The past and present of this burgeoning restaurant segment.
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Contemporary cuisine inspired by local produce to impress Anthony Bourdain? Check. Cooking workshops conducted by the heroes of Chef’s Table? Check. A globe-trotting chef who wows his Instagram followers with his foraging skills and farming know-how? Check. A bill upwards INR 2000? Check, check, check.

Premium dining spaces have cracked this formula to woo millennials who seek new experiences in a casual and fun environment. Such restaurants are also breaking geographical boundaries; what else would explain the popularity of the south Indian restaurant Gun Powder in Goa and Delhi, instead of the usual suspects such as Hyderabad or Bengaluru. Or an Ethiopian restaurant in Chennai!

From the past to the present, now serving India’s premium dining culture, hot off the tava:

The Timeline

Agreed, we are a country that loves Ma ke haath ka khana,but the dining-out culture ­­­has existed in India for centuries. There were khansamas and cooks who would set up a meal or a stall in harems for their beloved emperor and his entourage in the Mughal era, says food writer Anoothi Vishal, teasing us to imagine tender and aromatic kebabs served on silver plates in a room adorned with exquisite Persian carpets and crystal chandeliers, much like a present-day premium five star restaurant. The lanes of Old Delhi were lined by Kebabis and sherbet sellers for the weary traveler, some of their descendants can still be found occupying those same spots.

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As urban centres evolved in British India, places like Leopold opened its doors in Mumbai in 1871, and Kolkata’s India Coffee House, established in 1936, became a meeting place for addas (discussions) for freedom fighters and revolutionaries. In twentieth century India that was heavily influenced by the lifestyle of the British, five stars were established to host British royalty and political and business elites from India and afar. “The high snob factor of five-star dining was reserved for the privileged and they thrived in commercial and political hubs such as Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi. In the early 2000s, chic and casual restaurants led by Diva in Delhi, Olive and Indigo in Mumbai ushered in another era in dining. Their approach was friendlier and the format was premium stand-alone lifestyle restaurants,” says Anoothi.

Indian Accent reimagined Indian cuisine. Riyaz Amlani’s Social set a new benchmark for nightlife hotspots, standardising the experience across cities and Zorawar Kalra’s Masala Library made Indian cuisine chic, contributing significantly to the paradigm shift of high-end dining spaces. From cafes to delis and bistros, the concepts got quirkier and the cuisine more and more interesting.

Expat chef-led restaurants became a thing in the noughties. Olive Mumbai’s Italian Chef Max loved to mingle with his customers, Le Plage, located in the picturesque beach of Ashwem in Goa and known for its conscious use of local produce, was helmed by three European restauranteurs. Adds food writer Antoine Lewis, “In Delhi, expats helm popular restaurants like Gung and Artusi. Taj Hospitality’s foray into Italian food began with Prego at Taj Coromandel in Chennai in 2007. They flew in an Italian chef to stay true to provenance.”

Not to be left behind, Indian chefs like Vikas Khanna, Gaggan Anand and Atul Kochhar were making news abroad. Then there were those who brought their skills to the homeland. Manu Chandra and Prateek Sandhu, who belong to the crop of globally trained Indian chefs, offered a sophisticated, interactive dining experience.

From metros to megacities, the great Indian diner was hungry for more.

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So, what’s the city story

Each city spins a food story in a nuanced manner, although the context remains the same. Sometime last year, Mumbai’s food lovers lined up for the opening of Toast & Tonic in the commercial hub of Bandra-Kurla complex. Those who had eagerly waited for the most coveted items at their Bengaluru outpost, looked forward to some of the signature dishes. As the house-special gin and tonics were lifting our spirits, the bamboo shoot-infused dishes were conspicuously missing.

Chef Manu Chandra was welcoming guests while keeping a watchful eye on each table, and he told us, “We did our research and discovered that bamboo shoot is not as popular among diners here, although I absolutely love it.” Elaborating on the craft of tweaking menus to suit a city’s palate, Antoine says, “There is a striking difference in how the culinary culture of each city influences its restaurants. You can have an Italian restaurant of the same brand in various cities, but the menu will not be identical for each. In that sense, you can’t just lift one thing and take it across places. Chefs have got to create, within that specific cuisine, a different approach by fine tuning recipes, ingredients and plating. Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru have experienced a much longer gestation period for a more expanded restaurant culture.”

Anoothi highlights the ‘reverse trend’ which implies the shift from bottom to top. “In the last two years, the reverse trend has gained speed. Mega metros are over saturated with soaring rentals and infrastructure costs, as a result, some of the most exciting things in premium dining is now happening in the “smaller cities” because they are culturally more open, such as Hyderabad and Chandigarh. Hyderabad has a thriving café culture with artisanal options. There is also a slow migration of chefs and restauranteurs from cities to smaller towns. For instance, Satish Warrier who is credited to have started the Hauz Khas revolution in Delhi with Gun Powder, has now shut shop in the capital and moved his restaurant to Goa. Pastry Chef Nitin Upadhyay, who was associated with the Marriott in Delhi, has opened an exclusive pastry shop in Jaipur called Fat Guyy. It is exciting to be in a city like Jaipur because of the diverse crowds and tourists.”

Cities with large student and corporate population are ripe with opportunities for ‘friendly and premium’ restaurant formats. Couple of years ago, it was Bengaluru, and now Pune that’s hungry for more. The city already has several microbreweries and now the Impressario group is all set to launch 8-12 outlets of its brand Social to target the age group of 21 to 35-year-olds, according to NRAI.

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Down south, Chennai has sprung a few surprises with rare cuisines and experimental menu. Abyssinian – is India’s only restaurant serving Ethiopian food. It also houses the chic premium Russian eatery, The White Palace with a menu that heavily tilts towards meats, breaking the stereotype of a largely vegetarian Chennai. Both these restaurants have a loyal cliental and are highly rated.

Antoine agrees that Chennai is a home ground for experimentation and new ideas - “Take Ottimo at the ITC. They did something completely new by sticking to traditional Italian fare that refused to pander to what was deemed as the norm among Chennaites. After a successful launch in the supposedly conservative city, ITC took the brand to Bengaluru. It may probably come to Mumbai, but the trend was set off in Chennai.”

Social media is strengthening the case for premium dining experiences – fun, friendly and interactive. Their chefs have swiftly taken to social media platforms to not only increase following, but also engage, educate and aspire.

Diners are hungrier for hidden gems and hyper local dishes that premium dining offers, as they appreciate not just good food, but also the vast bio-diversity and stories served in a thaali.

Image courtesy: Shutterstock
Image Concept: Vartika Pahuja

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