Restaurateur AD Singh has his pulse on Indian dining out

  • Vir Sanghvi
  • Updated: Mar 05, 2016 20:58 IST
Hotelier A D Singh, the man behind Olive and Guppy By Ai has always believed that it’s the ‘buzz’ that makes for a good restaurant.

I can still remember when I first met AD Singh. It was 1998 and I had been invited to moderate a session at a food summit in Bombay. On the panel were some well-known names from the food business of that era and two young guys who had made a name for themselves by running an operation called Just Desserts, which took over an existing restaurant in the evenings and served, as the name suggested, only desserts.

The partners had split. One of them, a chef, was well-known for having run the vastly influential Under The Over at Kemps Corner and was planning to open a fine-dining restaurant in Colaba. He was, of course, Rahul Akerkar, and the fine dining operation would become the first Indigo.

The other guy was more interesting. He had no food background. In fact, he had chucked up a job at Cadbury to stray into restaurants and many of his views seemed to be the antithesis of his former partner’s.

I asked the panel what they thought was the most important factor in making a restaurant successful. I warmed to Rahul when he gave the answer I wanted. “The food,” he said. “In the end, it all comes down to the food.”

His former partner – who, as you will have guessed, was AD Singh – was more circumspect. First of all, he looked nothing like a restaurateur, with his designer stubble. And he didn’t even talk like one. He favoured a slow laidback drawl. His manner put me in mind of a WWF wrestler who was popular at the time: Razor Ramon. In my mind, I took to thinking of him not as AD Singh, but as ‘Razor’.

So when I asked Razor what made a restaurant successful, I was a little surprised when he drawled back, “The buzz. The food is important but, you know,” pause “not like, really so important. You gotta have buzz.”

After the session, I got chatting with Razor and discovered that beneath that deceptively slow drawl and that I-am-so-laidback-you-might-think-I-am-kinda-stoned air, he was actually a very sharp guy. More important, he seemed like a nice person. So that evening, my friend Rohit Khattar (now world-famous as the owner of Indian Accent) who was also at the conference, and I went off to two of AD/Razor’s restaurants: Soul Fry and Soul Curry. Both did coastal/south Indian food with a twist and despite everything AD had said in the morning, both Rohit and I thought the food was good. This guy will go places, we said to each other.

I don’t think we had any idea how right we were. Today, AD Singh is to India what Danny Meyer is to New York, a hugely successful restaurateur who doesn’t pretend to be a chef and whose company keeps churning out restaurant and bar concepts that always push the envelope further.

The chances are that you’ve heard of some of his restaurants. It is possible, too, that you have eaten in one of them: Olive (and its offspring, Olive Beach and Olive Bistro), The Fatty Bao, Monkey Bar, SodaBottleOpenerWala, Guppy by Ai, and many, many others.

Olive restaurant at Bandra

I met up with him last week at the Khan Market (Delhi) branch of SodaBottleOpenerWala, my personal favourite of his restaurant concepts, and we talked about the time we had first met 18 years ago. Though I had believed then that he had only come off Just Desserts, it turned out that even when we’d met at the conference, he had already been into the restaurant business for seven years. In fact, he completed 25 years in the business at the end of last year.

Though the drawl is still in place and he is still so relaxed that you fear that were he to get any more laidback he would keel over. He is less able to conceal his sharpness and his keen sense of the market now than he was nearly two decades ago. He still emphasises the importance of ‘buzz’ to a restaurant though, over the years, he has begun to focus more and more on the restaurant concept, and the food at many of his places is very good.

The world knows him best, I imagine, for the first celebrity-filled Olive in Bandra in Bombay, but there were lots of now-forgotten restaurants (like Soul Curry and Soul Fry) before that happened. There was Jazz By The Bay in the old Talk Of The Town space in Bombay’s Churchgate (where he partnered with Sanjay Narang who owned the restaurant) and there was Copacabana, a bar on Marine Drive, which was, for a brief period, Bombay’s equivalent of London’s Met Bar (in the early ’90s). It was difficult to get in and like Steve Rubell at the original Studio 54, AD stood at the door himself, letting only the beautiful people in. (Yes. I know. Me, too. But we’ll forgive him because he was young then!)

