AD Singh, the man who taught Mumbai restaurants to 'stand-alone', holds a brief history lesson on the eating, drinking and partying habits of the pre-millennials
It's a sweltering day as we trudge up and down Homi Mody Street in Fort looking for the erstwhile Parisian Café, seeing that it doesn't appear on the smartphone map. We're just about to give up when AD Singh catches up with us, and points a sure finger at a shuttered corner shop with a battered awning, two feet from where we are. "There it is! That's where Just Desserts was." He sizes it up for one thoughtful moment.
Later, sitting at a nearby millennial café, Singh shakes his head laughing: "You kids, you don't know what it was like back then!" And then proceeds to tell us exactly that. The late Eighties were when India was getting a makeover. We were still conservative and socialist. Spending money was frowned upon, spending, conspicuously scowled upon. Then three things happened in overlaps — cable TV arrived, the economy opened and Indians began making more money. And spending it too.
Let them eat cake
Back in the day, Singh and his friends would go to a coffee shop to hang out. The drawback? "Trattoria and Shamiana were popular but walking into a five-star to hang out, how sad is that!" Irani cafés peppered street corners but weren't designed for aimless coffees and conversation. Gaylord's was around but patronised by families and the older lot. So with no 'cool' cafés in sight, Singh decided to do the next most logical thing — open one.
AD Singh stands where Just Desserts used to be on Homi Mody Street, Fort. Pics/Sneha Kharabe
It was anything but easy. "Landlords were scared of their properties being usurped. I went through nearly 35 tiny Irani cafés that shut in the evenings. I told the owners give it to me by evening, I'll do it up with my own money and pay you a rent as well. But I was shooed out like I was a beggar," he laughs. Finally, the owner of Parisian Café agreed to an alter ego and Just Desserts was born in November 1990. Singh served cakes by the slice, coffee and live Jazz twice a week, with recorded Jazz playing on other days. The menu was crafted by "lovely Parsi ladies", Willy Mehta and Jeroo Shroff, and now celebrated restaurateur Rahul Akerkar, who catered from home back then. Favourites were established in no time. "Willy baked a chocolate truffle cake which I renamed Death by Chocolate — our bestseller. And Jeroo made a delectable Devil's Foodcake," he says, adding a helpful detail — both women are still up and baking.
The third favourite was a cheesecake which was a novelty in a city at a time when pineapple pastry was still the go-to dessert. The quality of the food, and coolness quotient upped by Jazz worked. However, as Singh admits, "Jazz wasn't my music, it was my father's. I hated it then but realised that it was a great separator. The purpose was to invite the cool crowd that liked it, and keep the rest away." While Just Desserts didn't last beyond a couple of years, mainly because of low profit margins, it showed Singh that Mumbai's going out scene was ready for change.
Beach jazz, and then some more
Right after, Singh, by now a Jazz convert, started hosting Jazz Weekends. "They were lovely. We'd do them at the beach in Alibaug and you could stay back… years later, people would walk up to me if they saw me in the street and thank me because the weekend had given them getaway time with their loved ones… and they were married now," he says eyes twinkling. Beachside events were nothing new for Singh, as he had thrown his first boat party when his sister got married in 1986. In a chronological step back, he says, "The boat party was such a success, I wondered why no one was doing more of it. Bombay is a port city and boat parties were huge but they were mostly messy and unpunctual." So in a world devoid of malls, smartphones and social media, Singh's boat parties became an entertainment of their own.
AD with mother Amrita Singh and a friend at the launch of The Bowling Company, Phoenix Mills, in 1999. His mother had financed his first business
His fascination with the sea led to another landmark in 1993. The Guestline Hotel in Juhu, its bar conceptualised by Singh, played host to Jazz Weekends. "I invited hotelier Sanjay Narang to the launch because I wanted to convince him to turn his Talk of The Town [now, Not Just Jazz By The Bay] on Marine Drive into a Jazz bar." Thus was born Jazz By The Bay in 1995. "I'm pretty sure all our patrons didn't love Jazz as much as I did… it just meant that the crowd would be cool, which is why people came in. And then, you had a striking young musician like Ranjit Barot who was dating supermodel Anu Ahuja. A sexy couple like that naturally upped the ante at your restaurant," he explains.
