In a dynamic industry, restaurant developer Joey Ghazal knows what works – and he’s bringing it to the world, starting in London.
“It’s like playing 4D chess,” says entrepreneur, developer, and undisputed king of the Dubai restaurant scene, Joey Ghazal. He’s talking about his The Maine empire, the beloved three eateries in Dubai – Land Brasserie in Business Bay, Oyster Bar & Grill in JBR, and Street Eatery in Studio City – and the ambitious October 2021 launch in Mayfair in London. Add Canary Club, a further “very new direction” freshly opened in JLT and it’s clear that this is one king with an extraordinary gambit at play.
The Maine Mayfair is his most aspiring development yet – the 1 000 sqm multilevel space takes up three floors in a Grade II listed 18th century Georgian house on Hanover Square. The entire project, from signing the lease to opening, took an unprecedentedly quick nine months, all amid pandemic restrictions and Brexit and supply chain issues. “I’ve never done a project this accelerated,” he shares. Yet the result is quintessential Ghazal: unique yet familiar, grandiose yet homely. It strikes a delicate balance between keeping the brand DNA intact and maintaining and respecting the integrity of the British heritage. “It’s The Maine on steroids,” the developer shares. “Every room has its own vibe. The ground floor is aristocratic and regal. It’s a brasserie, with a terrace and drawing room, respectful of the architecture and history of the place. But downstairs is a whole other sense of event and celebration – we have jazz and cabaret, dark lighting, and a vaulted, cavernous bar.” It suits a city where people want to be entertained and enthralled and is yet another example of Ghazal spotting an opportunity where someone else would only see challenges. It’s also proving to be the It spot of the season, with Vogue House across the road and British Vogue hosting a party with Self-Portrait soon after The Maine’s opening.
The eldest of three boys, Ghazal was born in Montreal but raised in Dubai, where his late father was general manager of Dubai Airports. School was DESS and Dubai College, and it was his mother who imbued in him his lifelong instinct for hospitality and taste. “My mom is fabulous, she’s the entertainer. Always inviting people home, entertaining, having a big dinner spread, music…” he shares. When the 15-year-old Ghazal moved back to Montreal, it was time for his dad to inject a sense of responsibility and maturity – and promptly closed the money tap. “He called me up and said, ‘No more allowance for you, get a job,’” Ghazal recalls fondly. “Being at university, studying political science and film, the only thing you can really do is be a waiter.” Thus, his induction in the industry began, as humble busboy clearing tables in an Italian restaurant, not knowing the difference between fusilli and rigatoni. Waitering at a steakhouse followed – “making CA$1 000 in tips a week; for an 18-year-old, I was balling” – before a stint of a few years at the Soho House Group in London. “Being a waiter is an amazing way to start your career; it doesn’t matter what you go on to do,” he says. “It gives you drive and the ability to react under pressure. You’re not shy, you know how to prioritize things. It turns you into a hustler, an upseller.”
This was evident upon his return to Montreal in 2003, when the same steakhouse restaurant group hired him as manager, and he ended up running its marketing and concept development. “That’s where I learned the business,” he says. “We were opening four restaurants a year for seven years, doing everything in-house.”
It seems inevitable that Ghazal would return to his Lebanese roots and in 2010, Beirut – and his own path as restaurant developer – beckoned. He opened five successful ventures in the city where his dad had retired before making the difficult decision to move to Dubai. “I took about a year-and-a-half to figure out what I wanted to do, before the first location for The Maine presented itself,” he recalls. His calibrated savvy kicked in when he immediately saw potential in an unassuming site in JBR that six other people had already turned down, thinking it would never work. But where they only saw an inconvenient space sandwiched between a garbage room and the delivery dock of the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel, Ghazal could envision The Maine Oyster Bar & Grill. “I thought, this is exactly the kind of authenticity Dubai needs,” he shares.
Authenticity comes up a lot in Ghazal’s philosophy and it’s what sets his restaurants apart from the identikit launches and groups so endemic to the city. You know what you’re getting at The Maine – good food, a relaxed ambience, friendly service, and great value. It’s an elusive sweet spot to hit, to be able to create a place people return to again and again. It’s also a magic formula he helps create for other brands with his design service company, Fighterbrands, where his brother Eddie is creative director. But he’s the first to admit that it’s very much not a formula, it’s a feeling, born from intuition and honed by experience – and London is just the first stop in his planned global expansion. “We’re looking at Miami, Mykonos, Las Vegas, the Far East,” he shares. Closer to home, though, he is also focusing on giving back. The Maine restaurants in Dubai go through 50 000 oysters a month, which got him wondering if there’s anything to be done with the shells that would otherwise end up in a landfill. And so the Dubai Oyster Project was born, a community-driven reef restoration project in partnership with The Arbor School and Emirates Marine Environmental Group. The Maine hands over their shells and the students place them in repurposed illegal metal fishing traps that were seized by the government. “They hold together the oyster shells, which form mounds and become reefs. Every oyster shell that regenerates filters water and these reefs become marine ecosystems and a breeding ground for the endangered Hawksbill turtle,” Ghazal shares.
Out-of-the-box ideas inspire and drive him still, and he’s always on the hunt for the unexpected. “How do you give something soul?” he asks wistfully. “It’s tricky. But there’s no secret. It’s just about giving people what they want.” And with that, Dubai’s Maine man heads out the door, off to find the next gap no one else is seeing.”
Originally published in the March 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia