What is common to Koshy’s Bangalore, United Coffee House Delhi, Mocambo Kolkata and Gaylord Mumbai? They’re all landmark restaurants. None of them are particularly old-fashioned, and certainly none are down at heel; rather, they wear the patina of timelessness. Is the cuisine excellent? In patches, yes, but it is not excellence all the way.
Most of this list serves multi-cuisine, a certain recipe for patchy quality in a jack-of-all-trades sort of way, so the nature of the game is a few really great dishes and about ninety menu fillers. But just as likely, you may love a certain dish in a landmark restaurant, whether or not it is a signature, and your dining companion may dislike it, but that’s all in the game.
Landmark restaurants, at least those typified by this short, by no means exhaustive list, would appear to be those with a long shelf life and those with as wide a customer base as possible. United Coffee House was founded in 1942; Kwality in 1940 and Embassy in 1959. No matter what time of the day you enter their portals, you’ll find them busy. In United Coffee House, tourists from the western world park themselves on the squashy sofas, engross themselves in a book and order chilled beer after chilled beer. It has become a sort of magnet for political party workers who crowd around a single table and stretch out a cup of tea for hours, much to the fury of the management who’d prefer to turn tables rapidly. Kwality attracts the likes of you and me: the crowd that has been visiting it for decades simply can’t seem to get rid of the habit! Lastly, there’s the bunch that goes shopping or window-shopping around Connaught Place; they do have to eat somewhere, and restaurants like Embassy is part of the landscape, it offers glacial air-conditioning, comfortable seats and best of all, no staircases to navigate. You cannot argue that the Delhiite is lazier than his counterpart in other cities, because Gaylord, Koshy’s and Mocambo all are located on the ground floor.
My eagerness to hone in on the recipe for a landmark restaurant is because so few of them are being built today. One of the factors that was common enough in the 1930s and 40s was of course, rent. Most, if not all, the restaurants of yesteryear owned the real estate they were built on, so bank loans and payback time didn’t figure in the picture at all. Today, I personally know several restaurants that have had to close down because the rent was as high as Rs 10 lakhs a month! That means that you have to be making more than that, because you have establishment costs to take care of before paying the rent. It is a recipe for disaster, and disaster usually happens.
But then, the whole business of restauranting has been turned on its head in recent times. If you are a tyre manufacturer or a real estate developer with a yen to be photographed in the city supplement of newspapers, you’ll think of opening a restaurant. Ditto if you’re a savvy businessman who wants to earn money every day (from customers) and spend every month (on supplies, electricity, rent and staff). There’s only one downside to this: your restaurant will reflect your attitude and you’ll never make it to the iconic eateries of the country.
There’s an antithesis of a landmark restaurant, and that’s the flash in the pan. Most bars and nightclubs fall into this category ipso facto. To grab footfalls to your club, you must have a popular DJ, a cuisine that is the fashionable one of the moment and cutting edge interiors. You don’t compromise on a bartender for a nightclub, but you are extremely aware that few customers will turn up solely on account of the excellence of your cuisine. In any case, if you’ve played your cards right, there won’t be much place to set out tables and have a relaxed meal: customers will have standing room only, the music of the day will be thumping out from industrial-sized speakers and bar snacks will be the order of the day. Then, six months down the line, the DJ will move to Australia, the bartender will be inveigled by the competition, and soon the crowds will begin to dwindle. Like as not, they’ll have moved to the new place! Which, in turn, will also have a shelf life of six months.
Riyaaz Amlani, owner of the Mocha brand, as well as Smoke House Grill, Smoke House Room, Salt Water Grill, Salt Water Café, Stone Water Grill and many others, feels that a landmark restaurant is not made before twenty years. He feels that people should aspire to visit your restaurant and that you, on your part, should keep your nose to the grindstone to ensure that each and every customer has a great experience day in and day out.
I’ve been watching the restaurant world closely for over two decades now and I have to say that landmark restaurants are born, not made. Who would have predicted that Bukhara would shine like a meteor decade after decade inspite of low, uncomfortable stools and the absence of cutlery? Or that Nirula’s, that great standby of the middle-class citizens of Delhi would change hands, thereby ensuring that the brand equity gets irretrievably lost? Or that a whole slew of Irani restaurants in Mumbai would make themselves over and catapult themselves into another category altogether: that of all-day diners with very little of their ethnic charm of the 1960s and 70s. The shelf life of a restaurant also gets affected by one or the other partner walking out of the deal, taking the goodwill with him.
Or, conversely, take the saga of Surinder Singh Kapoor whose tawa used to be a familiar feature in Adarsh Talkies, Amritsar. When the reign of the movie halls ended, Kapoor moved his tawa to Ranjit Avenue in the new part of town. Old-timers, however, still come looking for him as “Adarsh wale”. That’s the power of branding for you!