The Dining Metamorphosis
Well-respected journalist and food writer Vir Sanghvi takes you through the journey of food and dining in India through the past 15 years. He does better and leaves you with a prediction for the next 15 to come
I won’t waste your time by telling you that the food scene has changed beyond recognition in the 15 years since Upper Crust first came out.
You know that already.
So what I will tell you is what the changes are. And why they happened.
The Experts Were Wrong
Fifteen years ago, hotel companies were the only ones who could afford market research. So they spent lakhs of rupees on research to ascertain consumer preferences.
The results all said roughly the same things. Indians had boring palates. They wanted food that was like Indian food. So red-sauce cuisines would do well: Chinese, Mexican and Thai which, they said, was like Indian or at best a cross between Chinese and Indian.
So the chains spent lots of money following those recommendations. The Taj opened a Mexican restaurant at Bombay’s President. The Oberois opened another one at roughly the same time at the Bombay Oberoi Towers (now The Trident) at Nariman Point.
Big bucks were spent on Thai. The Oberois opened a series of Baan Thais all over the country. The Taj opened Thai Pavilion. And so on.
Fifteen years later, guess what? Mexican never took off. All the places closed. Thai never became the success that had been predicted. The Oberois closed some Baan Thais. The Intercontinental in Delhi (now The Lalit) closed its fancy Blue Elephant. And only the Thai Pavilion, which cost the least in terms of investment, has succeeded.
The Experts Were Even More Wrong!
If there was one thing that market researchers and hoteliers were agreed on, it was that Japanese food would not work in India, Indians would find it too bland. And as for sushi and sashimi? No Indian would touch raw fish.
Guess what? That is the fastest growing segment in the Oriental food sector!
The Experts Continued to Get it Wrong!
Would 5-star hotels lead in the development of cuisines in India? Oh absolutely. First of all, only they had the money. Secondly, there was the real estate problem. Where would anybody open a new restaurant? There just was no space.
This time, there were two fundamental miscalculations. First, the experts forget that venture capitalists and private equity would get involved. So many of the big restaurant
openings in India have been backed by global equity funds with deep pockets. Plus, local industrial biggies (such as the Aditya Birla Group which has a stake in Olive) also want to invest in the restaurant sector.
The second miscalculation was that the experts did not factor in the redevelopment of mill land in Bombay and the growth of malls in such cities as Delhi and Calcutta. As new real estate options became available, new restaurants emerged to set up shop on the new land.
Multi-Cuisine as the Future
If you look through the menus of many of the most popular restaurants in Bombay, Calcutta or Delhi, you will be surprised to note that the clock has been turned back. 15 years ago we predicted that the era of Kwality and Gaylord, where you could get a tandoori chicken as easily as you could order Chicken Kiev, was over. The future was in speciality restaurants, we said.
Well, perhaps the era of Kwality is over. But a surprisingly large percentage of the new restaurants that are opening in such restaurant hubs as Delhi Hauz Khas or in the malls are proudly multi-cuisine.
They will put a sausage on the menu right next to a kebab, a pizza next to fried rice and will think nothing of the juxtapositions.
I’ve been working on a restaurant reservation website (eazydiner.com, since you asked) and the one thing we have noticed is that we have to categorise something like two thirds of all new openings as ‘Casual-eclectic’ which is a fancy way of saying multi-cuisine.
The New Breed
Many of the changes in the restaurant scene have come about because of a few ambitious and persistent individuals. In Bombay it is people like Riyaaz Amlani and Rahul Akerkar. A D Singh is now a pan-Indian phenomenon. Jai Singh has rewritten many of the rules with Shiro, California Pizza Kitchen (CPK) and other places. Rohit Aggarwal and Amit Burman are well on their way to becoming kings of the Delhi restaurant scene.
Plus there are chefs and food-oriented restaurateurs like Zorawar Kalra, Ritu Dalmia and the great Rohit Khattar.
15 years ago, these people were hardly heard of. Now they determine the future of India’s food scene.
I am not optimistic about the future of food in 5-star hotels. There are some chefs like Ananda Solomon who stand up for quality but if I had to count the 5-star restaurants I enjoy going to in Delhi, the list would be tiny: the restaurants at The Leela perhaps; the always excellent China Kitchen at the Hyatt Regency, the Maurya’s two Indian places (Bukhara and Dum Pukht) and now Tian, that hotel’s sparkling new modern Oriental outlet. I love the Orient Express for old times sake but you have to keep in mind that it opened in 1983.
There is so much energy in the non-hotel sector that there really is no reason to eat at hotels any longer. In Bombay, the only hotel restaurant in South Bombay that I go to regularly (apart from Ananda Solomon’s places) is the Sea Lounge, which opened in the 60s. And in North Bombay, the Marriott is the only foodie hotel, and I like Pan Asian when Chef Liang is cooking. And that’s about it.
That’s not a very large list is it? There are now so many hotels. And nowhere you really want to go to!
If we were looking at the food scene 15 years from now, what would I predict?
Well, experts are usually wrong. But fortunately I’m not an expert. So my parallel is today’s Singapore. That’s where, I think, we are heading!