Delhi’s best-loved restaurants are not merely those that have stood the test of time; they are the ones that have broken new ground at the time they opened their doors. More importantly, they should have kept up their relevance to the present time. For the last ten years, restaurants have been opening and closing at a furious rate in the city. It has become a fashion statement to open a restaurant, and because this is such a capital intensive business, it is not surprising that it is only captains of industry that can afford to do so. However, it is also true that movers and shakers know little about the food and hospitality business, so practically the entire operation has to be farmed out to professionals. One wrong decision and the whole thing can misfire. Many of Delhi’s present restaurants are themselves built on the “graveyard” of older, unsuccessful ones.
By contrast, a landmark restaurant has never looked back from the day of its inception. To make it to this list, it should have something novel to offer its customers and should re-write the rules instead of following them.
1 Delhi’s oldest landmark restaurant has just got to be Karim’s. Started in 1911 as a hand-cart selling aloo-mutton, dal and rotis in the shade of the Jama Masjid, Haji Karimuddin realized that his small, simple menu would do well in the year of the Coronation. Whether he ever dreamt that his name would be such a powerful magnet that it would get coverage in Time magazine almost a century later, and would be looked after by a welter of great-grandsons is another matter entirely.
The original Karim’s stands around a courtyard in Matia Mahal, opposite one of Jama Masjid’s gates. It operates daily from after fajjar prayers, when the only items on the menu are nihari and paya till late into the night when the entire menu is available. Only in the month of Ramzan do the working hours change to take into account the fast. Between meals, Karim’s serves tandoori items, of which minced lamb seekh kebabs and mutton burrahs are the most famous offering. Karim’s, which probably started with just one of the four halls around the courtyard, cooks its qormas and istoos in deghs, which are then displayed at the entrance of the courtyard. The fragrance of wood smoke, spices and cooking meat assails the nostrils of the hundreds of people that come to eat here daily, from the lowliest of neighbourhood workers and South Delhi sophisticates to an army of foreign tourists.
The success of the operation is because the overwhelmingly meaty cuisine with plenty of oil has numerous takers in the immediate vicinity. Also, prices seem to be slightly lower than those in the relatively newer branches across New Delhi, with many dishes being offered in half portions and single servings. The Jama Masjid outlet is the only one offering the original potatoes with mutton and dal.
Haji Karimuddin had one son, who in turn had four sons, who in their turn have eleven sons and it is this fourth generation who run the business now. Matia Mahal has a line of more humble eateries, selling more or less the same sort of food, but in New Delhi, there is absolutely no competition for authentic Mughlai cuisine. So what does Karim’s owe its runaway success to? The cousins are unanimous: the blessings of God.
2 Certainly in the year of the Coronation, no respectable person in Old Delhi would go to a restaurant to eat, even supposing that there were restaurants in town, which there weren’t. Restaurants as a concept only began dotting the landscape after Partition. By that time, a wave of Punjabis made their way from what is now Pakistan to Delhi and because most of them were refugees, no job was too lowly for them. Some of them took to serving food to keep body and soul together. One of these was Kundan Lal Gujral. The plot of land he managed to acquire was in Daryagunj, at that time, the centre of the city. The only cuisine he knew was what he served in a modest place in Peshawar: butter chicken, tandoori chicken and dal makhni. It wasn’t the food that Punjabis ate at home for sure – certainly, no family possessed a tandoor – that was the privilege of the village centre, where ladies went to cook their rotis.
However, quite unwittingly, Moti Mahal hit upon a winning formula. Its menu became the de facto template for all North Indian restaurants all over the world. Thus, even when an entrepreneur in Boston today sets up the by-now formulaic butter chicken-butter dal menu, what he is essentially doing is paying homage to Kundan Lal Gujral, a pioneer in the original mould.
