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The dining scene in Colaba is quietly preparing for a revival


The fading hub of the great South Mumbai lifestyle makes a comeback

Somewhere around the time that the Y2K bug hit us, the midnight bells began tolling the death of South Bombay. Nightclubs and eateries were closing, the city’s population was swelling into newer pockets and a more exciting counter-culture was brewing in the bylanes of Bandra. Offices began moving to the newly gentrified areas of BKC and Lower Parel, and young professionals followed, including the cool kids who went to prestigious ‘town’ schools and believed they spoke, dressed and behaved differently from their suburban counterparts. The southernmost tip of the v-shaped island city began to lose some of its glitter, the foundation of its inherent snobbery wavering, but not crushed.

Not so long ago, Colaba was the nexus of social life in Mumbai, its beating heart the unofficial tourist headquarters. The perfumed lifestyle of the moneyed and upwardly mobile wrapped around the basalt and concrete cake-like Taj Mahal Palace and Tower like a fur scarf. It slithered out into lobster risotto luncheons at Indigo or rogan josh and wine at Khyber, evenings at the glamorous Henry Thams and shimmering nights of grooving to Blondie and KRS-One in lively clubs like Privé, complete with rose petal-adorned wading pools and velvet ropes that ensured exclusivity.

Colaba, mumbai

Now, some of that liveliness is poised to return. At least, with regards to food. After half a decade of a dry spell, a spattering of restaurants opened in 2016, with a significant number arriving later this year as well. “There’s a real buzz about Colaba of late,” says Rishad Nathani, of deGustibus Hopitality, who opened the elegant modern European restaurant, The Clearing House, in Ballard Estate late last year. “I’ve been hearing about many players in the industry looking for spaces.”

“We’re going to see a boom in the next three to four years,” expands AD Singh, the grand old man of the restaurant biz who’s in part 

responsible for making Bandra cool with the launch of socialite hangout Olive. Although residing in South Mumbai, he’s stayed away from doing too much business there, until now. By the end of 2017 he’s hoping to launch one of his brands “somewhere between Breach Candy and Colaba.”

Chirag Maru, currently the most important man in the restaurant real-estate business in Mumbai, agrees. “Three to four years ago the mere suggestion of a property in Colaba would turn restaurateurs off. But now I’m in the middle of closing several deals in the area, some of which have up to 10 significant parties interested. It’s a bidding war.” He’s not just the go-to broker for premium restaurant spaces – he also has a decisive say in the leasing rights to properties, and determines which brand to place where, if at all. He’s been instrumental in building Kamala Mills, with the sale of almost all the properties there in his pocket, and his influence is growing to other parts.

Colaba, Mumbai

“It’s not just that new restaurants have begun opening in Colaba. It’s that they’re doing well,” he says. “That’s got all the top dogs paying attention.” One of the more successful ones includes the newly launched Pa Pa Ya by Zorawar Kalra, which has been clocking in numbers close to a crore per month. Another is Jia, the newest upscale Oriental eatery from the owners of Royal China, which has been doing business of `85 lakh monthly since opening six months ago. Owner Neville Vazifdar is clearly confident in the value of the Colaba diner. Right after Jia, he opened Kuai Kitchen, also in Colaba, now running three Chinese restaurants within a fairly small radius. These aren’t quite as lucrative as the likes of Koko in Kamala Mills, which is reportedly raking in around `2 crore a month. But, says, Vazifdar, “I’m not one to buy into the Kamala Mills phenomenon. There are going to be 40 new restaurants there in the next two years. Yes, they’ve got an office crowd, but I don’t believe there will be enough demand for all of them.”

Nathani agrees. “It could be a case of oversaturation, in both Kamala Mills and BKC. I don’t intend to compete in that sort of environment, where you can only do a low-quality, low-price-point kind of model
to survive.”

“There’s a general belief that opening in Colaba will give a restaurant a real chance of success,” explains AD. “There are such limited options. You can count them on one hand. If you create a good product, it will work.”

