Colaba restaurants are back in vogue

Colaba’s star is on the rise. Last year, 11 eateries mushroomed in a stretch that’s about 1 km long, barely 200 metres deep and already houses some 60 restaurants. To anyone who’s been keeping track, this may seem odd. After all, for over a decade, barely two or three eateries opened in this stretch annually. And now, suddenly, one of the oldest parts of the city is not bad place to be looking for a new place to eat.

The new restaurants offer a mixed bag of options, from white-linen high-end to paper-napkin take-away. Want to break the bank? Try Ellipsis, with its buzzing bar and trendy European food. Missing the UK? Head to Pizza Express, the first Indian outpost of the London brand. Want to boogie? Choose from the gaudy, tacky Ghost (which replaced Prive) or the tiny, sparkly LIV (which replaced Red Light). Just craving a snack? Australian café brand Di Bella has an outpost here and hole-in-the-wall Leo’s Boulangerie is a few streets down from Leopold’s. Taking family-shamily to lunch? Shahi Dawat serves Parsi and Awadhi cuisine. Chilling with beer and kebabs? Rooftop Café Marina overlooks the sea. Nostalgic? Chikita, the old-time snack bar (which morphed briefly into a Falafel’s) is back as Chikita Café. And for when you’re not in the mood for plates, there are tiny outlets of Faaso’s and Cocoberry.


All this is in addition to the chic The Table, the bakery-restaurant chain Le Pain Quotidien, and the Mediterranean 5 All Day, which opened in the last two years. If rumours are to be believed, the areas around Colaba are opening up further too. The coming months will see an Olive Garden (the Tuscan-inspired American restaurant chain) open up near Starbucks, and former VJ Kamal Sidhu will open an eatery somewhere near The Pantry. Why the sudden interest in Colaba? For Ramit Mittal, who heads business development at Pizza Express, the decision to open here, rather than Bandra or other western suburbs was simple. South Mumbai is more affluent than other parts of the city. Its denizens presumed to have more sophisticated tastes. The well-travelled customers from South Mumbai “are already familiar with Pizza Express and have tasted the pizzas in London,” he says. “The adoption of my brand is higher and easier.”

Abhishek Honawar, one of the partners of Woodside Inn which opened five years ago in Colaba and recently in Oshiwara, is however, dismissive of this distinction between South Mumbai and the suburbs. “Our clients in both locations are well-travelled, tech-savvy and aware of what they are consuming. This difference may have been true in the past, but not anymore.” But despite Colaba’s obvious affluence and the rise in purchasing power, real estate constraints over the last decade stymied the restaurant growth that could cater to this demand.

Interestingly, it’s the growth of the suburbs, particularly Bandra, which has had a positive effect on hospitality in Colaba. As retail businesses chase volume-based growth, most brands have moved to the more densely populated northern parts of the city, resulting in lower (more restaurant-friendly) rents in South Mumbai. Offices also have been shifting northward, closer to their employees’ residences, freeing up eatery space in the once unaffordable Nariman Point. Roy Edwin, who runs 5 – The Restaurant in Santa Cruz and launched 5 All Day close to Regal cinema in 2011, points out that “real estate prices in Bandra and Colaba are now almost the same in many locations.”

Real estate expert Ajay Chaturvedi has an interesting observation on the impact of real estate. He points to the substantial growth in luxury residential apartments in the Worli-Mahim belt in the last few years. “Someone who spends Rs. 40,000 to Rs. 50,000 per square foot on his home wants to dine in luxurious surroundings,” he says. They’d rather go to South Mumbai which is classier than Bandra or Parel, which don’t offer the same sophistication. Rohan Talwar, the owner of Ellipsis, agrees. “If you’re planning to open a bar or a nightclub, then Bandra and Parel are better locations. However, for fine-dining it makes more sense to open in Colaba. Guests in this part of the city are more likely to spend money on dining than on drinks.”

