Bars that brought Connaught Place back to nightlife face closure
It was a dream come true for Ashish Ahuja, when in 2014, he opened Pebble Street, a restro-bar, in Connaught Place. But last month, he shut down the outlet, famed for its European ambience, roasted lamb leg, and Long Island Iced Tea.
“With high rents and the current restrictions on operations due to the Covid pandemic, it became unsustainable to run the establishment; besides, I did not see things improving in the next few months. We were left with no choice,” says Ahuja who owns another outlet with a similar name in New Friends Colony.
About a dozen restaurant, bars and cafes, have exited Connaught Place and industry sources say 50 others are on the verge of shut down because of high rents, new guidelines of reduced operating hours and ban on serving alcohol.
Kuldeep Singh Chauhan, a real estate agent in Connaught Place, who works with restaurant owners, say negotiations between the landlord and the businessmen, who want to rent to be waived off and shift to revenue-sharing model, have reached a dead end. “As many as 20 restro-bar owners have already conveyed to their landlords that they are shutting. They have approached me to help them in finding buyers for their set-up such as kitchen and furniture,” says Chauhan.
“A majority of landlords have served legal notices for failing to pay rent for the past three months. Restaurants are paying anything between ₹6 lakh to ₹20 lakh a month in CP depending on the size of the property,” says Dinesh Arora, president, Delhi Restaurants & Clubs Association, who also owns Unplugged Courtyard, a popular restro-bar in Connaught Place. “Half of the restro-bars in CP will shut in the next couple of months.”
Raising the Bar
Many believe so many restro-bars going bust is bad news for Connaught Place, which has undergone a great revival in the past few years. Inaugurated in the 1930s, CP had fallen out of favour with Delhiites by the late 1990s, what with the chaos caused by Metro construction. By 2004, Connaught Place had become a decrepit place, its walls pan-stained, its shops deserted and beggars roaming in its worn- out corridors.
Things began to look up after the Metro started operations in 2005, and by 2016, Connaught Place was once again the city’s centre of gravity. Many believe that its brand new chic cafes, restaurants, and bars played a key role in reviving CP and transforming Delhi’s image from a staid capital city to one with a happening nightlife.
While CP’s iconic legacy restaurants such as United Coffee House and Embassy were going strong as ever, the arrival of QBA in 2003, marked a major milestone in CP’s journey to become a major food and beverage hub, a decade later.
“Those were the days when people were beginning to eat out, and we felt there was a space in CP for a new contemporary, multi-cuisine restro-bar that appealed to the young. We hired an architect from Thailand and a chef from Australia,” says Aditya Jain, who started QBA. “It was an instant hit, attracting a lot of young upwardly customers, a lot of them from east and west Delhi,” adds Jain, whose extended family owns Jainson and Greenways, two of the oldest establishments in CP. Jain is luckier than others as he owns the property and says he will reopen QBA as soon on as it is safe to do so.
New cafes, restaurants and bars kept coming up after QBA, mostly in the outer circle , but the real restaurant boom in CP began in 2014, after its renovation was completed. Over 100 new restaurants, bars and cafes came up by 2017—mostly on the first and second floors that had been lying empty for many years. “One of the reasons why CP became such a hot destination for food and beverage ventures was that it provided a lot of scope for outdoor dining, with its terraces providing beautiful views. Authorities should allow outdoor dining, which is now key to enhancing capacity while ensuring social distancing,” says Priyank Sukhija, who owns seven restro-bars in Connaught Place, including Lord of the Drinks, Warehouse Café, Open House Café, all of which have remained shut since March. He opened five restro-bars between 2013 and 2017 in CP.
Al fresco dining in Connaught Place was banned in 2017 , with the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) cracking down on restaurants, bars and cafés for using terraces in the wake of a building collapse in 2017.
Sukhija says he employed 500 people in CP outlets. “Closure of the restro-bars in CP will not only rob the city of its nightlife, but also thousands of jobs.
The crowd- pullers
Restaurants in CP, Arora says, provides jobs to over 8,000 people and contribute to the footfall, giving a boost to retail. “On an average, 250 people visited my restaurant on weekdays and around 350 on weekends. So, my restaurant alone brought 10,000 people to CP every month. You can imagine the number of footfall all the 150 restaurants were contributing, ” he adds.
Retailers agree. “ A lot of my customers before Covid-19 were indeed those who came to the restaurants here, which have played an important role in re-energising CP,” says Satish Sundra, who runs the city’s oldest toyshop in CP. He says CP’s story has once again taken a sad turn. “Covid-19 has killed business here like never before. In the 1960s, there was a slump in business in CP because many neighbourhood markets such as Khan Market and GK came up; and then in the early 2000s, but things were never as bad as they are now.”
Atul Bhargav, president of NDTA ( New Delhi Traders Association), which represents traders of Connaught Place echoes his views, “Restaurant owners and shopkeepers have had a symbiotic relationship in CP,” says Bhargav. Currently, he is busy facilitating the shoot of a short promotional movie that will showcase what CP traders are doing to make shopping a safe experience in the colonial shopping arcade.
Experts feel that the cororonavirus pandemic is going to bring about a ‘churn’ in CP. “ Many of the fashion stores will move out; and CP would see food & beverage ventures in a new format such as high-end liquor stores. Besides, there could be many electronic stores, a segment which is currently doing very well. A high-street like CP will recover soon as it is possible to control the store environment there,” says Anuj Puri, chairman, Anarock, a retail and real estate services company.
The third space
Many feel restaurants, bars and cafes in CP play an important role in the city’s business, social, intellectual and artistic life. “Besides, many people are emotionally attached to restaurants and cafes , where they make business deals and celebrate events of life such as birthdays and marriage anniversaries,” says Archana Singh, who runs TravelSeeWrite, a popular travel blog.
“I mostly write my blogs in Khan Market and CP restaurants. These places are not just about food and drink, they also fulfill a human need for connection in a big city like Delhi. Their closure will diminish the experience of both CP and the city.”
But Prof Vivek Kumar, who teaches sociology at JNU, has a different take. “ If anything, these new restro-bars in CP are merely an important marker of Delhi’s economic progress and its embrace of western modernity, nothing more, nothing less,” he says.
Ashish Ahuja of Pebble Street sounds a warning. “Everyone, the landlords and the authorities, need to understand that it is restro-bars, and not retail that revived CP, and without them CP will once again lose its mojo.”