In the 1960s and part of the ’70s, patrons would flock to Moti Mahal in Daryagunj, sit in the open courtyard and listen to the qawwali singers who performed there every evening. After a couple of stiff ones, customers would appreciate the musicians, tipping them one and two rupee notes from time to time. The small menu with rich food provided the backdrop.
By the middle of the 1970s, Delhi had begun to spread, specially southwards, and it was obvious to Gujral that Moti Mahal would have to acquire new branches in South Delhi if it was to remain relevant. There are branches in several locations in South, West and East Delhi, but none have acquired the cachet of the original. Now operated by a restaurateur who has bought over the property, it is one of the few restaurants in the city to retain its old character. No attempts have been made to gussy up the interiors for the glitterati, in fact, even the furniture is virtually the same. So, even if it does not make for comfort by today’s standards, if you want to enter the world of Delhi in the 1960s, practically the only place you can go to is Moti Mahal, Daryagunj. Musicians are still there. The only difference is that this lot may not appreciate being tipped one and two rupees!
3 When I was a child in the 1960s and lived in Connaught Place, United Coffee House was already in its prime. You would think that half a century later, it would be past its prime, but such is the magic blend of location, menu and management that it caters effortlessly to today’s customers as well. During my childhood years, Connaught Place was dotted with restaurants, many of which were too sophisticated for me to be admitted! Those that had singers had strict admission laws and my parents would never have pleaded for the law to be broken on my account. Those days, the phrase “Don’t you know who I am?” had still not come into common usage. Most of the restaurants had multi-cuisine menus, which meant Chinese, Continental and Mughlai. Continental in those days stood for boiled food served up with a blanket of mayonnaise or béchamel sauce. Chinese was – and still is – a derivative that no citizen of Beijing would recognize, and Mughlai was good old Punjabi food with an extra dollop of ghee, cream or both.
In spite of that, the keyword was customer satisfaction. Set up in 1945, United Coffee House had a menu that was always longer than that of every other restaurant. They did North and South Indian food, and tea-time snacks as well as an extensive Chinese and Continental section. Most restaurants around the world have one particular time of the day when they are full. United Coffee House is blest from the time it opens its doors in the morning to the time it downs its shutters. The reason is not far to seek. Outside mealtimes, it attracts a bunch of loyal customers who have been visiting it every day for 30 years or more. Most of these are political party workers and businessmen who meet their cronies for an hour or two over coffee. Cona coffee may have gone out of vogue a couple of decades ago, but in UCH it is still very much in demand. So are the outsize mince samosas, chicken chaat and paneer pakodas.
Foreign tourists carrying copies of Lonely Planet are attracted by the promise of an air-conditioned place where they can nurse a beer or two for a few hours. One of the attractions of the place is the interiors. Low comfortable sofas, gilt rococo mouldings, artistic mirrors, tiny tables with single chairs – there are permutations and combinations for everyone, including Siberia: the disliked mezzanine floor which you are banished to when the ground floor is full. UCH is one of the few places in Delhi that knew the value of the original décor and stuck to it. Which is why they’ve outlasted most of the competition in Connaught Place.
4 Ask a Canadian, Australian or Norwegian who is about to visit India if he’d like to sample Indian food, and if he says yes, chances are that he will want to sample it in Bukhara. Other restaurants may be famous; Bukhara is an icon. Set up in 1977, it bore – and still bears – a rustic appeal. Table tops look like polished tree trunks, chairs are stools fashioned out of hewn tree trunks, cutlery is famously never served, the napkins are aprons and the menu has not changed in 32 years. It is arguably one of the smallest menus in the history of Indian Food and Beverage. Six tandoori dishes for vegetarians and ten for non-vegetarians. Servers wear shalwar suits with velvet jackets and open sandals.
In 1977, no Indian diner had heard of an open kitchen. That was the era when chefs were supposed to be neither seen nor heard. In contravention, Bukhara had Delhi’s first ever glassed-in kitchen with its three tandoors: one each for vegetarian ingredients, meats and breads.
