Noted chefs and restaurateurs from Bengaluru take us on a trip down memory lane about the past decade
THIS year marks the 15th anniversary of Olive Beach, Manu Chandra’s iconic European restaurant. With brands such as Monkey Bar, Toast and Tonic, Cantan and The Fatty Bao, the chef has had a busy decade. He even took up artisanal cheesemaking with his venture Begum Victoria Cheese. His restaurants have made Bengaluru, which was known for being just the ‘pub city’, an industry leader in trends and experi-mental cuisines. But he recalls a time when it was not so busy. “Even a decade ago, things were very, very different in the restaurant and dining culture of Bengaluru. It was a culinary desert,” he says. Areas that are the hubs now were not as crowded as they are today. “Places like Indira-nagar and Koramangala were still nascent, and no one spoke about Kammanahalli. These were non-existent entities on the food map,” he adds.
Manu looks back at when he opened his restaurant, LikeThatOnly, in Whitefield, which served moder n Asian food. At the time, Whitefield was not what it is today and unfortunately it didn’t quite make an impact. “But sort of like a phoenix, I repackaged it, and within a year we launched it as The Fatty Bao,” says the chef, about the restaurant that has given a facelift to Asian food in India. Naturally, the pandemic did not help the industry, but even before that, venues were suffering due to various restrictions set in place by the government. “One thing that definitely has not changed in the last decade is the red tape-ism,” the chef says, half-jokingly, adding, “I wish that changes. I think the pandemic is going to be a great leveller in many ways.”
IT’S been over two decades since he and his partner, Vivek Ubhayakar, launched one of Bengaluru's most iconic restaurants, Sunny’s, but Arjun Sajnani still does all the shopping for the kitchen himself. In an industry where new ventures open and shut in a matter of a few years, if not months, it’s details like this that have seen Sunny’s continue to thrive. “We have always been consistent, we have thorough knowledge of what our customers want and most of my staff has stayed with me right from the start. These are some of the other factors that have made us who we are,” explains Arjun. Named after their dog, Sunny’s was launched when Arjun returned from New York and wanted a source of income. “We were broke and needed to earn a living. We also missed the food in the US. So we decided to recreate some of that here,” shares Arjun. While Sunny’s has survived through the years, Arjun still misses some of Bengaluru’s other iconic restaurants that were forced to shut for various reasons. “We would frequent places like Bluefox, Princess, the old Taipan and Nanking. These restaurants were integral parts of the city’s social scene back in the day,” he says, adding, “There’s so much the city has lost. I used to love driving down MG Road with its gorgeous boulevard and historic buildings. Old Bangalore had a very distinct charm. All the nice parts of the British rule, like the architecture, have almost disappeared. There has been a huge influx of people. We could have easily created a new Bangalore and an old Bangalore, but we didn’t and we are facing the consequences now.”
As reflected on Sunnys’ menu card, Arjun prefers if food is straightforward, honest and devoid of pretensions. And so it’s only natural that he has a less-than-popular take on where the food industry is headed. “I think it has blown out of proportion. Restaurants open and shut like no one’s business. Even I tried to open in Indiranagar, but was forced to shut. Globally, not just in India, there’s a lot of pretension when it comes to food. I think it’s becoming a con game,” shares Arjun. Now that the restaurant has reopened after the lockdown and restrictions, Arjun is back at work and is hoping to recover what they lost. “What we can do is only wait and hope for the best. I do pray things pick up again before I retire,
which might be in the next four years,” he says. Also a well-known name in theatre circles, Arjun was about to stage Girish Karnad’s final play (which the playwright personally asked him to work on just before his death) in Mumbai when the lockdown was announced. “ I also wish to get back into theatre. And I’m hoping that happens soon,” he says in conclusion.
WHEN you’ve been in the same job for 30 years, it’s easy to get complacent and difficult to keep finding inspiration. But going by the success and continuing popularity of Karavalli, chef Naren Thimmaiah is surely an exception. There are a handful of names who have defined the food industry in Bengaluru and the chef and his restaurant have been doing it quietly ever since it opened in 1990. “The biggest challenge during the early days was convincing guests about the concept of a coastal restaurant in Bangalore! There were days when we drew a blank with no guests. One day, there were six of them and the next day, our General Manager sent us a bouquet with a message telling us that people have finally started believing in us,” recalls chef Naren, who started working at Vivanta Bengaluru, Residency Road (then The Gateway Hotel) after being recruited through campus placements by the Taj Group.
