My fondest childhood memory of eating out in Mumbai is for reasons entirely different from the guilty pleasure of breaking routine from homemade food. I would grudgingly accompany family members on shopping trips to Linking Road, Bandra. To me, the shopping was incidental to the customary dinner treat at roadside stalls and carts opposite National College—a 1-by-2 helping of Lung Fung soup, a share of Chicken Fried Rice and a dessert course of Malai Kulfi—food fantasy (‘foodgasm’ these days) to a middle class kid in the 70s. Linking Road still charms as a shopping destination, but the food served there and the way people consume it underwent a profound transformation in the following decades, just like in the rest of Mumbai.
No eating out in Mumbai, only eating in
Till the 80s, eating out was not an option for the average Mumbaikar.
Both, cost and preference for home-cooked food were formidable challenges to restaurant food. It did not help either that Mumbai had a limited supply of quality restaurants that served affordable meals or dished out foreign cuisines and exotic foods acceptable to middle-class patrons. Dining out options for pre-80s Mumbaikars spanned the ubiquitous Udupi restaurant, strictly-vegetarian fare at the ‘Hindu Hotel’ and simple, inexpensive meals at the old-world ‘Lunch Home’, many of which continue to operate from the Matunga-Sion belt. The influence of Udupi-Mangalorean cuisine and restaurateurs was all-pervasive. The cheap, hearty fare at Irani cafés and a handful of Muslim-owned food establishments famed for non-vegetarian delights were the only other choices.
Where and what was I eating at the time? My late 70s to mid-80s eating out Hall of Fame includes Mutton Pattice with yellow ketchup at Regal Restaurant near Byculla market, Tibbs Frankie, Rum Balls from the food counter at Sterling cinema, Keema Pav and Caramel Custard at Irani cafés, Seekh Kebab from Sarvi in Nagpada, cakes and pastries from Cobana in Byculla, Kala Khatta at Clare Road, Pav Bhaji at Cannon and Falooda from Yaadgar in Bandra. Notice the absence of main course in my eating out pattern? Eating out was a ‘snacks party’ at the culmination of a shopping trip, movie outing or social visit. We were at liberty to eat out but never to skip lunch and dinner at home. Homemade was sacrosanct. A bellyful of restaurant food was not.
Few choices, many takers
In the same era, those who could afford to, fancied iconic South Mumbai institutions like Gaylord, Khyber, Ling’s Pavilion, Mandarin, Trishna, Talk Of The Town (now Pizza by the Bay) and classy restaurants at The Ambassador, The Taj and Astoria hotels. Salaried socialisers, meat-lovers and seafood fans queued up at equally iconic but easier on the pocket places like Café Leopold, Café Mondegar, Baghdadi, Mahesh Lunch Home and the nightly grilled meat magic produced out of a 10×4 sidewalk kiosk that bewitches kebab fans to this day—Bademiya—whose patrons come in taxis, BEST buses and BMWs. Between them, these establishments exemplified a certain democracy that is typical of Mumbai and engulfs both, celebs and commoners. Imran Khan and Brad Pitt, royalty and Heads of State, A-listers and average Joes and Janes, everyone dined at the same places.
But something was about to change Mumbai’s foodscape between the mid-80s to mid-90s. Newly launched restaurants redefined food and hospitality, cola wars were fought, the food franchise phenomenon emerged, fast food swamped the desi palate and the great Indian middle class arrived. In isolation and together, each of these events would impact the nature of eating out like never before, until another eating out renaissance stoked Mumbai in the 2000s. More of that later.
New flag bearers
Before and after India’s economic liberalisation in 1991, Mumbai witnessed quantitative and qualitative shifts in eating habits and eating out.
The introduction and subsequent rise of the likes of China Garden in 1983 and Zodiac Grill in 1989 brought world-class food and fine-dining experiences that aamchi Mumbai had never witnessed.
Nelson Wang’s award-winning China Garden at Kemps Corner was a refreshing addition catering to Mumbai’s insatiable appetite for Chinese food, and a must-visit destination for its elite and social climbers. Author, TV show host and popular Mumbai foodie, Kunal Vijaykar wrote in The Hindustan Times, “You were not socially acceptable unless you had your personalised reservation plate in brass waiting at the China Garden.” To say China Garden was a rage is an understatement. Trendsetter is more like it. There was also the stratospheric fame of Zodiac Grill at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. An exquisite grill room said to be the brainchild of JRD Tata himself, Zodiac Grill pioneered the concept of fine-dining in Mumbai. The who’s who of Mumbai dined and wined there until it shut in 2015. Everyone else dreamed of doing it. I still do.
