazing, but it’s amazing because it’s high quality, so the cream they use is milky as hell and there’s more of it per scoop because it’s dense. The combination of these two things absolutely tear my gut up, even if all I eat is one scoop.
Baskin Robbins and Dairy Queen, on the other hand, sell cheaper ice creams that use lower quality ingredients, so the cream they use is less milky. This means that I can eat a scoop of Baskin’s or a DQ mini Blizzard with hardly any intestinal turmoil. That said, both Dairy Queen and Baskin Robbins were my ice cream havens of choice in Doha, and they were always conveniently located near a Hardees.
It’s like the universe knew.
But hey, I was in new country that offered a variety of other ice cream options, so of course I was going to explore! When I did, though, I played it safe and popped a Lactaid pill, so even if the ice cream was scrumdidiliumptious in all its milky glory, the dietary supplement would take the edge off any internal gut punching . . . The last thing I needed was to be poopy and nauseous in a fancy foreign mall with new friends.
Just two examples of the Doha ice cream experience.
Juice & Frozen Yogurt . . . and The Cheesecake Factory
Maybe it was just the people I was hanging around, but everyone seemed to have a thing for fresh juice and The Cheesecake Factory . . . it started to feel like an oddly placed cultural norm, that’s how prevalent it was. I even had people clown me on my definition of “juice”. I mean sure, strawberry kiwi CapriSun isn’t the same thing as tossing fresh strawberries and kiwis into the juicer, but I’mma still call it a juicebox, guys.
Truth is, though, Doha’s fresh juice game isn’t half bad, (much like other parts of Asia and Africa, warm places where fruit can actually grow or be imported while still fresh). So, to an extent, fresh juice is a norm; it’s not restricted to health food stores or hipster hangouts like in Richmond. So, while you’re there, take advantage of the cheap, fresh juice and relish in the fact that it tastes like fruit and not the color red.
In my hand you see a scoop of Baskin Robbins (with sprinkles, of course) and fresh juice from City Center Mall. It was part of my graduation celebration request.
Then there’s The Cheesecake Factory.
You know how someone in a group of young people may ask the group, “Where do you guys want to eat tonight?” and the group may suggest places like “Pizza Hut” or “that Mexican joint with the $2 weekend burrito combo”? Well, instead of cheap burritos and greasy pizza, the young around me people kept suggesting The Cheesecake Factory.
Now, Richmond has one Cheesecake Factory on the swankier side of town, but I had only been to it once because it’s 30 minutes out and generally out of my price range. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, my dairy-rejecting gut has no business eating a cheesecake, so there was really no incentive for me to even keep the restaurant on my radar. In Doha, though, it seemed to be on everyone’s radar and after experiencing it—for the second time in my life—I almost understood. I ate a veggie burger than was not too expensive and I took a few bites of cheesecake that was, well, cheesecake. Considering I was half sick at the time, it wasn’t a bad experience, but I also wouldn’t write home about it . . . even though I am technically writing about it now.
Let’s move on, let’s talk about fro-yo.
It came in scoops and I thought that was bizarre. All of the frozen yogurt I’ve ever had in Richmond were self-serve soft serve, but at the TCBY they scooped it into my cup for me—or I even could have gotten it on a cone—and for a hot second I was thrown off. Is it revolutionary? No, it’s just the way one chain of fro-yo shops serves their yogurt. However, it was a new experience, and thus, it’s worth mentioning.
My first TCBY experience was in Doha.
I, as an individual, am accustomed to bringing home leftovers for a number of reasons: American portions are too big, I don’t want to be wasteful, restaurants make me nervous, I’m a slow eater, I want to save half my meal so I’ll have something to eat tomorrow—my reasons go on—but sometimes when I asked for a take home box in Doha, waiters seemed a bit surprised.
Was it because they were used to people tossing uneaten food and drink? Was it because I was asking to take home leftover bread and limonana in addition to my entrée? Or was it simply because most people finish their meals while at dinner since, after all, that’s the point of dinner?
Though I’m curious to know the answer, it wasn’t the sort of thing I laid in bed thinking about for hours because the situations were inconsequential; at the end of the day I brought home my food, no problem.
Ah, but you know what did catch me off guard? Waiters packing up my leftovers for me.
You might can imagine how confused I was when I first asked a waiter for a box only to have him take my food away; I thought he was clearing the table, but nope, he had taken it to the back and packed it up for me. I had never experienced that before; for the first time I didn’t have to fumble pouring leftover soup into a flimsy plastic bowl, or facepalm myself after realizing I had placed my food on the wrong side of the Styrofoam box. It was nice change of pace.
