Dressed in a striped jacket and blue jeans, restaurateur AD Singh complements the white and turquoise décor at Olive Bar and Kitchen in Bandra, a restaurant he set up exactly 15 years ago in November. “We’ve opened all our properties around this time because it’s the right season and November 3 happens to be my birthday,” says the 52-year-old with a smile. This month, the poster boy of Mumbai’s restaurant scene celebrates another landmark; he completes 25 years in the industry. “We realised it only halfway through the year,” he says in his usual modest manner.
Over the years, Singh has seen the city change a fair bit. “When we were young, we didn’t have malls — this pleasure dome where the kids can hang out, meet girls and drink milkshakes. We used to read Archie comics to pass our time,” says Singh.
In 1990, with an investment of `50,000, Singh started his first venture — Just Desserts (a standalone coffee and desserts concept run out of an Irani Café called Parisian on Homi Mody Street, Kalaghoda) — as his way of giving youngsters a space to hang out and have a good time. “See how life comes full circle,” Singh says referring to SodaBottleOpenerWala, his newest brand of modern Irani cafes.
Just Desserts had a successful run for a few years before he decided to set up something bigger. Olive Bar and Kitchen was born in 2000. This relaxed Mediterranean restaurant was a first for the city where most diners were still obsessed with continental fare — often a mishmash of various global cuisines.
In the early ’90s, Singh used to write a weekly food column for a daily. “It was called Metropolis on Saturday. On most weeks, there were no new places for me to review. So I would go to old favourites or dig out hidden gems,” he says. However, food writers these days rarely have such lean periods. Invites for opening parties drop in our inboxes almost every week; there’s something happening in the city all the time. Singh attests to the fact that Mumbai’s dining out space has “changed beyond imagination”. From new concepts to international trends — there’s something for everyone. And over the years, Singh has developed a knack for spotting trends and introduced many firsts to the city — a floating bar in the form of Suzie Wong, a bowling alley, a Latin bar called Copa Cabanna.
Since his Just Dessert days, Singh has opened over 15 restaurants across seven cities and now plans to take SodaBottleOpenerWala and Monkey Bar overseas. “Our teams have been to London, Dubai and Singapore, and we’re looking at exploring opportunities in these three cities first,” he says. At a time when celebrated Indian chefs like Gaggan Anand, Atul Kochhar and Floyd Cardoz are looking homeward, it seems Singh wants to cash in on the renewed interest in Indian food globally.
He also pioneered a distinct standalone restaurant culture in the city. What does he attribute this foresight to? “When India was just opening up, we were all hungry for western experiences. There was a need for such spaces. I am a guy of ideas and there was a virgin market ready for us,” he says.
Singh, along with peers like Ritu Dalmia and Rahul Akerkar, revolutionised the way Mumbai ate out. People started looking beyond five star hotels for international experiences, which further spurred the restaurant segment. However, this road did pose a few roadblocks. “I made the same mistakes that a lot of people do. The first thing I learnt was to never spend too much in the beginning. The customer doesn’t care much about whether the marble used in the décor is of good quality,” he says. According to Singh, the customer will always be more interested in the food and the concept than the frills.
Despite the prohibitive nature of the industry (read licences, archaic laws and expensive real estate), Singh encourages younger entrepreneurs to take the plunge. For instance, he created a separate arm under the Olive Group with Chef Manu Chandra and Chetan Rampal to introduce brands like Monkey Bar and The Fatty Bao.
Despite seeing the good and the bad of running restaurants, Singh largely remains optimistic. So, where does he see Mumbai’s culinary scene in the next 25 years? “Hopefully, people who are in power by then are from a generation that’s much more connected. Their point of view will be different,” he says.
People to watch out for: “Chef Alex Sanchez at The Table, and Zorawar Kalra. I think Zorawar has a strong vision and I am a fan of his work. Then, my former partner Henry Tham’s sons Ryan and Keenan. That’s a group that will go far.”
Favourite restaurants: “I like The Bombay Canteen and The Table.”
Favourite Café: “Kala Ghoda Café. I love the vibe. Me and my family often go there on Sundays for lunch.”
Favourite Bar: “I rarely go out drinking. I spend a lot of time at the Breach Candy club bar. I think Riyaaz Amlani has done a fantastic job with Social, though it’s a bit young for me.”
Favourite Irani Café: “I think, over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time at Leopold’s. However, the cuisine is not really Irani anymore.”