Talking about how the restaurant scene has changed over the past decade, chef Naren says, “2010 saw the explosion of restaurants in Bengaluru. This was the period when restaurants shifted gears from being just a place to eat to a place to indulge in. And when restaurants moved from serving safe, tried-and-tested recipes to niche and quirky food, we realised the potential of the younger crowd. Along with the efforts put in by the chefs, almost an equal contribution came in from the patrons whose appetite for culinary knowledge matched our efforts. Also, the quiet comfort food revolution changed the game. We realised the potential of the comfort factor. Any and every food narrative latched on to this theme.”
Having won multiple awards and recognitions, such as being named among the top 50 restaurants in Asia by St Pellegrino in 2013 and 2014, in 1001 Restaurants - You must Experience before you Die by Jenny Linford and in The New York Times – 36 Hours – Asia & Oceania, one can’t help but ask what has contributed to this success. “I think it’s our honest, no-nonsense, simple and straightforward food which everyone can relate to. This restaurant was built on a strong ethos of showcasing the authentic household recipes of mothers and grandmothers. The concept was well-researched and the chosen dishes from the communities were replicated year after year in the same manner, and at regular intervals, new dishes from the regions were added to sustain interest. Thirty years down the line, a majority of the ingredients are strictly sourced from the region of origin of the dish to ensure the quality of the food remains the same. Finally, the most crucial part is the retention of the core team which ensures consistency day in and day out,” he concludes.
IT wouldn’t be incorrect to say Collin Timms, founder of Pecos, in a way defined the pub culture of Bengaluru. The restaurant that opened in 1987, converted to a pub in 1989, and since then has been one of the most popular hangout spots. However, like other restaurants and pubs in the city, Pecos too has had its share of tough times. “Up until the demonetisation, the city was in a state of rapid growth. Everything was booming. But after the decision was announced, there was a gradual decline in busi-
ness and then the pandemic hit us like a thunderbolt. We have hit the bottom of the valley, from here on, the only way is up,” offers Timms.
The last decade, however, has been a memorable one for Pecos. Timms took over the role as the Mentor, while his son Liam Timms was appointed as the Whole Time Director. “The biggest highlight of our journey was that the confidence we garnered during the 2010-11 period helped Pecos become the first pub in India to be listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange,” discloses Timms. The pub continues to be special for various reasons, and even people from other cities who visit Bengaluru, drop by for a drink. It’s not just the food and alcohol, but it’s also the retro music that’s a big draw. “Our clientele — whether it is young IT professionals or generations of old Bangaloreans — have made this place a success. The fellowship is our strength,” says Timms, who consults his patrons even if he has to make a minor change in the menu or decor. In spite of the lockdown, he says they continue to be a zero-debt company. “My crystal ball is opaque right now. I don’t have an answer to what the future holds. Our focus is on survival. What I do know is that we are social animals and can’t operate in isolation. Pecos is still open to welcome back people to friendship and fellowship,” he signs off.
BENGALURU has witnessed several ups and downs. Whether it is civic problems, the evolving cultural scene or the pandemic, people have adapted to change without complaining, and one such person is Prem Koshy. The well-known restaurateur runs the iconic Koshy’s on St Marks Road, which has always been known to attract intellectuals such as writers, filmmakers, artists, and activists. But for Prem, it doesn’t matter who the person is or the background they come with. “The minute a person enters Koshy’s, he or she is equal. From employees to customers, everyone is equal within our premises,” he asserts.
Perhaps it’s this attitude that has kept Koshy’s in the business for nearly 70 years. In the last decade too, the restaurant has been through a rough patch. Recollecting his memories, Prem says, “2010 was a difficult period for us. The TenderSURE project was going on, everything was dug up, our business was badly affected. But we persevered and stood the test of time. We came back from the brink. It is purely because of the resilience of my employees that we have managed to stay in the service of Bengaluru.”
Although the lockdown once again brought the shutters down, Koshy’s reopened in October this year with all the precautions in place. Prem walks around the restaurant ensuring the masks are on, and only when someone's order reaches their table drink can they pull off the masks. “Bangalore has always been the miracle spot of the world. It will keep evolving. The shutdown has helped our trees to regrow, flowers to blossom and our wildlife is back with a bang. We are rescuing more animals than before,” says Prem who is also an active People for Animal volunteer and helps with rescues. As recently as two years ago, he says he discovered a thriving group of slender loris in Bengaluru. “I thought we would never get to see them. But when a researcher, came down from America in search of this species, we discovered this beautiful population of primates in the middle of the city,” he reveals.
While he juggles both his restaurant business and wildlife rescues, Prem never forgets his duty to the city, he concludes, “My brother, PO Matthew and I, known as Santhosh and Prem are just guardians of this place that has been handed down to us, the third generation of the family, to keep it safe, and serve the people of Bengaluru.”
With inputs from: Anagha Maareesha