Something about the food business brings out more than the reasonable amount of groan-worthy puns.(Photo imaging: Parth Garg)
Something about the food business brings out more than the reasonable amount of groan-worthy puns.(Photo imaging: Parth Garg)

Humour: Restaurants and their endless need for cuteness

From artsy menus to twee décor, why do restaurants try so hard?
Hindustan Times | By Rehana Munir
UPDATED ON MAY 25, 2019 11:10 PM IST

A writer friend and I once visited a small Parsi restaurant that had opened in a hidden corner of Bandra. We asked for the inevitable dhansak and irresistible salli boti and an item that was called something like ‘Aunty Katy’s Kachumber’. The description involved a family anecdote, apart from the ingredients. As the lunch was served, we noticed the absence of the salad and asked whether it was on its way. The hostess laughingly replied, “Oh that kachumber? That was just copy.” We continued our meal having learned something important about the universe, but we weren’t exactly sure what.

Mind the pun

It’s everywhere, this endless need for cuteness. Menus with jokes. Menus with artsy allusions. Menus with trivia. Why is it that restaurateurs make it so hard for hungry customers to make their choice with ease? And it’s not just the menus. Who can ever forget the Andheri institution, Pop Tate’s, announcing its foray into the badlands of Sakinaka with the scintillating line, ‘Pop Tate’s are pregnant’, screaming off billboards and pamphlets?

Yes, copywriting in the country is an art as underdeveloped as, say, IPL umpiring. But something about the food business brings out more than the reasonable amount of groan-worthy puns. (A few years ago, an Italian ice cream parlour in Juhu picked the unfortunate name Gelitalia. I wonder if you could ask for your gelato with nuts.)

A basement restaurant in Bandra takes this artsy menu business to its absurd limit. All the items on the menu are modifications of artist names. From the Jackson Pallak to the MF HuFish, the menu takes you on a mock artistic pilgrimage that might put you off art – and food – for a while. It’s all good for a silly laugh, but I for one don’t think of food as a laughing matter, Rembrandt that!

Wabi-sabi décor

If it’s not the menu and publicity, it’s the décor. I was tucking onto my pasta at a book-themed restaurant recently, when I noticed a pretty lamp piercing through a pile of what appeared to be replicas of leather-bound books. When I looked closer, I felt a (sympathetic) stab in my heart. The books were real, not fabricated! In fact, the one on top of the pile was a title I had never heard of before and would have loved to read. (Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two by Allan Bérubé.)

This is where our fascination with overdesigning and tweeness has brought us. I so wish that everyone designing a restaurant, or for that matter, any other space or object, would spend some time exploring wabi-sabi, the ancient Japanese philosophy of finding beauty in imperfection and impermanence. That way, we’d find more fading flowers in cracked vases than pretty lamps stabbing books wherever we go.

An Italian ice cream parlour in Juhu picked the unfortunate name Gelitalia. I wonder if you could ask for your gelato with nuts!

Food without cuteness

There are restaurants and cafés in our gentrified cities that still keep it simple. My pick of the lot is Anand Bhavan in Matunga. In an area dotted with south Indian eateries, Cafe Madras is where you’ll find the milling crowds waiting for a precious table. But cross the road and walk down about a 100 metres and you’ll find Anand Bhavan, right next to the Jain temple. You’ll be assigned a table, independent or shared, by the jovial owner with the walrus moustache, or his Virat Kohli-esque son. The menu is neatly displayed on the blackboard on the wall, with no jokes or florid descriptions. Ah, the wonder!

I highly recommend the special ullundu and tuppa pola – dosas whose unusual (to me) batters are madly fulfilling. Another favourite is the special masala dosa, with a filling that’s low on the aloo and high on freshness from the sautéed onions and tomatoes. Once done, you’re ushered out quickly. You make for the street that smells of freshly ground coffee and secondhand books, crossing the swarm of food delivery guys on your way out. (There should be a collective noun for them. A blessing?) No cuteness. No fuss. No taglines. Just good food with fresh ingredients for real people. It’s incredible how this has become a cause for celebration.

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From HT Brunch, June 26, 2019

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