All the lamb, for instance, comes from a single supplier who exports every last kilo of his product out of the country. He only supplies mutton to one place within India and that place is Bukhara. Not the ITC Maurya as a whole, but just one restaurant. Many restaurateurs have tried to inveigle this supplier to supply to their outlets too, but without success.
The clamour of doomsayers were, at first, deafening. “How can a western tourist sit on a stool in a luxury hotel?” “Such a tiny menu? No curries?” “What do they have for the vegetarians?” “Why such rustic table service? No covers or anything!” One decade later, the voices grew more clamorous. “What! They are still stuck with the same menu? They’ll soon be dead.” And so on.
Yet, Bukhara continued to grow. Nearby rooms were hastily co-opted into the famous trademark exposed stone cladding on the walls and Bukhara acquired a few more seats. It was a desperately required measure to deal with the crowds that visited every evening. At first, the restaurant was not open at lunch. For the last decade, it has been. Still, the dinner-time pressure did not abate. There was one problem: Bukhara took no reservations at all. Unlike other restaurants in Delhi that do great business on Wednesdays and weekends, but are relatively slack on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, Bukhara is full to bursting every day of the week.
While there are takers for their mutton burrahs, family-sized naans and paneer tikkas, special mention must be made of their Dal Bukhara. More or less invented by the hotel chefs in 1977, it set the capital on fire. Before that, it was unheard of to cook dal with tomato puree. Now, everybody does it. Bukhara has become a standard with which to measure other restaurants. Food and Beverage consultants Manu and Sonia Mohindra of Under One Roof complain that clients constantly ask them to “make us another Bukhara”. As if an icon has an easy-to-replicate formula!
5 By the 1980s, there was the Asian Games that Delhi was hosting and a flurry of flyovers and hotels were being built around that time. Taj Palace started operations around that time and its tiny French restaurant Orient Express sprang into life on December 24, 1983. Conceived as a carriage in Europe’s train, the Orient Express, it is a trademark Taj Hotels venture. Compact, stylish, elegant and yet low-key, the Orient Express was not only a dramatic departure from Delhi’s other popular restaurants, it was a sign of the changing times. For it heralded the age of the international Indian, who knew his foie gras from his fondue.
Today, after more than 25 years, Orient Express does not show its age, for it is timeless. Synonymous with the best that gastronomy has to offer, it has always showcased the finest wines, the most exclusive whiskies, the fullest range of caviar and just about every other ingredient that is associated with luxe living.
The restaurant is divided into two parts rather subtly. There’s the bar, irresistibly luminous with the best labels displayed on it, and the real star of the show – the restaurant seating. Arranged like a train carriage, it will not remind you of Indian Raiways. No chairs, only sofas, Beltrami table linen, Schott Zwiesel glasses and French, or French-inspired cuisine. There’s more. Many lady guests, clad in evening gowns have shivered in the glacial air-conditioning, so now, you can borrow a pashmina stole in a neutral colour for the duration of dinner. If you have forgotten your reading glasses at home, the restaurant has a range of spectacles in a variety of prescriptions.
Though the menu changes periodically, what stays are the classics. It is unthinkable to remove Camembert cheese soufflé with paprika sauce. This dish has been on the menu since the restaurant’s inception and makes a point about the concept of the menu. In many places, the non-vegetarian menu has care and prime ingredients lavished on it and is priced higher than the vegetarian menu. All that is turned upside down in the Orient Express. The Camembert soufflé is so light, airy and flavourful that many non-vegetarians repeatedly order it as a main course.
Black trumpets, Normandy butter, Perigord truffles, Scottish salmon, French foie gras – you won’t get short-changed on the ingredients. Through the years, Orient Express has made infinitesimal changes to its interiors and menus. Hardly visible or apparent, it is these minute oiling the wheels that has kept the grand old dowager ticking away.