Al Shami Home Restaurant (مطعم البيت الشامي).
Grocery Store Food
You know how grocery stores can have delis, bakeries, hot bars, salad bars, and little ovens with rotisserie chickens by the checkout counter? Well, those things sometimes freak me out; salad buffets give me nightmares, the rotisserie chickens sometimes look untouched for weeks, and once you see mold on the deli cheese before you even buy it, you’re inclined to leave it where it is.
Yet, in the spirit of experiencing a new country, I was compelled to try the Doha version of fresh grocery store food—but wow—the one I experienced was more chaotic than anything I had ever seen in America.
In LuLu (a Walmart-esque hypermarket) there was a container of fried . . . something. I thought it was chicken, but come to find out, it was fish. I know, anyone with a working nose and decent eyesight knows the difference between fried chicken and fried fish, but the oddly shaped morsels I was looking at were fried in the same batter and trapped behind a sign-less glass bubble . . . it was a guessing game.
Then I had questions like, do I reach in and grab it or does a chef get it for me? How much per kilo did this stuff cost? Am I supposed to use that roll of pre-printed price stickers beside the glass? Where is the cash register? What kind of fish is this? There I was, surrounded by a dozen men shouting food orders and no signs to indicate what I was buying, how much it cost, and how to pay for it.
Eventually a man came from behind the counter, grabbed my fish, weighed it, printed a new price tag, and handed it back to me all in one motion. Problem solved, I guess?
Thing is, there was still more food I wanted to order, specifically a cheese sambousek and a fried banana. If you thought my fish adventure was a process, this next endeavor proved to be twice the amount of headache. First of all, it took forever to order because I was standing in a line that didn’t exist. Yes, after fifteen minutes I realized instead of a line it was just a jumble of people cutting in front of one another and ordering over each other; there was seemingly no method to the madness, and only those who were tall enough to be seen or loud enough to be heard got their orders in. Well, I was neither of those things and the only reason I got my food is because a stranger saw me struggling and ordered my snacks along with hers.
She told me I had to be loud and demanding because even though they want your business, they also aren’t checking for you. I know, counterintuitive, but eventually I was able to leave the store with a piece of mystery fish and two new snacks to try.
So as not to leave to leave you in suspense, I never learned what sort of fish I bought (but it was surprisingly spicy and reheated well in the oven), the sambousek was tasty (and the cheap boxed vegetable ones became staple in my freezer), and the fried banana was actually a plantain . . . I don’t like plantains.
I don’t know if memories of Morocco were still bouncing around in my head, or because Richmond’s food truck culture was my norm, but a part of me was expecting Doha to have street food. I realized once I got there, though, that there weren’t a lot of pedestrians in the city (especially during the scorching daytime) which meant there weren’t a lot of people who any outdoor food venders could cater too.
I mean, there was that one food truck across from VCUQ, and sometimes Education City hosted events where mini versions of restaurants would set up food stands, but overall there wasn’t a street food sort of vibe in Doha.
The closest thing to a consistent presence of on-the-go pedestrian food was in Souq Waqif, which was still understandably touristy (and thus, often overpriced). The souq had things like Turkish ice cream, regular ice cream, Arabic crepes, hamburgers, manakish, churros, lemonade, and Nutella (yes, a whole food stand dedicated to putting Nutella on things). There was also a stall that sold things like hot corn & chickpeas, but every time I visited the souq, that stall was eerily never manned by anyone, like the food in Spirited Away (and I was not going to risk being turned into a pig).
Local Food Buzz Words
Throughout the article I’ve casually been mentioning some food that may be unfamiliar to you (as they were to me before I travelled halfway around the world). To clear up any confusion, here is a nifty alphabetized list of some of the food I was introduced to—or reintroduced to—in Qatar:
- Arabic crepe – It’s a crepe made with regag bread, so its firmer than the spongy French crepes I had thus far had the displeasure of experiencing. The ladies in the souq cook it at their stations and ask you which combination of topping you want: Egg, cheese, za’atar, Nutella, or honey.
- Baba ganoush – Cooked, mashed eggplant mixed with tahini, olive oil, and some other seasonings. It’s like smoky eggplant hummus without the beans.
- Baklava – A pastry made with thin layers of dough, filled and topped with nuts and held together with honey. It’s more of a Levantine dish, but you’re definitely going to find it around Doha.
