Has SOBO rediscovered its mojo

“How many of you have been to Bandra recently?” In a crowd of fifty, three hands move upwards. “Ah...Adventurers!” he exclaims, and the trio exchange approving nods. “That doesn’t make you Bear Grylls though, right? Crossing the sea-link isn’t an adventure sport…I can see the gentleman’s surprised to hear this.” For the next few minutes the stand-up comic highlights the differences between Bandra and South Mumbai — the former is a young, hip, Ashton Kutcher of the real-estate world, the latter is a Charlie who-lost-his-Sheen.

Umame’s Pan Asian cuisine keeps its patrons in high spirits. Pic/Bipin Kokate.

But, is this really the case? Restaurateur Henry Tham who shut his place at Dhanraj Mahal says that though he chose to rent it out two years ago, “I wouldn’t do it today. Back then, the scenario was different.” He believes that, now all are in favour for Bandra, “People are ready to experience novel cuisine and are ready to pay the price for it,” he says, predicting that high-end quality restaurants that deliver international standards will thrive here.

Location, location

There’s truth in the comic’s remarks and regardless of how the architectural boon has axed commuting time, South Mumbai residents, prefer to stay on this side of the sea-link. So, when Tham pulled the shutters down at his Colaba restaurant and Japanese restaurant Tetsuma breathed its last, Lower Parel and Worli started bustling. With its fair prices and good food delivered in a cosy ambiance — Cafe Zoe was an instant hit while Blue Frog had its crowds with its gig line-up, if not its prices.

Cafe by the Beach overlooks the Arabian Sea

High Street Phoenix and its vicinity was abuzz with Smokehouse Deli, California Pizza Kitchen, Spaghetti Kitchen and The Tasting Room pampering palates. Despite their prices, Worli’s Two-One-Two didn’t seem to have trouble filling tables all week, and Hard Rock Cafe and Shiro’s, have their regulars though weekends draw the largest crowds.

Bring back the crowds

For Colaba resident Samir Chhabria, it was this observation, in part that encouraged him to resuscitate the space that hitherto served as Tetsuma. Chhabria’s European restaurant, The Pier opened its doors in SoBo on March 1. He says, “This is a social business and it helps if you know enough people to generate interest in your venture. Since I live in Colaba, I could get the crowds.

Sundance Cafe’s new avatar has retained its old patrons.Pic/Bipin Kokate.

Rohan Talwar of Ellipsis though believes that the choice of venue had more to do with, “the architecture and vibe of Colaba.” Talwar says, “South Mumbai has an element of romance and history. It’s the natural choice for a fine dining experience.” But Rahul and Malini Akerkar were the first restaurateurs to appreciate the area’s colonial charm. “We had been looking for a nice property for over a year,” recalls Akerkar whose culinary proficiency ignited this city’s love for modern European food in 1999, when Indigo opened at Colaba.

Too much of a good thing?

Having watched the tide since then, Akerkar understands the Mumbai diner’s mindset, like few others, and he admits, “The epicentre of the city has shifted a bit. But South Mumbai is still an old, established market.” But are we heading for overkill? Off the top of our heads, we can list eleven restaurants that have opened in SoBo in the last year alone (across budgets and cuisines): Ellipsis, The Sassy Spoon, Sundance Café, Cheval (modern European cuisine), Café by the Beach, NCPA Cafe and Mai Tai (assorted cuisines), Pizza Express, The Pantry (bakes, sandwiches), Di Napoli (Italian) and Umame (Joss-repackaged).

The Pantry sits cozily with its English style menu in one of the bylanes off Kala Ghoda. Pic/Atul Kamble.

Akerkar differs. He believes a city this size can use more restaurants: “Look at New York and London — there’s a restaurant in every corner. There’s no originality in terms of fresh concept, cuisine, style or delivery. Besides, many places fall short on execution.” Talwar, in contrast, believes, “With the number of restaurants that have opened up here, the customer is spoiled for choice; competition will create good-quality places, which will encourage people to dine out regularly.”

Price matters

Alain Coumont, Head Chef and Founder of Le Pain Quotidien, too feels, “Competition is good for the consumer as it forces us to deliver.” Competitive pricing strategies have come into play, but it’s far from cheap, for now. Though he tells us that Ellipsis’ private dining room is frequently booked, he also reveals, “We have just introduced a set menu for lunch and dinner, at Rs 1,000-Rs 1,500 (per head).” At a restaurant where each dish, on an average, is priced at about Rs 700, this seems incredible.

Sunday Brunch at Colaba’s old favourite, Indigo

Neel, the Indian restaurant at Mahalakshmi, is a tad reasonable — a three-course non-vegetarian lunch costs Rs 1,200 (vegetarians: Rs 1,000). Chhabria’s three-course-meal, which he plans to price at between Rs 1,750 and Rs 1,950 (per head), will be revised downward (to tempt diners).

With a neck-to-neck race, the future of these spaces, and SoBo’s culinary landscape comes down to the question: who’s your money on?

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