It’s easy to spot a real Lutyens’ insider at a meal: they’re only eating half the time. For the rest, they’re carefully examining the other tables to see who is breaking bread with whom.
The leafy centre of Delhi is a city within a city where deals are made, legal loopholes discovered and laws agreed upon. This happens not under the bright lights of TV studios (all in Noida, anyway) or in Parliament, but over lunch. These aim to be discreet meals, but walk into any of the places on our list and the person jostling you on the way to the smoking section is usually a journalist. Large bills, weak coffee and the possibility that your boss will catch you slacking off - none of these can deter hacks from Lutyens’ lunch rooms. This is because there’s nowhere in Delhi, or indeed the country, where eavesdropping is easier or more fun. Here’s a guide, calendared for your convenience.
The best place to see where the sausage that is modern India is made is the Emperor Lounge, in the Taj Hotel on Mansingh Road. Its only competition used to be ThreeSixty at the Oberoi, sadly closed for renovations until 2018. While you’re here, order a superb pepper aioli and asparagus sandwich, a pot of Chinese white tea and keep an eye on the lobby, watching as they sweep in – Amar Singh, Suhel Seth, Jairam Ramesh. (I didn’t say the conversation was going to be clever, just fruitful.) The real deals, of course, are taking place upstairs, at the Taj Chambers.
So much for the old elite. The newly anointed are here from the Hindi heartland for frothy cappuccinos and disappointing panini. Many have a strange fascination with the Starbucks in A-Block, Connaught Place. Yes, Tejaswi Yadav, we’ve seen you in those white shoes that could take the shine off the gold boots of any West Delhi teenager.
Yes, Tejaswi Yadav, we’ve seen you in those white shoes that could take the shine off the gold boots of any West Delhi teenager.
Wednesday, late lunch:
Conversely, you’ll be the most colourful person in sight at the terrace café attached to Triveni Kala Sangam. It’s full of lawyers in black robes and sober suits tucking into shami kababs and parathas that artists can no longer afford. All they ever talk about is Kapil Sibal and his sons (both lawyers themselves), and what the Chief Justice really told the Prime Minister. I once heard - oh well, I can't repeat it, or bpb and I will both be held in contempt of court.
On your way out, you may stop to take in the exhibitions. Some are brilliant; others are awful, suggesting that the artist is the niece of someone in the ministry of culture.
Western diplomats lunch with ministry contacts, most fittingly, in Sunder Nagar, which is where all well-heeled tourists go to buy overpriced namaste-India kitsch. This is because Basil and Thyme – after years in the Santushti shopping complex, steps from the embassies of Chanakyapuri - has moved here, and still produces a moussaka that even the Greek ambassador orders.
But perhaps you’re a real big-game hunter, and want to settle for nothing less than a sight of a Gandhi piling into pasta just like they make in old Milan. Buttonhole a member of the Italian Cultural Centre, or get a membership yourself, to access Ritu Dalmia’s simplest and finest restaurant. The aglio e olio is world-class – it would have to be – and there’s a very good chance that the quiet family in the corner under the tree is the Congress' reigning dynasty, trying to cheer itself up after seeing the polls from UP.
Khan Wait To Be King
Only have time for the compressed experience? Save your weekend for Khan Market. Five minutes away from the Taj Mansingh, each of its better restaurants attracts a different sort of diner. Even at tiny Chokola, you might have to wait because Omar Abdullah’s retinue has taken up half the space as their Nehru-jacketed boss slurps his way through a hot chocolate with a twist of chilli. (For what it’s worth, I have never believed those rumours about Smriti Irani’s afternoon buyouts of L’Opera’s sourdough stock.)
Even at tiny Chokola, you might have to wait because Omar Abdullah’s retinue has taken up half the space as their Nehru-jacketed boss slurps his way through a hot chocolate with a twist of chilli. (For what it’s worth, I have never believed those rumours about Smriti Irani’s afternoon buyouts of L’Opera’s sourdough stock.)
La Bodega, run by ex-World Bank employee Smriti Goyal, is always the place to go if you’re a development-wallah or embassy-wallah discussing the niceties of defence deals and trade negotiations in peace. As a bonus, there’s always an expat complaining about Delhi servants at some table - a break from the rest of Khan, which is full of Indians complaining about Delhi servants. This is all usually very boring even for the parties concerned - I suggest you make your (excellent) shrimp tostadas a priority.
