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Birth of the Indian Foodie

If there’s one, defining lifestyle change in urban India this last decade, it’s the birth of the Indian foodie: someone who spends a sizeable portion of his income to satisfy a newly developed, but highly adventurous palate. Of late, novelty has become the most important flavour. In a decade of almost 8 per cent annual economic growth with India’s young professionals confidently splurging on having fun, there’s been an explosion in the number of stand-alone, fine dining restaurants in Mumbai, Goa, Delhi and Bangalore where a meal for two usually costs upwards of Rs 5000 with taxes. Food is huge business. In Delhi and NCR itself over a hundred restaurants opened in 2008, serving cuisines from far-flung areas of the world – Brazil, Mexico and Chile among them. But is the big-city consumer as willing to embark on expensive gastronomic adventures in tough economic times?

Since liberalisation, a daring new breed of Indian restaurateurs has come up, who have successfully kept pace with global trends in cuisine and fine dining. Innovations at every level of eating out have been interesting: the small plate concept, for example, where you sample smaller portions of a variety of different cuisines was a hit in Delhi. Several food courts in malls started loyalty cards. A bar in Gurgaon copied the Thailand model: of marking your bottle of whisky which you can come back and claim anytime. Sushi has become a household word. Happy Hours (half rate) ensured a crowd even at 4 in the afternoon. Till recently, the wackier the place, the snootier the restaurant, the better. It seemed like everything worked: eateries where the venue was shaped like a ship or a lounge bar, where you had to recline on a white bed and gaze at an aquarium with only white fish did just fine, despite their lousy food. There was enough business to go around, and a merry sentiment that convinced new entrepreneurs to enter this highly volatile business. Not anymore.

Gimmicks and contrived menus no longer fool the jaded consumer who’s well travelled and on a diet of Nigella Lawson and Jamie Olivier anyway. These days the chances are when you ask someone where they had their last best meal, they’re likely to recall a restaurant which combined fine dining with value for money. Since 2004, the 200 per cent growth rate of restaurants has been nothing short of phenomenal, but in the coming year, it certainly looks like the party’s close to over. A cursory visit to a well-located mall on a Saturday night at 8, that houses two of Delhi’s most exclusive restaurants serving European and Japanese food, revealed open tables and empty seats. At one of them, the hostess and other staff, impeccably attired in black, have always maintained an expression of cold aloofness with guests in an attempt to highlight how coveted reservations at their place are. They now greet the rare client with a beaming smile. Given absurd rents, high overheads and diners who haven’t been stepping out because of terrorist attacks and financial issues, most stand-alone restaurants cannot survive this economic slump – unless they slash rates and give in to the worst scenario in the restaurant trade: private parties. And alas, with corporates’ cutting back, and walk-in customers drying up, more and more places where you couldn’t get a table on a Thursday night six months ago, are turning into banqueting halls even at weekends.

Even in good times, fine dining restaurants have a high failure rate and a honeymoon period that lasts, if you’re lucky, six months. Like the movie business, diners remain wholly unimpressed by names (that explains the disaster that is Tendulkar’s in Mumbai) and why Bukhara remains the leading Indian restaurant, focused as it is solely on food almost to the exclusion of everything else. Sporting events like the IPL and the World Cup help during lean months, but unlike restaurants in hotels, which work on a combination of in-house guests and outsiders, restaurateurs are entirely dependant on word-of-mouth recommendations. They also need to spend a lot on publicity to stay in the limelight and draw in the clients. Hotels, also hit by the slowdown, still have high occupancy thanks to an alarmingly low number of branded rooms available that ultimately translates into business for their cafes. A lot of the restaurants that fold up in 2009 won’t be missed. The ones that added to India’s gourmet map, making Delhi and Mumbai truly international hubs, those with jazz singers from Cuba and the best DJs from England, will.

January 6, 2009 - Posted by | news | , , , ,

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