China Garden and Zodiac Grill, though beyond the common man’s reach, raised the bar for food, ambience and hospitality standards, and a sign of how eating out in Mumbai would eventually come to be—a combination of good food, pleasing ambience, courteous service and lots of frills. The cue would be taken, albeit only in the 2000s, when a number of Indian and foreign players delivered high standards at a cost that Mumbai’s middle-class could and did pay.
From the late 80s through the 90s, Mumbai was party to a spectacular explosion of eating out.
It was also the time I achieved adolescence, moved to the suburbs and dined wherever my nose turned and eyes froze. Fish Koliwada at GTB Nagar, grilled and fried at Jai Jawan, burgers and pastries at Hearsch and Candies and Biryani from Lucky at Bandra; Dal Pakwan at Vij and Gulab Jamun at Jhama in Chembur; khichu papad and street food at Khau Gallis in Churchgate, Zaveri Bazaar and Ghatkopar; Ramazan treats, Falooda at Shalimar and Nankhatai at Suleman Usman Mithaiwala; Puri-Sabzi at Pancham Puriwala, Raj Kachori at Tewari Brothers, Akuri at Jimmy Boy, Berry Pulao at Britannia, Mawa Cake at Merwans, bakery and Irani chai at Bastani and Kyani in Dhobi Talao, Lassi at Kailash Mandir in Dadar, Sindhi food at Kailash Parbat, authentic Goan at New Martin, Malvani at Gajalee, Gujarati at Samrat, sizzlers at Yoko and Kobe…
Are you foodgasming? Get back to the reading.
Tasty foreign invasion
Nothing in the annals of India’s food history had caught on the way pizza, burger, fried chicken and coffee in a plastic cup did.
It’s not like Mumbai experienced a sudden outpouring of love for its culinary landmarks. Good press in burgeoning 90s media, the economic and cultural liberalisation of India, and the beginning of F&B corporatisation played their part in changing Mumbai’s eating out profile. But what truly tilted the scales is the arrival of Western-style fast food with McDonald’s in 1996. Nothing in the annals of India’s food history had caught on the way pizza, burger, fried chicken and coffee in a plastic cup did. Mumbai always boasted signature fast food, but never labelled it thus. Vada Pav, Samosa, Bhajiya, Chaat and Pav Bhaji were ‘snacks’. Unbranded, non-franchised and lacking the presentation and marketing skills of global, multinational brands.
KFC, Domino’s and Pizza Hut too came along by the mid-90s, conquering the young generation with a finger-licking (no pun intended) invasion of food that we only saw in Hollywood movies and glimpsed in foreign magazines. Homegrown brands were not to be left behind. Café Coffee Day launched in 1993 and franchised swiftly. Established brands like Rajdhani and new ones like Mainland China too expanded across Mumbai, India and abroad. Meanwhile, pizza was being sold by street food hawkers and appearing on Udupi restaurant menus. Mumbai warmed up to new food favourites and the very fabric of eating out was being dyed many times over in a very short span of time. Dates, dinners, family meals, birthday parties and special occasions were celebrated with burgers, fries, pizzas and colas. I was there too.
Colas wars and watering holes
The coming of Coke and Pepsi and the fightback by Indian beverage brands created a new eating out equation in the 90s. Everyone was pairing their favourite fizzy drink with food. Cola was mixing up with sundowners, quenching thirst and washing down everything from pav bhaji to pizza and biryani to burger. Still, the cola-food combo was for eating out only, not for consuming at home.
At the height of the partying out revolution between the 90s to the 2000s, a disco or two sprang up every few months.
1900s, Cellar, Cyclone, Go Bananas, J49, Razzberry Rhinoceros, RG’s, Rock Around the Clock, Three Flights Up, Xanadu, Fire & Ice. Pubs followed—Rasna, On Toes, Toto’s Garage… For the first time in Mumbai, party destinations thrived outside star-rated hotels, mostly at suburban addresses. The era of social drinking would once again change the dynamics of eating out in Mumbai.
The swish set was partying like never before. Alcohol and food made a heady mix with or without the dancing. Before long, Mumbai’s young and middle-class drinkers abandoned dingy ‘Permit Rooms’ and chaotic local bars for new and happening ‘discs’, pubs, lounges and family restaurants with liquor licenses where food and ambience mattered as much as booze. Corporate meetings, office parties, get-togethers, dates, private celebrations, birthdays and anniversaries were celebrated with food and drink. ‘Bar food’ was here and chakhna made way for grilled starters, sliders, sweet potato fries, Beer Can Chicken and what not. Yet again, Mumbai was reinventing its eating out culture through extraneous influences that were not fully apparent or directly related to food.
