Khan Chacha is the most reliable barometer of change in Khan Market. (Started small, classed up, got taken over by the opticians - you know how it goes.) It’s doing as well for itself, except for one thing. Its terrace is silent and empty. Everywhere in Khan, and in other markets around the city, these rooftops - the apple of Delhi’s eye and envy of drinkers from other cities - are now silent and empty, the clink of ice cubes and the glint of aviator sunglasses displaced indoors.
“We haven’t been affected by the sealing drive,” a member of Khan Chacha’s staff says, on condition of anonymity. “It’s mainly customers feeling hesitant because of the hype sealing day creates, but it’s just that one day.” Otherwise, he says, diners still queue up to order seekh and tikka by the dozen.
That’s nice. Even nicer, if you’ll forgive my saying it, is the silence that has spread through parts of Connaught Place. My Bar, Warehouse and Jungle Jamboree no longer serving on their terraces isn’t really a loss for the city’s diners. Khan Market has always had pride of place in central Delhi’s dining scene. It’s tonier and fulfils a very basic Delhi need - that of keeping up with appearances - but over the last two years, CP had decided it had had enough of playing second fiddle. A Bunta Bar followed a Tamasha, while a Lord of the Drinks showed the other two who was boss. Just like that, CP had become clone central.
Now all this is transformed, as are other markets through central and south Delhi, including Meherchand, parts of Hauz Khas Village and, reportedly, Hauz Khas’s main market, which became one of the brightest spots on the city’s food scene over 2016 and 2017. To have the al fresco option taken away from some of the city’s busiest marketplaces will certainly have impacted the crowds that flow in. Khan Chacha can survive anything, but names like Wok in the Clouds and The Blue Door Café have neither iconic status nor nostalgic value in their favour. Khan’s A-listers, Mamagoto, La Bodega and Smokey’s Grill, were all accused of running operations in illegally extended areas: the dreaded notice, issued by the Department of Architecture and Environs at the New Delhi Municipal Council, identified it as “misuse at terrace / rooftops”.
So that, for one, is why things are looking dull. “The results of the sealing drive can only be dismal,” says food critic Marryam H Reshii. “Some restaurants, originally 65-cover places, can now only seat 35 and that does, of course, impact revenue.” Reshii believes that among the major consequences isn’t just loss of revenue but also psychological bandwidth. “The energy that the management should be directing toward their logistics and staff now goes into dealing with bureaucrats.”
Changes in business outcomes seem to have been taken out of the hands of restaurateurs for more reasons than one. Delays in obtaining bar licenses, a consequence of the Kejriwal government’s 2017 decision to impose tighter controls on liquor retail, leave a lot of places parched for customers. New launches were delayed indefinitely or landed with thuds. (For long weeks last summer, delivery kitchens were the only bright spots on the landscape, according to many of bpb Delhi’s restaurant reviewers.)
Reshii is cautious about ascribing too much importance to this: she says restaurants have always taken months to acquire liquor licenses and this isn’t a new development. “When I had just started working, it used to easily take a place six months to get a license; now, I’ve seen them get one in two or three months.” Times nightlife critic Deepali Gupta also sees complex effects at work.
“It’s places that don’t occupy a ground floor space that take a beating,” she says. One reason rooftops are so important is that ground floors are more expensive to rent, and newer places try to avoid that cost. Skyrocketing rents, therefore, may be to blame for cases that take longer to obtain a license. Many times, Gupta told me, a place can buy a license from another spot that may be closing down instead of waiting ages for one of its own.
Because drinking is the capital’s favourite way to socialise, and since restaurants mostly never have a license to serve alcohol immediately after they open, a lot of the city’s clientele that chooses to go somewhere new over the weekend is now just going to dry bars with half-hearted food. Beer buckets and happy hours overpower the sogginess of a bruschetta or the toxic oiliness of stale chilli chicken.
Although Delhi is probably India’s most food-diverse metropolis - certainly ahead of thrifty no-onion-no-garlic Mumbai - its profusion of me-too bars over the last couple of years did it no favours. If there’s one thing that works in Mumbai’s favour, as a chef from that city once told an editor of mine, it’s that good food never goes unrewarded there.
I asked Pavan Jambagi of Delhi favourite Carnatic Café what he thought of the situation here. “Compared to other cities, Delhi grew very quickly, and the growth was across cuisines,” he says. “CP started buzzing a couple of years ago, and that's when restaurateurs began to fetishise even a spoon. That's how you lose focus on the recipe. Your energy and thought goes into fancy-dressing every inch of the restaurant. But I think Delhi's slowly starting to be through with that. People are starting to come back to their senses. In another year, I think it should settle.”
Of course, you’d still go to Artusi or Diva or Indian Accent for their food over their wine lists. But it’s more significant, perhaps, that bhut jholokia-spiced pork in Humayunpur, dosa recipes from rural Karnataka at Carnatic Café and prawn rava fry at Rustom’s have all been welcomed and accepted warmly, despite there being no beer on the side. Ten years ago, a place had to be a hardcore classic like United Coffee House or Lotus Pond to survive that model. But I’d like to believe that the the roots of Delhi’s food landscape have strengthened over the last four or five years. And for this, it might be okay, sometimes, to allow ourselves to call it the food capital.
Vritti Bansal is the founder-editor of Binge.
Photo Credit: Instagram.com/KhanMarket
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