It happened this way. I know and hugely admire Rahul Akerkar whose Indigo restaurant has been a trendsetter in Bombay. Some months ago, he called me to say that he was opening a branch of Indigo in Delhi near the Hyatt Regency. I was very excited because Delhi could do with one more great dining option.
Then: silence. No more was heard of Indigo. But several months later, the Akerkars (Rahul and his wife, Malini) opened an Indigo Deli in the Ambience Mall in Vasant Kunj. The Deli is Rahul’s sub-brand, a sort of Emporio Armani to his Giorgio Armani or a Gateway to his Taj. Malini texted, asking if I would like to try the restaurant and I promised I would when I had the time.
Then, strange things began to happen. At least two people whose opinion I respect told me how bad the food was. I was unwilling to believe this because Rahul knows his food. Even so, I resolved to go and try it for myself. Accordingly, I phoned the restaurant one Saturday and asked for a table for two.
The attitude at Rahul Akerkar’s Indigo Deli in Delhi was: we don’t really give a damn that you’ve made a booking, dressed up and driven all the way here.
The nice girl who answered the phone told me she could offer me a table at 2.15 pm. But she asked me to spell out the name I booked the table in (I rarely book in my own name for reasons that will shortly become obvious) and advised me that as the restaurant was very busy she could only hold the table for ten or fifteen minutes. If I was late, then they would give the table away.
And so I duly turned up at 2.15 pm only to find the man at the door in heated conversation with a family of three. They had booked a table, they said. And the restaurant had even called them back. Oh no, said the Indigo Deli guy. It is only a wait-list booking. But you called us back and confirmed, they protested. No, said the man, we cannot give you a table. You will just have to wait.
Finally it was my turn. I said we had a booking. No, you do not, said the man, without bothering to look carefully at the list of reservations in front of him. Because I can read upside down, I showed him where the booking was. “Well, it is only a wait-list,” he said. Unfortunately for him, whoever it was who had noted the booking had helpfully written “confirmed” next to the name. I pointed this out to him. “No,” he said. “We can’t give you a table.” I asked to speak to the manager. He said he was the manager.
Jairam Banan has spent years standing outside his Swagath in Defence Colony (and at Sagar for decades), taking down the names of people who are waiting for tables.
As I was about to leave, he looked up and something clicked. “I’ll find you a table, sir”, he said and wandered inside. Now, a new man arrived to take up the post at the entrance to the restaurant. “I am the manager,” he announced. (Obviously the place has a lot of managers.) I said how disgraceful it was that they were not honouring reservations. He was unmoved.
Another group approached him. Same problem. He would not honour their reservation either. There was no sense of apology. No sense of: “Sorry, we are overbooked, could you please wait. It will only be a few minutes.” Basically, the attitude was: you can just buzz off. We are full. And we don’t really give a damn that you’ve made a booking, dressed up and driven all the way here.
At this stage, the first guy returned from inside the restaurant. “Your table is ready, Mr Sanghvi”, he announced grandly. “Hang on a minute,” I said. “What about all these other people with reservations? Are you going to give me a table because you are scared I’ll write about it while ignoring everybody else with a booking?” He looked nonplussed because I was quite agitated by this stage.
But the broad answer was: yes. Because he had worked out who I was, despite the name on the booking, he was going to give me a table and leave everyone else waiting. I did the only thing I could have in the circumstances. I turned around and walked out.
At the Bombay Wasabi when it first opened, unless they knew who you were (i.e. you were likely to spend a lot of money), they claimed the restaurant was sold out.
Ten minutes later, the restaurant called to entreat me to return. But frankly, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to a restaurant that treats customers with such contempt, does not bother about reservations, and then miraculously finds tables when it thinks this might get into the papers. Perhaps the food is as bad as I’ve been told. Perhaps it isn’t. I’ll never find out.
So, here’s my question: why do restaurants do this? Why do they treat paying customers like dirt?
Partly, it is inept and sloppy management. They don’t know how to allot tables or understand how reservations work. But mostly it is arrogance. The restaurant is doing well. It is small, by the standards of its competition in the Ambience Mall, not very expensive and has the advantage of novelty (everything does well in Delhi for three months). So as long as they are full, they think they can ignore reservations and treat customers with contempt.
There was a time when only expensive places at five-star hotels behaved like this. At many hotel coffee shops in the old days, they would not accept bookings, maintain a waiting list and then promptly find tables for the rich, the famous and the influential.
I remember in the early days of the Hyatt’s La Piazza in Delhi, (mid-1990s I would imagine) when a no-bookings policy applied, ordinary punters had to hang around the corridors while the rich were ushered at once to their tables with much bowing and scraping. It was the same at the Bombay Wasabi when it first opened. Unless they knew who you were (i.e. you were likely to spend a lot of money), they claimed the restaurant was sold out. I was often astonished to find them turning people away when the restaurant was half-empty.
It was the same (around 12 years ago) at Djinns the nightclub at the Hyatt Regency (yes, again!), where they would make people queue up for a table even when they had lots of room inside. A former employee of the Hyatt confided to me that this was official policy: make the place seem desirable by treating customers like dirt.
Fortunately, all that has changed. Wasabi is not as hot as it used to be (in Bombay, at least) so it is not difficult to get a table. Djinns has closed and the current management at the Hyatt bends over backwards to be nice to guests.
Some of this has to do with competition. There are just so many hotels these days that nobody can afford to treat customers badly. And hotel managers are much less arrogant than they used to be. The present regime at the Bombay Taj is efficient, first rate and customer-friendly, and even the Oberoi, long renowned for its arrogance, now follows a customers-come-first kind of policy.
At Bukhara, still Delhi’s most successful restaurant (in terms of turnover) there are always crowds of people waiting for tables. The staff is unfailingly courteous and warm so nobody feels that they are being treated badly. Really successful places (and Bukhara has had over three decades as Delhi’s top restaurant) don’t need to be arrogant. They know that it is their customers who have made them what they are – and are properly grateful.
At Soam, my favourite Bombay restaurant, the system is so smooth that even though it is always packed at lunchtime, the wait is pleasant and never too long.
There are places that don’t take bookings but many of them are well organised. For instance, Jairam Banan has spent years standing outside his Swagath in Defence Colony (and at Sagar for decades), taking down the names of people who are waiting for tables. The system is so fair and polite that nobody minds waiting. At SodaBottleOpenerWala in Cyber Hub (in Gurgaon), they don’t take advance bookings. But they will take your name and number and phone you the moment a table becomes vacant. At Soam, my favourite Bombay restaurant, the system is so smooth that even though it is always packed at lunchtime, the wait is pleasant and never too long.
What I loathe most about any restaurant is the grotesque VIP culture. You always hear stories about people saying “Don’t you know who I am” or “Jaanta hai mera baap kaun hai” (to which the only good answer is: “Why? Didn’t you mother tell you? Or wasn’t she sure?”).
But the truth is that at many restaurants people don’t even need to throw their weight around. The staff is so busy sucking up to the rich and famous that regular customers don’t even get a look in.
But as more and more of us can afford to eat out, the bias in favour of the rich will have to change. And if it doesn’t, we should boycott restaurants that do not respect their customers.
From HT Brunch, July 13
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