6 Delhi has been so strongly identified with butter chicken and dal makhni that it would only have been a foolhardy entrepreneur who would have started an authentic Italian eatery, that too with regional specialities from Sicily and Emilia Romagna. That foolhardy entrepreneur was Ritu Dalmia, Delhi’s answer to Rahul Akerkar. Her kitchen skills had been honed in Sicily where she underwent a culinary course, but more importantly, she had started one restaurant after another in the 1990s in Delhi. However, Dalmia was too far ahead of her time, so none of the restaurants did particularly well commercially.
In 2000, Diva opened with a bang. Located on the high street in Greater Kailash II market, the interiors were contemporary and casual enough, but it was clear that they were not the star of the show. The food was. By that time, liberalization meant that genuine, imported ingredients were easily available and they featured in full force on Diva’s menu. Not only that: the menu was divided into appetizers (antipasti), pasta and risotto (primi piatti) and grilled main courses (secondi piatti). All the pasta was served as it should be in an ideal world: with a bite, not mushy and overcooked.
If you found the menu confusing, Dalmia was in her restaurant all throughout operations to help. She’d steer you away from the temptation of eating three different pasta and no main course and she could suggest dishes that you would definitely like. The wonder of it all was that Dalmia herself was (a) a woman, (b) Indian and (c) vegetarian. Expatriate Italian chefs (always male) were prepared to dislike her and her food, but she usually managed to disarm them with her sheer passion for the cuisine. Thanks to her family business – stones and marble – that took her all over western Europe, she had been to every corner of Italy long before she thought of setting up a restaurant.
When the Italian Cultural Centre was setting up a cafeteria on their premises, who did they ask? Not the Italian expatriate chefs in the city, not five star hotels, but Dalmia. She has since started other ventures in other, trendy, parts of the city: cafes in Good Earth, Khan Market, Diva Piccola in Hauz Khas Village and Café Diva in Greater Kailash I. But ask her which of her babies is closest to her heart and the answer is “Always Diva”.
7. 2000 was a landmark year for Italian eateries. Not far from Diva, Aseem and Fawzia Grover were starting up a modest trattorio. Fawzia’s expertise lay in making gelati and cakes. The rest of the menu – pizzas, pasta and ciabata sandwiches – gave the place a young appeal. Because the husband-wife duo loved horror films, the walls were plastered with posters of the genre. It was the hippest, coolest place that Delhi had ever seen and it helped that the food was great.
The only downside of Big Chill was the waiting lines. Today, there are four Big Chills. And guess what! The waiting lines are still long. The couple is looked upon as the nonconformist couple of the hospitality industry. Neither have a background in running a commercial kitchen or managing a restaurant. Or indeed, in any kind of accounting practice. Some of the steps that they have taken were bizarre and contrary to common sense or logic. Take for instance their first outlet in Khan Market. With just eight tables, it was the first new restaurant in Khan Market: the other couple of restaurants in that market had been there forever, and had larger areas than Big Chill. After chaotic waiting lines that spilled out on the pavement, the Grovers decided to go in for another branch in the same market. Industry insiders were aghast. “You can’t cannibalize your own brand,” was the dictum. The second branch in Khan Market came up in the middle lane. There was a quiver of disbelief. No respectable person would be seen in that lane.
To cut a long story short, there are now waiting lines at Big Chill in Khan Market, as well as in Kailash Colony and the DLF Mall in Saket. And many, many restaurants have followed Big Chill into the middle lane of Khan Market, forcing the administration to beautify it!
Meanwhile, take my advice and stop at any of its branches for a Quattro formaggi pizza, a squidgy chocolate mousse cake and a lemon frozen yogurt smoothie. You won’t regret it.