Mall mall ki baat hai
Restaurants in Mumbai’s malls had a captive group to target, and the targets themselves happily obliged.
When the first malls appeared on the skyline in the 2000s, Mumbaikars was introduced to eating out hubs whose outsized food courts and varied eateries vied for their attention and their taste buds, and dazzled them with an excess of compelling and confusing choices under one roof. Italian, Mexican, Japanese, Korean, Burmese, Mediterranean, Thai, Bengali, Rajasthani, Chettinad, sambar and shawarma, jalebi and jalapeno, undhiya and octopus: it was all there. As more people started ‘hanging out’ at malls, food shared the spotlight with shopping and movie-going. Restaurants in Mumbai’s malls had a captive group to target, and the targets themselves happily obliged.
Eating out at malls created a win-win situation. Restaurants expanded to locations not previously on the radar, and patrons dined with brands they may not have discovered or considered otherwise. Think about how residents of Kanjurmarg, Kalachowki or Kandivali are gleefully gorging on Tennessee Chicken Wings at TGI Fridays in Gujarati Ghatkopar’s R City mall, new-age Indian at Farzi Café in suburban Malad’s Oberoi Mall and Moscow Mule with Veggie Tex-Mex Empanada at Irish House in faraway Thane’s Viviana mall or Lower Parel’s High Street Phoenix? Food bragging rights had been decentralised.
Ordering in is the new eating out
Technology has touched every aspect of life. How did we not expect it to affect food and eating? The internet opened up the world of food to connoisseurs and commoners. Keto, Mexican Bhel, veg, non-veg, vegan, organic, DIY, health food, homegrown good—Google helps you grow it, make it at home, eat out or order in.
Food aggregators and cloud kitchens created a market of their own
The online food ordering bug bit Mumbai in the decade of the 2010s. Between 2010-15, food aggregators and cloud kitchens hit Mumbai like a storm. Faasos, FreshMenu, Foodpanda, Holachef, Swiggy, TinyOwl and Zomato competed through every means possible to gain customers. Discounts, giveaways, malpractices, fake restaurants and ratings and labour problems were one side of the story. The other side was the true democratisation of restaurant food in Mumbai. You could eat restaurant food without going to the restaurant. Technically, it was not eating out. But it was not home-cooked food either.
In the years before these services, you could only order from a local restaurant with its own delivery men. Now, you can order via your smartphone from eateries up to 8 kilometres from home or office (or working from home), track your order, raise concerns, rate the food, restaurant and delivery, and get discounts too! Ordering online has negatively impacted eating out, but it’s all the same to the average Mumbaikar because we are consuming restaurant food more than ever. I frequently order food online for myself, colleagues and family. I don’t need to visit the mall or reserve at a restaurant, I get food at my doorstep from miles away for a fee that’s much lower than travelling for that food, and I can eat from places I may never be able to visit. What’s not to love?
And while all of this transpired, was I eating out and where? I will continue eating out in Mumbai for the satisfaction it brings me, and the diversity of choices it presents me. Continental at Indigo Deli, Thali at Maharaja Bhog, burgers at Burger King, Murgh Ambarsariya at Urban Tadka, Chingri Malai at Bijoli Grill… the occasional Seekh Kebab at Sarvi, and Rasam Vada and Panpoli at Café Madras. I’ll keep making new discoveries and returning to old favourites.
In times of the pandemic, while restaurants turned into takeout kitchens, hoping to outlast the unprecedented crisis, customers are simply grateful they can order in instead of risking infection just to dine out. Will COVID-19 change the definition of eating out in Mumbai one more time?
Eating out is a gratifying social and communal experience
My eating out journey has stretched two generations and four decades that saw the extinction of basmati rice in Mumbai, Parsi bakeries losing out to delis, South Indian staples and Punjabi favourites competing with foreign cuisine and health food trends, weekday buffets and weekend brunches gaining popularity, bar food becoming dinner, and the food itself being ordered online, deconstructed on a plate and shared on social media, not dinner plates. Eating out is a gratifying social and communal experience like watching a movie on the big screen. It’s a perpetual pleasure blipped by a pandemic that too shall pass. When it does, go and eat out, Mumbai. It’s one way to read the pulse of your city. It’s also good for the economy.