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Rude Food: More Than Just Coffee

A hotel coffee shop will work only if it is given an identity and if the food is accorded the attention that the cuisine at specialty restaurants receives. If you were to ask me what India’s contribution to food and beverage, Vir Sanghvi writes.

brunch Updated: Dec 22, 2012 18:28 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

If you were to ask me what India’s contribution to food and beverage concepts at international hotels is, I would pick something that would probably surprise you. I’d choose the hotel coffee shop.

Yes, I know the coffee shop is a global phenomenon, the mainstay of modern American hotels from the days that Conrad Hilton first created the chain that bears his name. But the traditional hotel coffee shop differed from the avatar that we are familiar with in India.

At most American chain hotels, the coffee shop is a casual restaurant that serves sandwiches and a few easy-to-make main courses (steak, fried fish etc.) plus basic desserts (and lots of ice cream type things). Service is quick, opening hours are long and the prices are about half to one-third of the rates at the specialty outlets.

The American coffee shop was designed to cater exclusively to hotel guests. There was no suggestion that it might appeal to non-residents who would visit it for the quality of the food or the ambience. And eventually, as the hotels got larger, many coffee shops became buffet operations, designed for guests who wanted a quick meal.

In India, however, the story was quite different. When India’s first modern five star hotel, the Oberoi Intercontinental (the building that is now The Oberoi) opened in Delhi in 1965, it had two coffee shops. The one downstairs, by the pool (where the spa now is) was pretty much your average Intercontinental style coffee shop.

A Perfect Hunt: When the Taj Mansingh opened in Delhi in 1978, it introduced a hunting theme for Machan, made the menu innovative and kept prices low

But the smaller one upstairs (roughly where Travertino now is) became a legend in Delhi because, even though it was just a narrow corridor, it had a real sense of place and a soul.

In those days, there were few quality restaurants in India, so nearly everyone gravitated towards Café Expresso, as it was called. It quickly became the hub of south Delhi, appealing mainly to non-residents rather than hotel guests (who went and ate their club sandwiches at the coffee shop downstairs).

In many ways, Café Expresso’s popularity was exceeded by its influence. A whole generation of Indian hoteliers still has fond memories of the place and you can sense its impact in such wonderful new restaurants as Café Mercara at the magnificent ITC Grand Chola in Chennai. (I’m guessing that some of the spirit of Café Mercara came from Gautam Anand’s memories of evenings spent at Cafe Expresso during his St Stephen’s days).

The real breakthrough for Indian coffee shops came, however, in 1972 when the Taj opened Shamiana in Bombay. The new Taj tower (called the Intercontinental then) was designed by Dale Keller who designed all the influential Indian hotels of the 1970s. designed a standard Intercontinental-style coffee shop with umbrellas on the roof and called it Canopy. The Taj team (in those days Ajit Kerkar and Camellia Panjabi) finessed that concept to use Gujarati wall hangings instead (a no-no for coffee shops in those days because they were all supposed to be bland and ‘international’ and not look Indian) and changed the name to Shamiana. Then they threw out the standard coffee shop food concept and put things like pav bhaji and Goa fish curry on the menu.

The Shamiana was an instant success and fast became the trendiest restaurant in Bombay with large queues for tables every night. Pleased with its success, the Taj repeated the experiment at Taj Mansingh in Delhi, which opened in 1978. This time, they chose a hunting theme for Machan, made the menu different and innovative, kept prices low and transformed the restaurant experience in Delhi.

Soon, this became an essential part of the Taj’s appeal. No matter how fancy the hotels were or how expensive the specialty restaurants could be, there would always be a bright and imaginative coffee shop with excellent food at lower prices which allowed locals to feel part of the experience without having to pay through their noses.

Many would argue that the Taj’s greatest success was a third coffee shop, Trattoria, which opened in the early 1980s. By then, Kerkar and Panjabi had decided that perhaps multi-cuisine coffee shops were on their way out. So they turned the old bland coffee shop at the President, which the Taj took over after it had already been in operation for some years, into a specialty Italian restaurant. But they went for a casual dining approach: small tables, checked table cloths and Irani restaurant chairs.

The Taj believed that Italian food was the future (they were right but were perhaps ahead of their time) and had spent lakhs on Delhi’s formal Casa Medici, sending chefs to Italy and creating supply chains. So it was easy enough to open Trattoria a few years later though this time they chose to go the casual route, eschewing Casa Medici’s formal pretensions.

I was reminded of the early days of hotel coffee shops in India by the success of the new Trattoria which was relaunched mid-November. The original Trattoria had remained true to its brief, refusing to serve any Indian food at all (unusual for a coffee shop in the 1980s) and even a disastrous make-over in 2000 (by the same designers who destroyed so many other Taj spaces in Bombay and Delhi) could not dent its appeal.

The new Trattoria is the only restaurant at the President to be designed by an Indian (Krishna Dakshinkar of K Studio) and despite competing with glitzy places like The Thai Pavilion and Wink (both designed by Super Potato), it more than holds its own. Half the guests still order the legendary pizzas though Ananda Solomon has updated the Italian menu with some interesting regional dishes.

I went to Trattoria when I was young so it is only appropriate that my son’s friends, who are all in their early 20s, like it so much too. (Though they say that it is a popular after-clubbing destination – not a concept I understand!) My son compares the new Trattoria to Delhi’s Threesixty° in its clientele: just as Threesixty° is the living room of South Delhi, so Trattoria is the drawing room of South Bombay.

Ah Threesixty°! Just as the Shamiana launched one generation of coffee shops, I think Threesixty° has been the pioneer of a new generation. While many hotel chains have lost the plot when it comes to coffee shops, the Oberois are ahead of the game.

The Shamiana generation of hotel
coffee shops existed in an era when there were few good stand alone restaurants. But these days, there is no shortage of places to eat. And so, many hotel coffee shops seem bland and overpriced compared to the stand alone options. Why would I go to the Shamiana if I could go to The Table or to Indigo Deli? Why would I bother with Machan when Khan Market is packed with restaurants?

Most hotel chains still have not understood this. The Taj has submerged both Machan and Shamiana in blandness, in terms of decor and menu. Delhi’s Kafe Fontana is a waste of space. The Café at the Hyatt (Delhi) already looks dated. With the exception of the Grand Chola, all of ITC’s Pavilion Coffee shops seem boring.

Oh yes, they will survive on custom from hotel guests. But fewer and fewer people from outside will bother to eat there. This is quite clear from the experience in Bombay and Delhi. And soon enough other cities will catch up.

The Oberois were the first ones to see the light. They experimented with specialty coffee shops along the lines of French brasseries and when that did not work, opened wonderful top-of-the-line places like Threesixty° and Threesixtyone° (in Gurgaon).

Can it be a coincidence that these are the only hotel coffee shops that people still mention when they talk about going for a casual meal somewhere? Otherwise hotel coffee shops are default options rather than destinations.

So my guess is that the era of the Shamiana-Machan type of coffee shop, glorious and special as it was, is now over. Hotels will always need all-day dining places for their resident guests. But if they want to attract customers from outside then they will have to up their game.

That’s why I’m so pleased by the success of the relaunched Trattoria. It proves that if a hotel coffee shop is given an identity and if the food is accorded the attention that the cuisine at specialty restaurants receives, then it will be a hit. But if a hotel runs a bland, international-style coffee shop, then it will never go much further than all-purpose buffets for conventioneers and in-house guests.

India has changed. There are lots of great restaurants out there. And hoteliers are the only people who don’t seem to have noticed.

From HT Brunch, December 23

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