Over at Town Hall, spread over two floors, three terraces and five different rooms, things are a little different. Do you spot big men in khakis hanging around at the bottom of the stairs? Then ask for a table as far away from Robert Vadra’s as possible. Also, order freshwater eel and scallop sushi rolls.
Of late, in Perch, smelling of birchwood and coffee, you can hide behind your chicken liver parfait as you eavesdrop on writers talking to their agents. I suspect the political economy kids were hanging around for a while hoping that Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian would drop in again and say cutting things about the government’s financial policies within earshot; but maybe that was a one-time thing.
Don't try brunching anywhere: the thing to do is leave the charmed circle for the Defence Colony Sagar - not that far out - instead. Over your rava dosa, look past the hordes of families from South Delhi to the far corner where you just might see Rajdeep Sardesai and Sagarika Ghose holding hands.
Sunday, late afternoon:
Journalists and writers also love Aftab Pauro’s Amici, the best place for pizza and coffee. The owner’s Italian father presides over two floors of people so born to privilege they can walk to Khan Market. There’s nowhere better for the opportunity to watch Mihir Sharma and Hartosh Singh Bal come to blows over the ultra-sickular steak and bacon sandwich.
I’m even hearing stories these days about meetings with prime ministerial sources moving to Sodabottleopenerwala. Trust a Delhi journalist to conflate Gujarati and Irani cuisine.
Smokehouse Deli used to be more popular with the hacks before Amici’s robust Italian food started to improve quite seriously over the last year. Kriti Monga’s wall illustrations have gazed down on many a freelancer being wooed by AAP spokespersons here in years past; senior national security journalists (yes, Praveen Swami, I mean you) continue to meet their intelligence agency sources here, presumably because the kitty at the next table is so loud that it provides excellent cover for secrets. I’m even hearing stories these days about meetings with prime ministerial sources moving to Sodabottleopenerwala. Trust a Delhi journalist to conflate Gujarati and Irani cuisine.
No Talking To CAG-shiers
None of these compare, however, to a place that’s both easy and hard to get into: the India International Centre.
With tall windows that look out onto Lodhi Gardens and a menu that has not changed since Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister, it’s the dining room that remains the best place to try and figure out who’s in and who’s out. (The IIC’s most important habitué for some time has been Arun Jaitley - all you need to know the next time someone asks you why he’s so indispensable to the Prime Minister.)
Go in a little late in the afternoon and you can see the man who runs the PMO, Nripendra Misra, having lunch that runs into tea; go in early, and you might see the former Comptroller and Auditor-General Vinod Rai, the UPA’s memorable dragon-slayer, gossiping with his IAS batchmates. And then there’s Arun Shourie murmuring in a corner with long-time fellow-travellers. Naturally, you need to be with a member to get in. Perhaps that's why it’s more representative of Lutyens’ Delhi than anywhere else - at least for now.
Getting there: The Emperor Lounge, The Taj Mansingh, 1 Mansingh Road, near India Gate; Starbucks, A-1, Hamilton House, Connaught Place, opposite Palika parking; Triveni Terrace Café, Triveni Kala Sangam, 205 Tansen Marg, Mandi House; Basil and Thyme, 28, Sunder Nagar market; Café ICC, Italian Cultural Centre, 50-E, Chandragupta Marg, Chanakyapuri; La Bodega, 29, Middle Lane, Khan Market; Town Hall, 60-61, Middle Lane, Khan Market; Perch, 71, Middle Lane, Khan Market; Sagar Ratna, 18, Defence Colony Market; Amici, 47, Middle Lane, Khan Market, Smoke House Deli, 17, Khan Market; Sodabottleopenerwala, 73, Middle Lane, Khan Market; India International Centre, Max Mueller Marg, next to Lodi Gardens.
The writer of this essay lives in central Delhi, and routinely tries to get companions to pay for lunch. This being Delhi, the writer rarely succeeds.
bpb eavesdrops anonymously and pays for its own meals.
Illustration by Sriparna Ghosh, artist and designer at Tiffinbox.
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