“Which city has the best food?”
It’s a question I get asked again and again. And though I nearly always give the same answer, it never seems to satisfy people.
It’s a hard question to answer. In most cities, food exists at different levels. There is street food. There is fancy food: Michelin starred abroad and in India, at expensive restaurants at deluxe hotels. There are the inexpensive places that people go to, because they want cheap, honest food. And then there is the middle level restaurant, what we would call a standalone these days.
I tend to use the standalones as a benchmark. That’s how I decide if a city has good food.
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Let me give you an example from my childhood. When I was growing up in Mumbai, there were only a few fancy restaurants like, say, Rendezvous at the Taj Mahal Hotel. The street food was brilliant: in those days it was bhel and other kinds of chaat. All the bread-based street food came later: vada-pav, pav bhaji, Bombay sandwich. But though it has fallen out of favour in recent years, as far as I am concerned, it is bhelpuri that is the authentic taste of the Mumbai street.
Then, there were the inexpensive restaurants that people went to for a quick meal. In the Mumbai of my childhood, many (most, even) of the better ones were run by South Indian restaurateurs who started out catering to a South Indian diaspora and then discovered that everyone else also liked their food. Many were from Mangalore and their restaurants were called Udipi (or Udupi) restaurants. They had huge signs that read: “Rice Plate Is Ready” outside their doors. This did not mean that you could come in and devour a plate of rice. Rice plate was the term for a full meal built on rice.
Later, as people who are not from the South began frequenting these restaurants, they became known for their idlis and dosas. The masala dosa craze, which spread all over India in the 1970s, was first popularised in Mumbai in the 1960s.
But did this make Mumbai a great food city? By most reckonings it should have. But I think the real strength of Mumbai’s food scene lay also in its mid-level restaurants. In those days, you could spend an entire week on Churchgate Street and never eat badly: the crumb-fried chop and the hot dog at Bombellis, the Chicken Kiev at Gaylord; the steak at Gourdon; the Punjabi food at Berry’s; the Gujarati vegetarian thali at Purohit.
These were restaurants where you could take people out and enjoy a nice evening and the food was the highlight.
I am not so sure about other cities in that era. I imagine that Calcutta was ahead of Mumbai because of the quality of the Park Street places. Chennai did not have many places you could go to. Bangalore was a little bit ahead of Chennai but not by as much as its citizens liked to claim.
Delhi remained a mystery to me. If you were a Punjabi you could eat very well in Connaught Place: channa bhatura at Kwality’s; dal meat at Embassy and so on. But the western food was rarely very good (which is odd for a city full of diplomats) and the Chinese food was dismal.
Has that changed over the years? I imagine it must have. The spirit of Calcutta was broken in the 1960s and the 1970s by the Left (Naxalites, trade unions, Jyoti Basu etc.) and by the time I moved there in the 1980s, it was a gastronomic wasteland. There wasn’t even a single good Bengali restaurant you could take people to.
Bangalore opted for beer over food so it had the best pubs of any Indian city; but I am not sure that it had a sparkling food scene. I rarely found very many high quality mid-market restaurants in Chennai. (At least that did not change over the years).
But the major changes have come from Delhi and Mumbai. Even as Churchgate Street died and Bombellis, Berry’s, Gourdon and the rest shut down, a new generation of restaurants sprung up, challenging the hotel places.
Nelson Wang opened China Garden on Kemp’s Corner. Designed by Parmeshwar Godrej and Sunita Pitambar and frequented by movie stars and newly rich people, this became the most glamorous restaurant in the city. In the decade that followed Bandra re-invented itself with new restaurants. And later Rahul Akerkar opened Indigo which was better than many hotel restaurants.
Delhi took longer to get its act together and only really came of age in this century through there were many false starts. (Hauz Khas Village, for instance).
But the restaurants that opened in Delhi and Mumbai over the last two decades transformed the standalone restaurant scene all over India. AD Singh’s empire was founded on Olive but he now has many excellent restaurants across India. Riyaaz Amlani’s restaurants offered quality food and service in various Indian cities.
In Delhi, the Mamagoto partners redesigned casual Oriental food for the Indian market. Zorawar Kalra introduced modern Indian food to a new demographic. Amit Burman and Rohit Agarwal perfected the North Indian restaurant for the 21st Century with Punjab Grill. Rohit Khattar created an international sensation with Indian Accent.
Other cities had their stars. Manu Chandra started out with AD Singh but became so much of a Bangalore institution that he was able to break away and create his own identity. Only Calcutta has lagged behind. The one great Bengali restaurateur of our times, Anjan Chatterjee, built his empire from Mumbai.
All this has had some interesting consequences. Because many of the restaurants that started out in Mumbai and Delhi now have branches in smaller cities as well, it has become more difficult to identify a distinct food scene for each city. It has also raised overall standards. It is now much harder to open, say, a modern Indian restaurant in Bangalore when Zorawar already has a Farzi Café in the city.
So, what’s a great food city now?
I’d have to say that at present, Delhi has lost the advantage to Mumbai. Yes, the food at Delhi’s hotels is much better than anywhere else. The food at most Mumbai hotels is so bad that even if I stay at one of them, I try not to go to their restaurants. (Even Bangalore and Chennai have better hotel food.) This is true of Calcutta too where despite one or two sparkling exceptions most deluxe hotels serve overpriced rubbish
But for standalones, Mumbai is unmatched. Which other city can give your Ekaa, Masque, Bombay Canteen, Gajalee, Americano, O Pedro, Mizu, Izumi and so much more?
I personally think it has better street food than Delhi too but of India’s major cities, Calcutta is easily the best when it comes to eating on the streets.
So here’s my view. If you want to eat in hotels: Delhi. If you want to eat in pretty surroundings: Bangalore. If you want to eat on the streets: Calcutta.
But if you want to go out to a standalone for a great meal, it has to be Mumbai.