This means that restaurateurs can’t afford to take their diners for granted. Woodside Inn, though well-established and very popular, still doesn’t mean the owners can rest on their laurels. To make sure they maintained their reputation as a gastro-pub, Honawar says they brought down a foreign chef last year to improve the quality of the kitchen processes and introduce new items on the menu. “We’ve started preparing our filet mignon in a new way, the combination of meats in our burgers has been altered and even our plating style has changed,” he explains.

All the restaurateurs agree that the spurt in foreign tourism has also been a positive influence on the restaurant business. “Colaba is one part of town that has a great feel to it,” Talwar points out. “There’s an element of romanticism and history. Every tourist wants to visit Colaba.” While the terror attacks on 26 November 2008 and the slump in the economy slowed down any chance of a restaurant boom in previous years, the situation has improved considerably. Even a small restaurant like Shahi Dawat, well off the arterial Colaba Causeway sees a steady stream of tourists popping in. And in the last few years, the quality of the tourist has changed too. Hippies who favoured budget hotels have been replaced with wealthier, European, American and Middle-Eastern tourists and their families.

It’s not Colaba alone that’s seen a resurgence. Last year’s openings in neighbouring Kala Ghoda include The Pantry, a café; The Irish House, a pub and restaurant; and Cheval, a casual dining European restaurant. At Churchgate, the pan-Asian Umame and Sundance Café have been enjoying success. And at Nariman Point diners now have NCPA Café and Di Napoli, a pizzeria, amongst their choices. Rithik Bhasin, a consultant for Cheval and LIV, acknowledges that the South Mumbai customer is more value-conscious than price-conscious. This is perhaps why Cheval’s kitchen is led by a British chef. “If you’re doing a European restaurant today, your customer expects you to have a European chef and to use the best quality products. You can’t get away with anything less.”

In the coming years, restaurants that fail to keep up with contemporary trends or find it hard to appeal to a younger diner are likely to shut down. With very little new real estate inventory opening up in Colaba, it’s the older establishments which have all the licenses in place that are likely to face the greatest pressure. So, if you have an old-time favourite you haven’t visited in a while, this is the time to do it; there’s a good chance it won’t be around for long.

Bade Miyan is one of the oldest food outlets in Mumbai. The kebab stall came up in the spot allocated to the owner’s ancestors to slaughter goats outside the fort walls. The scraps were used to make kebabs.

The WaySide, which opened in 1920 under the direction of Mrs Edwards, was taken over by Maneckji Patel, a Parsi gentleman, in 1934 and rechristened the Wayside Inn. Nearly half of India’s constitution was drafted by Dr Ambedkar at a corner table in the 1940’s

Café Royal is also one of the oldest restaurants in the city. It opened in the late 1920’s when much of Colaba wasn’t in existence. It’s still popular with locals

Café Leopold and Café Mondegar opened around 1938. However Leo’s was earlier a general store that opened in 1871

Kailash Parbat opened in 1952. In 1972 Led Zeppelin, who were staying at the Taj Mahal, jammed with local musicians at Slip-Disc, one of the most popular clubs. During the day it was popular with college students who for R5 would get a coke, wafers and dance as long as they wanted. Slip-Disc shut down in the 80’s and became Voodoo Edward VIII right opposite Cusrow Baug, which shut down in the early ‘90s, was a teenage hot-spot for watermelon juice, chicken sandwiches and first dates.

Golden Dragon at the Taj Mahal opened in 1973, introducing Indians to  Sichuan cuisine. You still need reservations.

Indigo, the first chef-proprietor, fine-dining restaurant in Mumbai opened in Colaba in 1998. It proved to be a game-changer by showing that high-end food and service were not exclusive to five-star hotels.

Cafe Basilico, the first all-day European bistro-style restaurant opened in 2001.

Theobroma, which opened in 2004, proved that a patisserie-café with high-end confections and a sit-down space could work outside the five-star hotels. Drop in for brownies

From HT Brunch, January 20

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