Standalone restaurants have risen. Formal dining is out. The way we eat has certainly changed

  • Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Mar 15, 2015 13:09 IST

Every year or so, I try and do a round-up of restaurant trends. This is the latest instalment. Here is what I see happening in the food scene in India currently. Much of it is still restricted to the metros, but I’m sure that the trends will penetrate nationally, sooner or later.

The rise of the standalone sector
This is self-evident. We have always had standalone restaurants in India. But the gap between the hotel dining sector and standalones used to be massive.

If you were a regular at, say, The House of Ming, you may not have been as fond of, say, Aka Saka in Defence Colony. What’s interesting now is that not only are there more standalone restaurants, they are of a quality that is close to (and often even better than) hotel dining.

I went last week for dinner to Town Hall in Delhi’s Khan Market (it was full, around 250 covers on a weekday evening, with people waiting for tables) and wondered: why would anybody go to a five-star hotel and eat overpriced food when they could come to buzzy places like this and eat as well for half the cost?

Obviously other people had the same idea. Town Hall was full of faces I recognised from such restaurants as Threesixty Degrees.

The growth of the food district
All foodies like the idea of wonderfully atmospheric restaurants in beautiful locations. But the reality is that it is not going to happen in India because of a mixture of urban decay, terrible traffic and the real-estate mafia.

So, what we have got instead is the development of districts where the owners take care of infrastructure and urge restaurateurs to open new places. At the most basic level, this means malls.

But it also means the redeveloped mills in Bombay where such hip places as the Bombay Canteen have opened so successfully. It means Cyber Hub in Gurgaon, which is a vast restaurant district. And it means old colony markets and neighbourhoods that suddenly become restaurant hubs; places like Khan Market or Mehr Chand Market in Delhi.

The end of formality

We may not realise it but Indian restaurants are considerably less formal than many of their Western counterparts. Till the late Seventies, fancy hotel places like the Bombay Taj’s Rendezvous and the Delhi Oberoi’s Café Chinois insisted on jackets. Now you can dress as casually as you like. Even Le Cirque and The Orient Express, Delhi’s two most formal restaurants, will allow you to wear blue jeans.

Ripped denims with your rigatoni: Now you can dress casually to dinner. Even Le Cirque (above), one of Delhi's most formal restaurants, will let you wear blue jeans.

Now that principle is being extended to the table setting and the ambience. Tablecloths are on their way out. Waiters are neither proper nor grovellingly obsequious; rather they are friendly and relaxed.

All the most successful new restaurants that have opened over the last two years are relaxed and casual.

The emergence of the chef
It is a global trend so it was bound to come to India sooner than later. Chefs are much more visible than before. Many of the new generation are household names: Manu Chandra, Manish Mehrotra, Vikramjeet Roy, Alex Sanchez, Julia Desa.

And of course the TV chefs: Vikas Khanna, Kunal Kapoor and so many others. Plus the old stars remain: Sanjeev Kapoor, Ananda Solomon, Hemant Oberoi and Imtiaz Qureshi.

Some hotel chains are still to catch up. The Oberois lose out because they’ve never promoted their chefs, many of whom are outstanding, and the Taj needs to move away from pretending that the executive chef at each hotel cooks everything.

The rise of the super-restaurateurs

Usually these are people who entered the business around the 1990s, opened single restaurants, found fame and then expanded.

Today’s top restaurateurs are people like AD Singh (of Olive and much more), Riyaaz Amlani (Smoke House, the Socials, etc), Ritu Dalmia (the Divas and more) Zorawar Kalra (Farzi Café, Made In Punjab, Masala Library) and Rahul Akerkar (who created Indigo and Indigo Deli).

Related to this is a second phenomenon: the creation of restaurant brands across markets. I guess you could say it was always there (Kwality’s, for instance) but I believe it really took off in the 1990s when Anjan Chatterjee started such successful restaurants as Mainland China and Oh! Calcutta which he took all over India.

Now the big restaurateurs have restaurants of the same name all over India. Amit Burman and Rohit Aggarwal have taken such brands as Zambar across India. Jay Singh has made Shiro a national brand. Amlani’s Social and Smoke House are known all over the country. And so on. Enter the foreign brands

Foreign fast-food brands have always had a foothold in India from the days when Wimpy’s opened in Connaught Place in the 1980s. But what used to be a trickle (McDonald’s, Domino’s, etc) has now turned into a flood.

Go to any mall and check out the restaurants. You will see the same names that you would see at any mall in Singapore or Hong Kong. Many of the chains have taken Indian partners and made concessions to Indian tastes on their menus. But the quick service and mall-dining sectors in India have turned international faster than anyone could have imagined.

And then there are the upmarket brands, many of them from London: Yauatcha, Maritime by San Lorenzo (at the Taj Land’s End), Le Cirque (in association with the Leela group), Royal China, Pizza Metro Pizza and so many others. Other international restaurant groups are exploring tie-ups so expect more to open in the next year or so.

Taste of a foreign land: Upmarket brands, many of them from London: Yauatcha and Maritime by San Lorenzo (above) are making their presence felt in India.

Molecular gatronomy
People say that it is on its way out. But Bangkok’s Gaggan Anand is regularly feted by international and Western guides as running one of the world’s best restaurants.

So perhaps Indian molecular is still very much in. Gaggan’s success is matched by the domestic success of Vikramjeet Roy’s molecular wizardry (with all kinds of Asian food) at Delhi’s Tian, Himanshu Saini’s adventures at Dubai’s Tresind and then, of course, by Zorawar Kalra’s Masala Library and Farzi Café.

Foreign food
We sometimes make the mistake of thinking that entire foreign cuisines are popular in India when, in fact, it is just individual dishes that work. So, no matter what they may say, Italian cuisine is not popular in India. Only pizza and pasta are.

So it is with Japanese. Indians still find Japanese food too bland. But we love sushi (after adding wasabi and soya, of course). Even vegetarians love rolls and the fascination with nigiri sushi is growing. Almost any new casual place that opens will go with the idea of putting sushi rolls on the menu.

Multi-cuisine is the trendy cuisine
In the West, restaurants are usually very specific about the kind of cuisine they serve. Not so in India. If you look at the restaurants that have opened over the last three years (in the standalone sector), a surprisingly large number of them are what we call ‘casual eclectic’, which is to say that they will flirt with all kinds of cuisines.

The best example is the aforementioned Town Hall, where the backbone of the menu is chef Augusto’s Japanese, but it still serves pizzas, Western grills, Chinese dishes and Thai stir-fries. That is pretty much the pattern in Hauz Khas and many other restaurants districts.

I don’t know why this should be so. But as the trend catches on, I can identify one endangered species: the hotel coffee shop. Give it another two years and few coffee shops will be able to attract many non-resident guests.

From HT Brunch, March 15
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