DHAHRAN: The word “Soho” likely conjures up images of fashionable districts in New York or London. Or, perhaps, Soho House & Co. — the exclusive, members-only chain of hotels and restaurants popular with the creative community. But Soho Club on Tahliya Street in Riyadh is the Saudi capital’s newest lounge and restaurant — where everyone is welcome — and it’s one of a kind.
On a street that is inundated by dining establishments, Soho Club stands out from the crowd. Its façade is reminiscent of a 1950s-style Broadway theatre — bold lettering, marquee lights, art deco arches, and revolving doors. Past the revolving doors, a bouncer leads you through thick, velvet curtains and upbeat jazz music welcomes you inside.
Candelabras on rustic, communal tables lend the right amount of allure and mystery. Masquerade masks (depicting a range of emotions), paintings, and vanity mirrors adorn the walls. Luxurious leather lounge chairs dot the premises. Golden scaffolding pipes run along the ceiling and the waitstaff dress in vintage overalls. It feels clandestine, exclusive, and, yes, grandiose.
But that’s where any association with its namesake ends. Soho Club is frequented by young urbanities and families who come for its relaxed ambience, novel theme, international cuisine, and — of course — the club’s popularity on social media. Popular Insta-spots in the venue include the “Smoking Dog” (an eccentric painting of a dog in a top hat) and the ladies room (decorated like a powder room with plush settees, wall-to-wall mirrors, industrial pipe faucets, and Edison light bulbs hanging from the ceiling).
Our hosts for the evening, manager Francis Pascua and chef Zakhia Bilen tell us about the food. “It can best be described as contemporary fusion,” says Bilen. “The menu has dishes that customers know, but in a form that is new to their taste buds.” Having worked in the Lebanese culinary industry for 15 years, Bilen brings his expertise in globally-focused cuisine to Soho Club.
Take the extensive appetizers menu: The Cappuccino Soup is a flavorful tomato soup with foam served in a coffee mug, along with a baguette crisp that resembles a sugar biscuit. Superfood like kale and Medjool dates are dressed up with bitter-sweet pomegranate molasses and aromatic truffle oil in the Truffle Salad. Prawns are served in a Chinese cabbage, with two sauces; one sharp, with a wasabi base and the other sweet, with a chilli base.
Chicken bites glazed in a buffalo sauce are served in a waffle cone and drizzled with buttermilk ranch — chicken wings in maple-soy glaze may not sound original, but they pack a punch that you’ll remember.
The burgers and sliders menu has plenty to choose from. We opt for the Angus ribeye slider with classic accompaniments including fresh onions, tomatoes, lettuce, pickles, cheddar cheese, and chipotle ranch sauce; and the crispy chicken slider with coleslaw, jalapenos, and buttermilk ranch. Bilen’s take on the Mexican-style, El Pollo Loco chicken features a barbequed chicken breast, parmesan aioli, kale leaves, and mango pickles. As a nod to local tastes, the kibdeh roll is served in a buttery, hot dog bun with chimichurri sauce and tahini truffle sauce.
Although finger food and burgers seem to be crowd favorites, they may fill you up before you get to the mains. And it’s worth saving some space for the house specials. The black Angus short rib is braised in Coca Cola for four hours and served on a bed of celery-root puree; the neutral and earthy tones of the celery offset the sweetness of the tender meat. The baby barbeque chicken dish is served with spicy, herbed potatoes, and an avocado salad.
The dessert and shakes menu is relatively limited, but more than makes up for it with its extravagance. True to its name, The Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ice-cream shake has an assortment of toppings including chocolate chips, cake, and jelly beans.
You might first be tempted to Soho Club for the Insta-worthy photo ops, but you’ll return for the food.