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What’s behind SoBo’s restaurant renaissance?


A lot has been said about the death of Colaba, and South Mumbai in general. No doubt, for about a decade, it was as moribund as Jon Snow after being shafted by his brothers of the Night Watch, but if events of the last few years, particularly 2017 are anything to go by, then Colaba is about as dead as our love for white, red and pink sauce.

In the first eight months alone, seven restaurants and a tiny dessert kiosk have opened. There’s Jia and Pa Pa Ya near the Taj, Kuai Kitchen on the Causeway, Kebab Gunj near Radio Club, Oh! Fudge opposite Colaba Market, The Charcoal Kitchen a little before Sassoon Dock, and Doolally Taproom and Francesco’s Pizzeria on Wodehouse Road. Several independent restauranters as well as domestic and international chains are scouting for properties to open new outlets in Colaba.

Though the first surge of activity was in 2011 – marking a great shift from one or two yearly openings – there were few big ticket names. Apart from Pizza Express, most others were chain outlets, or like Ellipsis, restaurants replacing other relatively new, failed ones. Even so, a Rubicon was crossed. Restaurateurs started re-looking at Colaba and the neighbouring heritage districts of Kala Ghoda and Fort. Over the next few years, Mumbai’s first Social was launched at Hotel Diplomat, behind the Taj Mahal Hotel. From Bandra came Thai Baan, the much-loved Imbiss that opened a spacious branch with an expanded menu, and Lemon Leaf that replaced the ill-fated Busaba. Moshe’s near the Gateway was replaced by Carter’s Express, while rival Carter’s Blue opened in Kala Ghoda. As did Farmers and Sons (now Henpecked), Boston Butt and Mamagoto among others. While this is nowhere close to the number opening in Kamala Mills or Bandra (W), it’s still decent and the attrition rate is much lower.

Before the suburbs ‘arrived’

18 years ago, when Indigo opened, and forever changed the restaurant-scape of the city, it wasn’t surprising that they chose to do so in Colaba. South Mumbai was still the city’s cultural and commercial centre; most people not only worked in town, but also traipsed down here to watch English plays or movies and catch art exhibitions. With close to 50 restaurants in a one square kilometer radius, Colaba was the food hub.

But real-estate was prohibitively expensive at the time and very few restaurants attempted to copy Indigo; Athena, Basilico and Moshe’s did open, but it wasn’t a strong trend.

The 1990s and the 20-10s saw a demographic transition in the city. Bandra and Andheri west in the western suburbs and Powai in the eastern suburbs became residential hubs. They were getting better and bigger commercial infrastructure and companies were finding larger spaces at lower costs. Both real-estate prices and spending power across the city had begun to equalise. By the end of the 90s, the yuppies had moved up the management ladder and could afford to spend more. And, having travelled more than their parents, they knew a little bit more about international food. So when when Olive Bar & Kitchen opened, shortly after Indigo, every suburban, upper middle-class professional and business person clung to it like it was a lifeline. Soon, restaurants began to sprout in Andheri, Juhu, Malad, BKC and Powai too.

Return to the roots

But with higher disposable incomes also came more cars on the already burdened roads, leading to terrible traffic conditions in the city. That means 30 minutes to get to Lower Parel from Colaba during ‘happy hours’ and 60 – 75 minutes during peak hours. Who would want to commute for so long for a meal or drink, unless it’s something exceptional? Co-founder and CEO of Doolally Taproom, Suketu Talekar, attributes this factor to opening two outlets in South Mumbai (Colaba and Kemps Corner), saying, “It takes 45 minutes from Colaba to Kemps Corner. In Mumbai, geographical distances don’t matter; the travelling time does. People talk of distance in terms of time, which pretty much determines how you plan your day.”

But Colaba has one more ace up its sleeve. Despite being familiar with both neighbourhoods (CST and Bandra), Neville Vazifdar, who runs Royal China, chose to open Kuai Kitchen and Jia in Colaba because in Bandra, apart from an assertive ALM, “many properties have a lot of issues. Bandra has new buildings, and many properties don’t have an NOC and other licenses. South Mumbai has older buildings and is more legal, it’s more by the book.” In most cases, the new restaurants are replacing existing ones so transferring licenses is far less of a hassle. (However, there is some concern that most buildings are actually owned by the Bombay Port Trust and most rental properties are being sublet by tenants.)

Now, with places opening up and being re-purposed in Colaba, Kala Ghoda, Fort and even Ballard Estate, this tiny little corner of Mumbai – historically known for a range of dining options from stratospherically-priced Wasabi to the easy-on-the-wallet Olympia Coffee house – is all set for a renaissance.

Source: DNA India

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