Olive grew out of a marriage of space and idea. He was offered the room by its owner and had no idea what to do with it except that he wanted to import the vibe of “just hanging around at those places in Phuket, where you went not for the food but for the experience”.

It was the restaurant that turned his career around. It was one of the first fancy stand-alones in Bandra when it opened in 2000, in an era when south Bombay was still cool and the suburbs were dead. He managed to attract the film crowd and get written about. Olive became, as he says matter of factly, the first lifestyle restaurant brand. Unlike say, Akerkar’s Indigo or Delhi’s Diva, which were chef-driven restaurants, Olive was not really about the food. It was about the style.

Guppy By Ai

It was too good an idea to be restricted to Bandra so he opened a second Olive in Delhi’s Mehrauli and then took over a bungalow in Bangalore for an Olive Beach. (“Because I wanted that beach-like feel”.) A second brand Olive Bistro grew out of the original and Olive became India’s best-known ‘Lifestyle’ restaurant brand.

By then, AD had begun to worry about attrition. A young chef called Manu Chandra, whom he had hired for the Bombay Olive and had then sent to Bangalore, kept being besieged by investors who wanted to open restaurants. Finally, AD spoke to his board and said that the company would have to find a way of holding on to talent.

The solution was to open subsidiaries in which the parent company would retain a controlling interest but talented employees could also buy equity. One such subsidiary, created for Manu Chandra, first opened LTO (Like That Only) in Whitefield in Bangalore. When that did not work, they tweaked the pan-Asian concept a little and came up with The Fatty Bao, which has now found success in Bombay and Delhi (though it is not my personal favourite of AD’s restaurants). Chandra also masterminded Monkey Bar which has the potential to expand throughout India.

New Pastures, new flavours: Chef Manu Chandra has thrived under AD Singh, creating dishes like the beetroot tart at The Fatty Bao.

Most recently there has been SodaBottleOpenerWala, which I love, which is an attempt to capture the spirit of south Bombay by recreating an Irani-restaurant vibe. Crazily, it has been most successful in Bombay where they should be most familiar with the food and the concept.

Parsi on my plate: SodaBottleOpenerWala, AD Singh’s new brand, changes the mood from buzzing to chilled, paying homage to Mumbai’s old Irani restaurants.

AD is a rich man now. He is shifty (or embarrassed) about providing figures but some estimates say that the group is worth over Rs 400 crore today. He has two major investors (the AV Birla group and Centrum) who control 60 per cent but he still owns 40 per cent himself. That means he is worth anywhere from Rs 150 to Rs 200 crore, not bad going for somebody who started with nothing, not even any money of his own to invest.

But today, you get the sense that the money doesn’t matter so much. He still displays the same passion for restaurants and the same sharp understanding of the market. He has refined his views on ‘buzz’. In the old days, he says, a restaurant would die in under three years. Now, it can last for much longer, but after the first three years there is bound to be a dip. That is why, it is important to make sure that it is never far from the public consciousness: with events, book launches, festivals, bar nights, etc.

He gives the example of the Bandra Olive, which after 16 years, runs the risk of being seen as too intimidating or just too old for younger people. He thinks that the bar night (once a week) offers an easily accessible entry point for young guests. If they like that, then they will come back for dinner or brunch or whatever.

He will open more restaurants, he says. But he is clear about what the signature of his group must be: not just buzz but a sense of warm hospitality to all guests, whether they are famous or not.

It’s a long way from manning the door at Copacabana but his decades in the business have changed AD, just a little. He started out wanting to run happening places. Now, he just wants to run happy places!

My apologies to Shivani Dass whose coffee picture we carried two weeks ago. We inadvertently dropped her credit.

From HT Brunch, March 6, 2016

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