When Did We Stop Eating Food and Start Eating Ambience for Dinner?


When Did We Stop Eating Food and Start Eating Ambience for Dinner?

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

I’m a Shagun kinda guy. You know Shagun, or Sharanya, or Aashirwaad, or Vaishali, those local hole-in-the-wall restaurants that served everything from idli-dosa to veg club sandwich, from paneer-capsicum pizza to hakka noodles, and then slapped the bill on your table? Those places where the set-up would be all aluminium and ply, and waiters would always be rude? The one thing they were particular about was lip-smacking food. They’d figured that the only way to be a good restaurant was to serve good food. That good food earned them a reputation in the neighbourhood and these eateries minted money for decades based on word-of-mouth recommendations.  

The whole eating experience got complicated when we grew up, started making money, and found places to spend that money. It started with fine dining, where you discovered that meals come in courses – appetizers, soup, salad, deserts – and everyone wasn’t just having “main course” all the time.   And then it wasn’t enough that the meal was divided into five or six parts; it suddenly mattered how innovative each and every part could be. This was the stage we began to eat pani puri with the paani and chutney served in test tubes while sitting under vintage lamps on high stools that broke your back. After that, there was no turning back. Taste went for toss and we began to eat ambience for dinner.

A giveaway for a hipster restaurant is always the ambience. These are the Sanjay Leela Bhansalis of the restaurant world who spend so much on art, decor, and lights that they forget to invest in good chefs and quality food. The door must either look like an entrance to a castle, or so trashy that it got rust all over it. Gone are the days when they picked a solid colour from an Asian Paints booklet and got on with life. The walls these days must have bicycle parts and guitars hanging on them. The customer shouldn’t know if he’s come to eat at a restaurant or is part of a science-fiction movie.

One can tell how pretentious a place is, based on how many lines of description are allotted to every food item in the menu.

Back in the day, you would walk into a restaurant and sit on a chair with a sunmica table in front of you. Now you could be either sitting on the ground with no back support or on an awkward chair that is so high that climbing it is like completing a Roadies task. If you’re lucky, you might get to eat on plates because if trends are anything to go by, people now have food on wooden blocks and oyster shells. But worry not, there’ll be a bunch of puppies and a stack of pillows around so you can cuddle and cry yourself to pain, having overpaid six times for a paneer gravy that has all the colour and texture in the world, just no goddamn taste.

My beloved Shagun has a one-page menu, printed on both sides of the page. It has no food philosophy. It simply serves food. It takes you less than a minute to go through the menu. You place your order and it takes about eight minutes for the food to arrive. At a hipster restaurant, you don’t get a menu, you get a book. Some places now have separate menus for starters, drinks, deserts. Maybe they should get JK Rowling on board to write for them. After going through many such menus, I had to add “voracious reader” as a hobby to my Twitter bio. One can tell how pretentious a place is, based on how many lines of description are allotted to every food item in the menu. The world has been having tomato soup for centuries, it doesn’t need a fucking paragraph on what a tomato soup is!

And still hipster restaurants flourish because even if they don’t have food, they have great Instagram value. Who doesn’t want to look at a pav bhaji fondue, a red velvet dhokla, or a freakshake with a cheesy burger on top? Never mind how stupid that sounds, how awful it is as a combination, or what it tastes like, we live in the world of social media. Just like our lives online, it is only important that the food we eat looks great. Our friends have to “like” it, our tongues need not.

It is perhaps time for a ghar wapsi of the Shagun restaurants in our lives.