In a few days, the single most influential restaurant in India over the last 25 years will serve its last meal. Sitting at the bar, someone will sip the last Indigo Mary, with the tartness of tamarind and the zest of cumin. Upstairs on the terrace, a guest will close his eyes as he eats a final bite of lobster risotto, letting the taste linger like the memories of the restaurant that changed everything.
India’s restaurant scene can be divided into two eras: before Indigo and after. We grew up in a time where eating out meant either Indian, Chinese or what was loosely described as Continental, a strange combination of leathery steaks, soggy fries and Chicken a la Kiev, with macaroni for the kids (let us banish from our memories the abomination called multi-cuisine). Of course there were good classical European restaurants at the grand five stars, but most of our surnames weren’t Birla or Tata. So faced with the realisation that the only way to afford a meal at the Zodiac Grill at the Taj was to sell a kidney, we kept walking through the doors of Gaylord or Jazz By The Bay.
This culinary wasteland stretched from Guwahati to Ahmedabad and from Srinagar to Coimbatore. India was changing, liberalisation meant that we were in the age of MTV, but our food culture remained resolutely stuck in the eighties.
So when Rahul Akerkar opened the stunning, sexy Indigo in Colaba in 1999, serving world-class contemporary European fare, he single-handedly dragged India’s food scene into the 21st century, not so much brushing away the cobwebs as much as destroying them with a blowtorch. To eat at Indigo meant you were sophisticated but trendy, that you had taste but you were contemporary. It was the place you could take anyone to from the Rolling Stones to Chelsea Clinton and not feel the distant echo of the unhip, uncool India we grew up with in the 80s.
The success of Indigo made a star of the chef/proprietor Rahul Akerkar, paving the way for everyone from Riyaaz Amlani to Manish Mehrotra. For the first time ever, a young chef or entrepreneur could say, “I want to start a restaurant of my own, a place that will reflect my tastes, my passions, my roots.” It destroyed the monopoly of the five star hotels and the tyranny of decades of mediocrity.
So before it shuts down this week, walk past the crowded stalls of Colaba Causeway, turn left into the leafy lane that houses Indigo and stop in front of the ancient bungalow. As you walk through those doors look around you and soak in the beauty. Take care to notice every bite and every sip. Then step back from today and think of the audacity, vision, self belief and courage it took to serve food like this, to create a space like this in the nineties in India. Ask for another drink and raise a toast. Because the closing of Indigo isn’t the end of a restaurant. It is the end of a chapter in history.
Anirban Blah is a full time eater who travels the world looking for the best food, gin and beer. In his spare time he is also the founder of KWAN and Mojostar. Read his blog here.
Wake up to daily updates on what to eat/shop/do in your city