Shalom: Entrepreneur Dhiraj Arora’s core business is the antithesis of running restaurants. He manufactures bottles for the pharmaceutical industry for his bread and butter. As icing on the cake, he wanted to try his hand at running a bar. His first bar was built in 2000, but he soon noticed that his customers would spend part of an evening at the bar and the rest elsewhere, eating dinner. He also discovered that it was only the seriously young that went out to a bar to drink; more mature customers would rather unwind elsewhere. In the coffee shop of a deluxe hotel for instance. Arora did a quick calculation. What if there was a place that had elements of lounging, relaxing, unwinding, food and beverage? That place was Shalom, whose very name – peace in Hebrew – quick starts the process of relaxing.
Six years later, Shalom has neatly sidestepped the issue of short shelf-life, to which most bars are prone, by their very nature. Celebrities and party people are more than welcome to Shalom, but they are not the core group of Delhi’s first lounge bar, that continues to have a loyal following today. Arora fondly calls his customer base the “ordinary Indian”. Which is to say, the person who has worked hard by day and wants to unwind with family and friends in the evening.
By contrast, other lounge bars spend a disproportionate amount of time packing in celebrities and the young and trendy without realizing that this crowd stays on only as long as The Next Big Thing doesn’t open. There’s more: when the lease of Shalom ended late in 2012, Shalom not only moved address (to another location in the same market) but altered its name to S Lounge. All the trademarks are there, from the Middle Eastern food to the seemingly casual combination of restaurant and lounge seating.
Interiors with a vaguely Arabic-inspired sensibility, staff that has been carefully trained to reflect the non-intrusive nature of the brand, music that doesn’t make your eardrums vibrate, low seating and half-hidden nooks. Mojitos, sangria, vegetarian mezze platters and shish taok by themselves are not the reason for the enduring popularity of the brand – they are just one segment in the full picture that continues to draw crowds long after most bars of that era have downed their shutters.
The biggest surprise of all is that even those who chose to be “inspired” by Shalom have not lasted as long as the original.
The year was 2006. The restaurateur was Anjan Chatterjee, better known before that date, as the man behind Mainland China. One of the brands that he was instrumental in setting up elsewhere in the country was Oh Calcutta, but nobody ever thought that Chatterjee would bring THAT brand into the Hindi heartland, where most of the restaurant-going population orders butter chicken and dal makhni with a bit of kadhai paneer thrown in. He did though, and far from opening a modest 28 seater in Chittaranjan Park, the Bengali bastion, Oh Calcutta is located in a prime commercial building in Nehru Place. What’s more is that it has no fewer than 130 seats.
When it first opened, there was a frisson in the city. Which red-blooded Punjabi would go to eat bhapa ilish? Or indeed, bhapa anything at all. For there was a whole section devoted to steamed food. There was chana dal with bits of coconut, chicken doused in a pungent mustard dressing, prawns in a tender coconut shell – in short, food that the average denizen of Delhi had never heard of. More was to follow: the restaurant insisted on serving Bengali food course-wise. So if you ordered a fried vegetable, dal and fish curry, they would never be served together, even if that’s how you wanted them. First would come the dal and bhaja, and last would be the fish curry. Seven years later, there is a strictly enforced system of prior booking, because the restaurant is packed to the gills. The hotel employee turned ad-man turned maverick restaurateur had the last laugh.
Oberoi Patisserie: By 2008, everyone could see one glaring lacuna in Delhi’s culinary landscape: that of a good delicatessen. The city was in a peculiar situation. Even if you had spending power, you had little to spend it on vis a vis chocolate of the serious kind, fine breads or farmhouse cheese as opposed to the canned supermarket variety. And even though the better class of grocery shops in our metros carries Italian pastas and balsamic vinegar, the quality is obviously aimed at the housewife on a budget rather than the discerning gourmet.
