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06.02.2018

For some Delhiites, to visit The Oberoi is to visit their extended living room. For others, it’s an occasion. The five star hotel inspires a kind of nervous excitement - the kind that makes you dash to the perfumed restroom in the lobby and nod at the solo pianist at the grand piano en route -- even if you don’t really need to go. I did just that right after I warmed my hands by the seductive fire by security, danced across the new, pristine checked floors, and smiled back at the battery of attractive women who greeted me with tightly clasped ‘namastes.’ Each had a perfectly pinned dinner-roll shaped bun and wore a shade of lipstick that reminded me of the inside of a shell.

 Each had a perfectly pinned dinner-roll shaped bun and wore a shade of lipstick that reminded me of the inside of a shell.

Within minutes, the adjectives – and superlatives that people use to describe the hotel clouded my head: the epitome of elegance, understated, graceful, a veritable example in luxury. I said I wished I was wearing heels; my cool-headed companion said I should probably look around a little more.

Cooling my heels, I took in the new space, view pleasantly obstructed by tall sculptures of birds of paradise. There are a few, largely undisputed truths – or under-the-skin feelings – that underwrite the Oberoi brand. This is also what has people all buzzy about the hotel’s first ever renovation – a process that took two years, with costs running in to multiple millions. But, Delhiite reactions to the renovations have been complicated, doing two things: they have created an additional opportunity for the elite to reaffirm their status, even while largely doing disservice to the brand. Two: in the process of becoming an ‘inclusive’ business hotel, the renovation has cemented divides between people, marking out who’s a regular and who’s not; really elite and not; nose in the air versus on the ground.

On our way to Cirrus 9 – the terrace bar, our destination for the evening, we stopped by the 360° café. This is de rigueur amongst ‘regulars’ keen to say hi to other regulars, likely to be chipping gently away at their plates of glistening miso cod. We did spot a familiar face or two. But the thing that is so Oberoi about the experience, for my companion, is the exacting professionalism of the host, who was, he tells us, on the waitstaff here just a few years ago.

The conversation between the two was like undressing a present wrapped in fine tissue: the host remembered the sushi platters at my friend’s 40th, his first business-dinner in the private dining room (which now, overlooks the hotel’s beautiful second pool), and the days when he used to come in suited-booted and really “do his power thing.” But the nostalgic delight faded when we looked at the café’s ‘new’ menu: the food prices seem to have grown a serious belly, and the selection has been actively ‘de-indianized’ in favour of ‘global’ tastes. The butter chicken is now on request only.

The conversation between the two was like undressing a present wrapped in fine tissue.

It's clear - many people hate what has happened to the hotel. The jaali installation in the lobby gets many sets of teeth grinding; the lowering of the reception counters to ground level is seen as a failed client/staff hierarchy rejig; the changes to the banquet halls just seem weird.

We review the views of the hate-crew at length when we get to Cirrus 9, where almost every table seems occupied by a just-breezing-by hotel guest, rather than a city person. The bar has been reported as soul-less, too-corporate and no different than any other business hotel; one particularly unhappy regular even compared it to a “1980s United Airlines lounge.” It was once the iconic ‘Connaught,’ and had, my companion recalls, “the best crowd in the city.” Even so, the new tables by the fireplaces remain highly coveted; from here you can look over the entire city, spotting the few monuments that manage to cut through the thick fog.

The cocktails and food though, leave much to be desired: our ‘flatbread’ is an enlarged, average cheese toast and shrimp sliders – couched in processed white buns -- are much too cold for the misty night. One of our two cocktails – the Twinkle – we could see someone ordering again, but not if they had the privilege of Golf Club membership. We are disheartened by the food, and not comforted by the rumours that eating at the all-new Omya or Baoshan are not guaranteed good experiences either (FYI: it's not just the Taipan lovers who say that).

The cocktails and food though, leave much to be desired: our ‘flatbread’ is an enlarged, average cheese toast and shrimp sliders – couched in processed white buns -- are much too cold for the misty night.

In general, a sense of blah dominates, contrary to what the gushy national and international press has been saying. But both complaints and compliments are weirdly entwined, we feel: sure, there’s a line dividing the PR visits and the grumpy regulars, but we note the grumpiness has little bearing on attendance. It seems more like one facilitates the other, making this a new way to — a-ha! — mark oneself as truly elite or truly regular.

Still, a brand like this – responsible not just for building India’s first fancy hotel but for building a culture around it—certainly knows what they are doing. The changes are not lost on everyone. In fact, the gentleman who bought me work drinks earlier last week was clear as gin-and-tonic about his adulation. “The property is prime, the hotel looks new, the rooms are much bigger and the bathrooms are way better,” he said. He did the math for me on a napkin, drawing lines that indicated growth. Growth was a long straight line that made his pen trail off the page and on to the sturdy marble table.

I haven’t caught on fully yet but I think it has something to do with keeping the newcomers happy, the press gushy, and the regulars always comfortable enough to be a little pissed.

It's easy to make a face at this. But, it turns out that his opinion is also echoed by many old-timer Oberoi staff I spoke to including a former general manager from the 1970s and a marketing head from the 1980s. They attribute the renovation to good business decisions – a necessary move away, both say, from a “family-family” hotel to a scalable, globally successful, investor-friendly chain.

There was a lot of talk about ‘Biki’ (Oberoi) in these exchanges, and I gather now that ‘Biki’ is short-form for someone who always knows what they are doing. I haven’t caught on fully yet but I think it has something to do with keeping the newcomers happy, the press gushy, and the regulars always comfortable enough to be a little pissed.

Getting there: The Oberoi, Zakir Husain Marg. A round of drinks and snacks at Cirrus 9 will cost approximately Rs. 6,500.

Accessibility: Very accessible.

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