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The Taste With Vir Sanghvi: Is good food at a restaurant defined by the nationality of its clientele?

In this week’s column of The Taste With Vir, Vir Sanghvi says that the world is now so global that there is room for restaurants that cater mainly to foreigners. And then, in each city, there will be the local places which, even if they are chains, will focus on domestic guests. However, as long as the food is good, do you really care what the nationality of the clientele is?

more lifestyle Updated: Feb 20, 2019 12:10 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times, Delhi
Vir Sanghvi,Vir Sanghvi writes,food writing
The Taste With Vir Sanghvi: Is good food at a restaurant defined by the nationality of its clientele? (Unsplash)

Earlier this week I had lunch with restaurateur Priyank Sukhija at Lazeez Affaire in Delhi’s Chanakyapuri. Priyank is the city’s top restaurateur and owns such brands as Lord of the Drinks, Tamasha, Flying Saucer Cafe and Plum By Bent Chair (“India’s most Instagrammable Restaurant”). Lazeez Affaire is one of his earliest successes and retains a special place in his heart.

It is, to be frank, the sort of place I had always heard of but had never been to. So I was surprised to find a large 3-storey restaurant that was packed to capacity (for Monday lunch!) and had people waiting on the street outside for tables.

What was most surprising was the nature of the clientele. On the ground floor where we sat, every single table was occupied by foreigners. Most were in large groups and many seemed to speak no English. The vast majority, it seemed, were members of groups and had been bussed there by guides and travels agents, eager to give them a taste of good North Indian food.

I asked Priyank how he secured this clientele. He said that when the restaurant had just opened, he went to travel companies and hotels and told them about Lazeez Affaire. Most sent one or two groups as an experiment. When the guests returned saying they liked the food, the travel operators put it on their itineraries. On every group tour-schedule, there is usually a slot reserved for an “authentic Indian meal.” Priyank ensured that this meant “lunch at Lazeez Affaire.”

Rarely, said Priyank, are foreign guests disappointed because the food manages the difficult task of appealing to both local and non-Indian palates. At lunch, we had galouti kababs, which had gentle spicing followed by an excellent black dal, butter chicken and saag meat. Remarkably, none of the dishes had the oiliness that I normally associate with Punjabi restaurant food and all were spiced moderately so that nobody left with that burning-in-the-stomach sensation that butter chicken meals often leave you with.

At dinner too, said Priyank, foreign groups dominated the restaurant between 7 to 9 pm. It was only after 9 pm that local lovers of butter chicken began to throng the restaurant.

All this makes Lazeez Affaire one of Delhi’s most profitable restaurants and Priyank says he does not need to spend a penny on advertising or PR now. He does not even need to keep lobbying the travel agents. The restaurant is so firmly established on the tourist/foreign traveller trail that people who have never heard of say, Moti Mahal, regard it as the best place to eat North Indian food in Delhi. Though Lazeez Affaire is not cheap, it is less than a third of the price of Delhi’s most famous North Indian restaurant, Bukhara.

The more I thought about Lazeez Affaire’s success, the more sense it made to me. All over the world, there are restaurants that visitors love but which are relatively less popular with locals. Every foreigner who comes to Mumbai wants to go to Trishna. The restaurant’s Crab in Butter, Garlic, Pepper and Whatever Else Sauce is world famous and is often regarded as an iconic dish of Indian cuisine. (Actually, it is unknown in the coastal regions whose food Trishna claims to serve. I think it began life on the Chinese section of the Trishna menu.)

Concierges at Mumbai’s hotels tell me that the most requested reservation is Trishna. And if Trishna has a room available on any given night, it is the one restaurant that concierges will try and push.

Sometimes, such places as Trishna which are packed out with tourists put off locals. In Mumbai, for instance, even though Trishna’s Chinese-Malvani crab is as good as anybody else’s, local foodies will recommend Gajalee or Mahesh Lunch Home instead and harshly describe Trishna as a Tourist Trap.

Over the years there have been similar attempts to put down Bukhara. Annoyed by the prices and the long waits for tables, Delhi locals routinely try and find alternatives to Bukhara. “It’s just hype,” they say. “Go to __. It is much better.”

I say “__” rather than any one alternative because many rivals to Bukhara have come and gone (Frontier, Baluchi, Kandahar, etc.). None of the rivals was bad (and some are still around) but none of them managed to sustain their quality, the way that Bukhara does, year after year. It is still the one restaurant in Delhi where both locals and foreigners will have to wait for a table at dinner (when it doesn’t take reservations).

Just because tourists like a restaurant, it doesn’t follow that it is necessarily bad though too many famous names in the business coast along on their reputations long after quality has dipped and locals have moved on. Moreover, today’s reality is that most of the world’s great restaurants are full of global foodies. At Osteria Francescana, rated the world’s top restaurant this year, something like three-quarters of the guests are foodies from abroad. At El Celler de Can Roca, Girona, Spain (number two this year), two-thirds of the dining room was occupied by foreign visitors the day I went.

Canny restaurateurs have recognised that the ‘foreign visitor segment’ can be immensely profitable. A large part of central London (the super-expensive Mayfair area) turns into a Brit-free zone once the offices close and an entire industry has grown up around foreign visitors and rich expats who are keen to pay fortunes to eat out.

I imagine that the trend began with Hakkasan, which opened in 2001 in an unglamorous (a former car park) but relatively central location. The restaurant tried to do for Chinese food what Nobu had done for Japanese and it was an instant hit. Within a year though, over half the guests were non-Brits (many of them were rich Indians) and I imagine that the proportion of foreigners has greatly increased over the years.

Within that decade after Hakkasan opened, a whole Mayfair ‘scene’ quickly developed around rich foreigners. Such places as Novikov (favoured by Russian oligarchs) helped kick-start the trend but now the area is full of places that are packed out even though few locals ever go there: Park Chinois, for instance, is Foreigner Central. Hakkasan opened in Mayfair (a new branch) in 2015 and Nobu opened a Bond Street branch which is more foreigner-friendly. Richard Caring, the former rag trade mogul who bought Caprice Holdings (The Ivy, Le Caprice, J Sheekey, Scott’s etc.), which is a collection of restaurants favoured by Brits, has now taken a chunk of the foreigner market by opening the glossy Sexy Fish. Wolfgang Puck has opened Cut (so-called, perhaps because all the locals have been cut out of the place) on Park Lane. And most of London’s expensive Indian restaurants are located within this square mile (Tamarind, Banaras, Indian Accent, Gymkhana, Matsya, Jamavar, etc.)

And yet, even within this area, you will find restaurants with only a tiny proportion of foreigners. There will not be more than 10 to 15 per cent of tourists in the dining room at the Wolseley (London’s most difficult reservation), for instance.

It is almost as though London has neatly divided itself into two. If you are invited to dinner by somebody who says you are going to ‘London’s best Chinese restaurant,’ then this will mean Hakkasan or Park Chinois if your host is a foreigner and somewhere like A Wong if he is a Brit.

I don’t imagine that this is a purely London phenomenon; in most great cities of the world, there will be places that are so popular with visitors (Bangkok’s Sky Bar, for example) that it’s nearly impossible to get a table or find room.

And then, in each city, there will be the local places which, even if they are chains, will focus on domestic guests: India’s Farzi Cafe or Mainland China chains, for instance.

I reckon that’s okay. The world is now so global that there is room for restaurants that cater mainly to foreigners, for those aimed at locals and those like Bukhara which are popular with anyone who can afford them.

As long as the food is good, do you really care what the nationality of the clientele is?

To read more on The Taste With Vir, click here

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First Published: Feb 20, 2019 12:10 IST