- Falafel - A deep-fried ball made of chickpeas and/or fava beans mixed with herbs. Their insides range from golden brown to bright green (depending on the herb to bean ratio) and in my experience, some falafel are perfect as is, while others are dry and in desperate need of sauce.
- Fatteh – Toasted (or stale) flatbread covered with other things like pomegranate seeds, chickpeas, and yogurt.
- Fattoush – Salad with toasted khubz bread in it (sounds weird, actually isn’t)
- Gahwa (Arabic coffee) – Made with arabica coffee beans and cardamom, gahwa is not your regular cup of coffee. The cup I tried to drink was a special kind of bitter, and come to find out, its usually served with dates to lessen the bitterness. - Hummus – Cooked, mashed chickpeas mixed with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic. I learned it’s actually pronounced “Hoo-muss”.
- Ka'ak - Technically ka'ak can be any sort of cake, but the ones I encountered had sesame seeds on them.
- Kanafeh- A pastry made with thin noodle-like dough, soaked in sweet syrup, and topped with nuts. There’s also some sweet cheese or cream tossed somewhere in there and when it’s finished, you cut it like a pie or tray of brownies.
- Kebab – There are different types of kebabs, but the majority of them are minced meat lumps that was cooked on a skewer (though you are not always served the skewer).
- Khubz – Puffy Arabic bread.
- Kofta – A type of meatball.
- Kushari - Rice, macaroni, and lentils mixed together and topped with spiced tomato sauce, garlic vinegar, chickpeas, and fried onions. It’s cheap Egyptian street food and very filling.
- Labneh – Like Greek yogurt, but thicker. You can spread it on things in a similar way to cream cheese.
- Limonana - Lemonade made from lemon juice and spearmint leaves. It's the best lemonade I've ever had.
- Luqaimat/Lokma – Like a donut hole with a crunchier outer shell
- Manakish – Bread topped with thyme, cheese, and/or ground meat. It’s like a pizza.
- Masoor dal – Indian spiced red lentils. It’s got the consistency of thick porridge, but in a good way.
- Mezeh/Mezze - A style of dining where everyone shares one plate. They can be used as an appetizer or an entire group meal.
- Pita – A type of flatbread
- Saag paneer - Cooked spinach thickened with cream or coconut milk and speckled with cubes of fried paneer cheese. As someone who has always hated cooked spinach, you can imagine my surprise when I tasted this Indian dish and realized it was amazing.
- “Salad” – The word "salad” sometimes referred to things like coleslaw or the ever confusing “salad chips”, a flavor of potato chip. Just wanted to give you a heads-up . . . salads are not always the American concept of salad.
- Sambousek/Samosa – Like tiny deep-fried pies shaped like triangles or half-moons. They could be stuffed with meat, vegetables, or just cheese . . . like elevated pizza bites.
- Shawarma – Essentially a wrap filled with meat cut from a vertical rotisserie. Sometimes French fries are stuffed in there.
- Tabbouleh – Parsley, tomatoes, mint, onion, olive oil, lemon juice, some kind of grain (like bulgur), and sometimes garlic and/or pomegranate seeds. It’s a type of salad.
- Tahini – A condiment made from toasted sesame, garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil.
- Turkish ice cream (dondurma) - It’s ice cream, but it’s special because 1) It doesn’t quickly melt and 2) It’s stringy, like bubblegum. It has this consistency because Arabic gum is mixed in with it (Arabic gum is the stuff used to make bubblegum gummy and lithography doable). - Za’atar – An herb and spice mixture composed of thyme, basil, rosemary, and oil. Some places offer it in a dish so you can spread it over bread yourself, while other places already have it spread on the bread for you. Fair warning, it will get stuck in your teeth.
Me with za’atar manakish. I’ve got that look on my face because I didn’t know what the hell I was eating.
Overall . . .
Even with all the new cuisine I suddenly had access to, I could still find some familiar favorites. Ice cream, French fries, pizza, and unimpressive cheesecake were just as accessible as labneh, manakish, and tahini sauce. It was amazing to think I could eat a tuna sandwich for lunch, saag paneer for dinner, and rose water ice cream for dessert. Having access to such a variety of food in Doha was wild, and even though I didn’t have the budget to eat out often, every bite I was able to take contributed to the most consistently exciting parts of my experience. What I mean is, eating on an international adventure is fun and the fact I had four months to experience what Doha had to offer was an unexpected dream come true.
I wasn't kidding about the tuna sandwich.