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Welcome back, restaurants!



This may sound like wishful thinking on my part, but I do believe that restaurants are staging a comeback. On Valentine’s Day weekend in Delhi, I hit four different restaurants to see how they were doing. I found that though Valentine’s Day eve (Saturday night) was better for the restaurant business than Valentine’s Day itself, the whole weekend was a triumph.

I first went to the new Commons food complex at the re-launched DLF Saket mall that is now called Avenue and was startled to find it heaving with people. I was there for a jam-packed event at a very nice and largely authentic restaurant called Mai Bao, which served Singapore food: Hainanese Chicken Rice, Laksa, Chilli Crab, Popiah, Nasi Lemak, etc. I had wondered if the food would be too authentic for Chicken Manchurian-loving Punjabis but no, the crowds lapped it up.

The complex has other restaurants (though its flagship outlet, the first Delhi place run by Vikramjit Roy since he left Tian years ago, has still to open) and seems like an attempt by DLF to create a Cyber Hub-type food zone in Saket. Though it is relatively new, it was packed out.

I then went to the Hyatt Regency, where China Kitchen is managing just fine without its expat Mainland chefs. Not only was it full, but people kept coming and waiting for tables as we ate, even though we had arrived late at 10pm.

The following day, hoping to enjoy one of the last few sunny, but cool, Sundays of the season, I went to the garden area at Elan at The Lodhi hotel. The Lodhi has had a chequered history ever since it opened as The Aman but the hotel has never been better-run than it is these days.

Clearly, I was not the only person to feel that because every table was taken. I had a past connection to the food. I have always liked the cuisine of chef Kamlesh Singh ever since the time when he was at the original Zest (now called Set’z). But many of the other guests seemed to be first-timers, just eager to get out of home and enjoy the restaurant.

Dinner was the big one. Le Cirque is Delhi’s most elegant restaurant. But it is also one of the most expensive: you pay for this level of service and classiness. Nevertheless, even Le Cirque’s tables were so full that they had to open up the private area at the back.

It’s a reasonable assumption that if a trend stretches from mall dining all the way up to Le Cirque, then we should sit up and take notice. Clearly, people are going back to restaurants – at all price points.

Another reason is that there probably is a lot of suppressed demand in the market. People are fed up of being cooped up at home for nearly a year. They long to go out and have some form of social contact. They want to see other people. They want to feel that they live on a planet inhabited by other human beings.

But it is the third reason that strikes one as being crucial: people want the full restaurant experience. Delivery can be great but it is nothing like eating in a restaurant. And while restaurateurs have created DIY kits, so that you can assemble their dishes at home, I find the whole process of trying to recreate restaurant food at home tedious and pointless. I am very happy to eat a biryani from say, ITC’s delivery biryani collection or from Cross Border Kitchens. But I really don’t have the patience to sit and assemble a plate of fish and vegetables in some poncy restaurant style.

This is not just true of India. I was reading about the home delivery meals at London’s newly three-starred Core restaurant. The duck course required “three separate timers and two temperature readings and then there were honey syrup, grapes and more herbs to delicately place.” 

Bloody hell, I thought to myself, you have to really miss fancy restaurant food to put yourself through this for a delivery meal! (The cost is £ 195 for two so it ain’t cheap: that’s about ₹10,000 per head in addition to the hard work you have to do in your own kitchen once you have paid up!)

I have been trying to work out why this should be so. One answer is that I went at a time when Delhi’s Covid numbers were falling (under 200 cases for several days in a row). The sense that the worst phase of the disease may be over encouraged people to come out and enjoy themselves.

The truth is that delivery works well for some kinds of Indian food. (Curries, yes; dosas, not so much.) It works for junk Chinese food. Delivery pizzas aren’t so bad, either. But everything involves some level of compromise (I have dealt with the hamburger problem here before: how can a chef use a high-quality bun, when he knows it will get soggy by the time the burger is delivered?)

So, even in food terms, it is very hard to enjoy a delivery meal at home as much as you would have at a restaurant. Yes, delivery has its own charm: a Domino’s pizza, a Burger King Whopper, Chilli Chicken from your local Chinese joint, etc. But no, it is rarely a gourmet experience.

My feeling is that while people have enjoyed delivery, they are now ready for freshly made restaurant food, cooked on the spot by talented chefs and brought to your table by trained professionals.

That’s good news for everyone. The silent tragedy of this pandemic has been the suffering of restaurateurs and their employees, who have been abandoned by the government and have struggled to keep their heads above water. I wrote, two weeks ago, about chef-restaurateurs like Mumbai’s Alex Sanchez, Delhi’s Ritu Dalmia and Chennai’s Regi Mathew, who have come back to cook the food they are famous for without ever letting on to their guests what hell they have been through.

So, even as we enjoy our return to restaurants, keep in mind that restaurateurs are people too. Often they run small businesses into which they have put all their savings and their sweat. Just because they smile at you to enhance your restaurant experience, never forget that even today, they are surviving one day at a time, never sure of what the future holds.

And as for restaurant staff, remember that many have survived for months with reduced or non-existent salaries. Even when they have been paid, at non-five star establishments at least, they have had to give up on the tips that constitute so much of their income.

So, enjoy restaurants. They make the world a better place. But be good to the people who run them. It will make you a better person.

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