Bandra watering hole Ground Zero had just opened its doors a few months ago when something unusual happened. They were telecasting a cricket match, when Keval Manek, a first-time customer walked in, got hooked on to the game and decided he needed a more comfortable place to sit. He went outside, picked up a chair and placed it at an empty spot in the restaurant.
The move not only gave Manek a better view, it opened the eyes of the restaurant staff too. "We didn’t have a table in that area before," recalls the manager, Adrian Pereira. "It was only after Keval put the chair there that we created a permanent table out of it."
To date, the management refers to it as Keval’s Table, and not Table One or Table Two like the others. It even shows up by that name on the bill. Manek, in turn, has found pride of place as a treasured customer. The next time he dropped in to watch a match, he was politely asked to ditch his own Mumbai Indians’ flag, only to be presented with another one at his table. "Since then, the flag has been kept neatly folded and whenever I visit for a match, they bring it out for me," he says.
Manek comes in for more than a pint of beer or a televised match. He also plays adviser, offering tips on what works and what doesn’t on the menu. "[It’s been] only a few months, and I am already a legit customer with my name on the bill," he beams. "How many regulars have that?"
In a city where restaurants open and close before you’ve had a chance to try them, and where people would rather ‘do business’ than ‘do lunch’, several Mumbaikars have found that loyalty pays in ways they’d never imagined. They’ve returned and returned again to the same restaurants and pubs over the years and now boast relationships with the owners and staff that stretch far beyond commerce. Here are some of their stories...
Back in 2004, when India’s dream of being a superpower by 2020 didn’t seem so farfetched, engineering student Vibhas Jog was thinking about something that concerned him more: Where to party. He found his answer at The Wild Orchid, a pub in Chembur. Several memories, lots of drinks, and a few years later, he brought his new wife, Neha, to the pub on Valentine’s Day. What began as a place for the guys to hang out turned into a zone for evenings of fun with the woman in his life. "I came from Ujjain and was exposed to a pub for the first time," says Neha Jog. "Now I get up and dance and Vibhas has to pull me down."
In the 10 years he’s been dropping in, Jog has it easier than almost any other patron. He just has to catch the waiter’s eye to get a drink. He gets the table he wants, they play his kind of music, and he even gets to stay back after closing hours. No wonder the Jogs keep coming back.
Another Mumbaikar, Sheryl Jacques, has been a fan of Andheri’s Banana Leaf ever since she got talking with the owner one sunny afternoon four years ago. Her loyalty is rewarded with more than good south Indian food. When Jacques went to the restaurant with six friends during Pongal last year, she was in for a treat. They gobbled the lavish festive lunch, but were presented a bill of only Rs 1,000. "I left the restaurant feeling really special," she recalls.
Friends with benefits
Friendships between owners and regulars are not unheard of. Tanu Narang, the owner of The Little Door (aka TLD), is great pals with Reha Reval, who first visited the Andheri bar and restaurant on its opening night two years ago and has been popping in at least two times a week since. "I am surprised they continue to call me for their drinking games knowing how much I suck," she says, with a smile in her voice. She always gets a good discount as well.
TLD does much more to keep its regular patrons happy and mingling. There is a WhatsApp group called The Little Door Lovers for regulars who didn’t otherwise know each other. "The group sadly allows only 30 people," Reval explains. "Not only does the whole gang meet at TLD for Mumbai Indians’ matches, but we also celebrate all birthdays together."
If a party begins at TLD, it doesn’t always end there. At around 4 or 5am, The Little Door Lovers often end up passed out at Narang’s house close by.
Another tale of friendship plays out at Noor Mohammadi. Kamleen Khan is a juice vendor whose association with the Mohammed Ali Road institution goes back 15 years. He once bought his family to the restaurant not only to delve into the delicious nalli nihari but also to introduce them to the owner. He doesn’t get a single discount at the already budget-priced place but says "Kabhi discount mangne ki zarurat mehsoos hi nahi hui [I never felt the need to ask for a discount]". It’s just the warmth of the owner that keeps him coming back, sometimes even twice a day.
Anuj Keshwani, fresh out of business school, knows the staff at Lower Parel’s Blue Frog so well that he hangs out with them outside of the club too. "The bouncer, the manager, and the bartender at Blue Frog are like buddies," he says. "We have been to parties together."
A discount thrown in, a complimentary drink here and there and an occasionally waived cover charge are small gestures the Blue Frog management extends to him. But the biggest advantage, Keshwani believes, is when an altercation ensues in the club. "You know the staff will support you because they know you are not the kind to pick a fight," he says.
Outside of Blue Frog, Keshwani spends four days of his week at the Pali Hill Candies, where he gets to cut the infamous queues and enjoy free desserts. He even got a fresh drink when he spilled the one he’d ordered. And, when we visited the restaurant to take his picture, the management gifted him a `500 voucher for being their most loyal customer over the past five years.
And for those who believe that technology gets in the way of warm relationships, there’s Rhea Kavrana. The 22-year-old social media fanatic became friends with Kelvin Cheung, the chef at Colaba’s Ellipsis, over his food shots on Instagram.
"Once, after seeing some mouth-watering desserts on his Instagram page, I went over to Ellipsis mid-exams because I was dying to taste them," she recalls. Though the desserts were not on the menu at the time, Cheung baked them just for Kavrana and her two friends.
Cheung and Kavrana have stayed in touch even when Cheung was away in Los Angeles. But Kavrana has also been a longer-term regular at another Colaba restaurant, Ling’s Pavilion. The owner, Nini Ling, recalls how she used to come there as a little girl and now sometimes comes all alone just for a dish she’s been craving: the dim sum platter. In the eight years as a chef at Ling’s, Sujai Tamang has forgotten how many platters he has made for Kavrana. He knows only that they’re her favourite.
For long-timers, no discounts, freebies or special privileges can match the feeling of dining comfortably, served by people you know and count as friends. Suresh Rajai made one such friend at an ice-cream parlour. When he first dropped in at Charni Road’s popular Bachelorr’s eight years ago, he had no idea that the owner’s son was a classmate from school.
Over the years, he visited the place so often that the student he never befriended in class became a close friend as an adult. "Now whenever he is with me, I never have to pay for my ice cream," he says. The relationship, for Rajai, has been sweetened not because of the ice-cream but because of the memory of shared conversations behind each scoop. That’s something money can’t buy, even if you have a fancy plastic discount card to swipe after a meal.
From HT Brunch, May 25
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