The day The Oberoi set up its patisserie, all those problems vanished. There’s place for people to sit at dainty tables and nibble all sorts of interesting tit-bits. You can order hot chocolate that would do a Parisian café proud, you can buy Valrhona and Amadei bars. Valrhona is a French brand, but it is so upscale that it is not available at every store in Paris and Amadei is so niche an Italian brand, that it is impossible to find it everywhere in Rome: you have to know where to look. It is something of an achievement to have both brands on the opposite side of the globe, in one place.Other treats that the Patisserie offers are fine Italian hams, pates and terrines made in-house, fresh pasta, specialty olive oil from Sicily, pesto from Genoa, macaroons delicately flavoured with pistachio, coffee and strawberry, chocolate bon-bons, farmhouse cheeses and a range of breads. There is an oven right inside the Patisserie from where the breads emerge periodically. Similarly, there are always a couple of pastillage displays of dummy cakes as well as chocolate sculptures that are often bought by delighted visitors to the Patisserie.
11 Indian Accent Every Indian visiting London eats at least one Indian meal. Not necessarily at a Bangladeshi bucket shop either: we’re talking about the likes of Chutney, Cinnamon Club and Amaya, top dining in that city. What defines all these – and other places of their ilk – is the western presentations of our dal and chawal. Mutton and chicken alone do not form the non-vegetarian section of the menu: there is wild boar, oysters and venison too. The food is pre-plated and is never served with bowls overflowing with gravy. It is a radical departure from our home-grown Indian restaurants and one that could well define all Indian restaurants world-over, in time to come.Perhaps because of the familiarity quotient, no nouvelle Indian restaurants have started operations within India. Indian Accent is the first. Started by Old World Hospitality, who own Chor Bizarre in Delhi and London, Tamarai and Sitaaray in London, Habitat World in India Habitat Centre, New Delhi and Epicentre in Gurgaon, it has all the characteristics of an Indian restaurant in London. After all, where else in India would you get a smoked salmon ‘maki’ roll made of salmon filled with thair sadam? Or gol-guppas (pani puris in Mumbai and puchkas in Kolkata) filled with water flavoured five different ways? Or pan fried pork belly, vindaloo masala, red rice. Some items read like regional Indian dishes but are not: they have an international sensibility; others appear like soulless fusion food but are in fact far closer to home than the menu would have you believe.
Indian Accent is housed in a small, jewel-like hotel in the leafy environs of an up-market boutique hotel called The Manor. The wine list has been put together by Charles Metcalfe and the whole experience takes you to a refined atmosphere where it’s hard to believe you’re still in Delhi. Or for that matter, India.
12 Yeti: The newest restaurant in this list is but a baby. And its cradle is the funky Hauz Khas Village which is a quintessentially Delhi mix of villagers who have rented out their houses to society ladies to open boutiques and custom-made jewellery. You cannot really take a census of the restaurants and cafes in the Village because they come and go with lightning speed. It is rather unkind to say so, but a few of them are long-forgotten spaces that nobody seems to visit.
The came Yeti. It serves the food of Nepal, Sikkim and Tibet. It serves supremely un-Delhi dishes like potatoes cooked several different ways, gundruk – a spinach green that grows in Sikkim, buff intestines and goat maws! There is ema datsi, the Bhutanese cheese curry, potato momos and Wai Wai noodles uncooked and presented like a bhelpuri, with finely chopped onions and tomatoes. For a restaurant to succeed in Delhi, there has to be a finely drawn point between what is familiar and what is exotic. Too familiar and the exotic value falls flat; too exotic and only those with an adventurous palate will ever visit.
It is safe to say that the exotica value of Yeti goes through the roof: there’s no bread as we know it, only tingmo. And no chicken momos, only potato momos (don’t try making them at home – they’ll never have the slight bite of the Yeti version. In spite of all that, Yeti is a hot dining destination. It is crowded at all times of the day; in fact, they don’t even take reservations, so you really do have to wait endlessly. No great service, a casual ambience that makes you feel that you’re in Thamel in Kathmandu and an interesting mix of guests – local Delhiites, western travelers and young people from the North East. But who would have ever thought that you could break so many of the cardinal rules of Dining in Delhi and still get away with it?