Singh takes a brief detour from the restaurant scene to tell us that while supermodels were considered part of the 'it' crowd, Bollywood most definitely wasn't. "Bollywood was a sub-world but didn't really overlap with our social world, and didn't figure in the south Bombay scene at all. Hindi films were a few years behind reflecting the actual society trends, attitude-wise, fashion-wise. So, its appeal wasn't urbane and hip," he adds.
Singh feels it was only when Karan Johar's Kuch Kuch Hota Hai hit theatres in 1998 that Bollywood finally made the cut into cool. However, it was two years earlier that Singh's love for German sausages gave us the city's first tapas bar. He laughs as he explains the connection. Two brothers owned a space on Marine Drive where they hosted German food festivals. "They imported these lovely sausages and I kept returning for more. Eventually, I pitched the idea to open Copacabana in that space, and they agreed."
AD Singh and wife Sabina at the opening of Soul Fry, Pali Naka, Bandra, in 1999. The Monday karaoke nights they launched back then continue 19 years later. Pics Courtesy/AD Singh
The concept of the small plates tapas Singh had encountered while holidaying in Vietnam. That coupled with Latino music gave birth to the trendy club on Chowpatty. It was a tiny place, he recalls — 1600 square feet — but it was always brimming over. "Literally cheek to jowl, so that you had to make conversation with the young man or woman next to you… that's probably why no one complained," he grins. Singh mostly manned the door himself to let the right ones in, which didn't include stags. "They were prone to create trouble," he shrugs. One time though, a young man who was being sent away from the door stuck his chest out at Singh and snapped, Listen, I know the owner AD Singh well! "Just for his cheek, I let him in," Singh laughs.
Copacabana also taught him a lesson in space and crowd management. This was the time a new place called Three Flights Up had launched in Colaba. Singh was envious of its 100-feet bar, wishing they he could enjoy a large space too. "But soon, I realised it would be harder to fill up a bigger space. In Copacabana, if five people came in, it would start to buzz… and more people would come in." He remembers a time when the police raided the club. "They counted 50 customers coming out. Then the count went up to 100. The cops turned to look at each other and at us. When the count upped to 150, they asked whether the same customers were getting in through the back door and coming out again! The truth is, we had 450 people in that tiny space that night."
That apart, the '90s lesson holds true even now. Smaller space mean more people want to come in, which translates to longevity. Singh also wrote a food column for a weekend supplement for about four years. "Unlike now, restaurant launches happened once every six months, so we'd seek out old favourites or do trend stories," he says. Just as abruptly, one fine day, he bumped into fellow columnist Jeet Thayil at the airport and was unceremoniously informed that the paper had folded. "Suddenly, we were two columnists with no paper to stick our columns into," he remembers.
Curry for the soul
A couple more years and Singh wanted to dabble in a new form again — an international café but one served Indian regional cuisine. Soul Fry was born in 1998 in Bandra's Pali Market. "It's been 19 years and the space is exactly the same. Our Monday karaoke nights are as packed with an eclectic audience," he says proudly. And just before the millennium ended, Singh brought the cool to the central suburb of Parel when he launched The Bowling Company at Phoenix Mills. "Until then, the area was seen as an industrial and commercial space. The Bowling Co., paved the way for making Parel an entertainment centre."
Singh insists that most of his ventures have been pure serendipity. "They're either born of my love for desserts, or Jazz or German sausage," he says. While the experimenting with form and space is what keeps him going, he concedes that the 90s were a different, lovelier time. "It was all a blank canvas ready for anything we wanted to try out," he says wistfully. On our way out, as we cross the battered Just Desserts awning again, Singh suddenly blurts, "Maybe, I'll buy this space and put a café again!"
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