Colaba, Mumbai

Among the many big cats rumoured to be looking for spaces in the Art Deco environs of this neighbourhood are Zorawar Kalra’s MasalaBar, a new brand by Riyaz Amlani, Powai’s fine-dine Mirchi and Mime (with hearing and speech-impaired wait staff), a third international brand from Kishore Bajaj (proprietor of Yauatcha and Hakkasan), industrial-chic Café Zoe, Manu Chandra’s Toast & Tonic and a new oriental brand from Hauz Khas’ serial restaurateur Priyank Sukhija, who also opened Tamasha at Worli a few months ago.

But leasing a space in Colaba for a restaurant is considered an arduous task 

The Mumbai Port Trust, which counts among its tenants the Taj Mahal Hotel and big-ticket businesses such as Larsen & Toubro, the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group and Hindustan Constructions, owns most of the land. Renting a space from it requires, among other things, a no-objection certificate. Additionally, many of the buildings are heritage properties, and come with their own permissions and rules. The least painful way to go about it is to find a space that used to be a restaurant.

“I looked for a large space for six months, which was almost impossible in Colaba,” says Priyank Sukhija, who eventually found a space to his liking. Even the small spaces don’t come cheap. Though rents have reduced in recent years, with the outflow of corporates and residents, they continue to remain on the steeper side. A 2,000sqft space can be leased for about `10 lakh a month, with bigger spaces going for much more. One of these was the playground for the now-shuttered Palkhi, a nouvelle Indian restaurant that opened in 1991, was designed by Parmeshwar Godrej and featured sculptures from French artists. “It’s a gorgeous space, with high ceilings and a sense of nostalgia. I’ve got clients eyeing it,” says Maru. “That’s the thing about Colaba, it’s not ugly like everywhere else. BKC is all glass, the mills are, well, mills. Colaba has charm. It’s got a London-like feel. Many restaurateurs want that, they ask me for that. They increasingly understand the value of the building, the structure, the ambience. They need it to add value to their brand.”

“There’s an element of prestige,” AD notes. “Much of the old money and many of the city’s influencers continue to live in South Bombay. Opening a restaurant in these parts means you’re catching the attention of all the right people.” For Sukhija, it’s also some amount of nostalgia. “For me, Bombay is Colaba.
It’s where I remember visiting as a child.”

The neighbourhood tends to attract a certain kind of restaurant, one with a distinct personality. It isn’t considered the right space for some of the interchangeable low-priced bars of Bandra. “I don’t think a concept like The Table could have seen success anywhere else,” observes Maru. “It has a very well- travelled customer base that’s more open to novel, premium concepts.” And this is perhaps why modern American cuisine (The Table, Ellipsis, The Boston Butt) has carved out a legitimate niche for itself among Colaba’s leafy bylanes.

“Much of the agreements with the landlords are revenue-share models, so I won’t just give away the space to the highest bidder,” Maru explains. “The landlord and I put thought into it, think about what the other competition is, and then pick a brand with the most chance of success, even if he’ll be paying less.”

“The clientele is also peculiar, in its maturity,” says Vazifdar. “At the Fort outlet of Royal China, Friday dinner’s bookings begin on Monday. In the Bandra one, no bookings reflect even on Friday morning, but eventually both places are packed by dinner time. It’s almost as though the Bandra crowd just head out and pop into wherever there is availability. If there isn’t, they’ll just pop into one right next door, or the one next to that.”

Still, it’s not all rosy in the old British headquarters. Many stalwarts like Busaba, LPQ and Ellipsis have shut shop, and following suit soon will be Indigo and Alibaba. While for Maru that just means more land that can pass hands again, it also raises the question of the shelf life of restaurants battling high rents and a clientele in a geographical microcosm. Yet, stars like The Table continue to do swimmingly well, along with bars like Woodside Inn and the newer 145 and Bar Stock Exchange. And, for the most part, almost every industry expert
I speak to is bullish on the fortunes of Colaba.

Adding confidence is the news that the Mumbai Port Trust, led by Nitin Gadkari, intends to make a large chunk of its land available for commercial and entertainment purposes, making the opening of a restaurant or bar significantly simpler. How long that could take – if it comes through at all – is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile, the biggies continue to circle over the prized available spaces. It will be a game of who bags what in the months to come, months sure to be more resplendent and ripe with potential to make Colaba great again.

 Source:  GQ India

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