What Do We Miss The Most About Eating Out?

From making memories to chatter with servers, India's top chefs recollect their favourite dining out experiences, which are now on hold thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
Family members eating street food in the night
Family members eating street food in the night

Until two decades ago, dining out used to be exceptional, a consequence of an uncommon event or celebrations. While that has drastically changed, and we often rely on outdoor kitchens for our everyday meals, the memorable ones are still those that hold a social significance for us. Meals had with our loved ones or those that have helped us forge new bonds.

As we continue to grieve the lack of socially eating, sometimes reliving the memories of the meals we enjoyed, some of the top names in the food and beverages industry recount their last memorable meal and what dining out means to them.

Quality time with loved ones

It was the month of February. With Perch set to open in Mumbai, Kartikeya Ratan had been busy with food trials and launch preps. In those weeks, everything else, especially her personal life, took a backseat. “My girlfriend and I would usually do a dinner every week. It was a time when both of us would order a couple of cocktails, some food and spend a few hours just chatting, catching up. But in the run up to the launch, I couldn’t make it to our date night for several weeks at a stretch,” she recounts.

One evening late February, her friend landed up at the restaurant. Kartikeya somehow pacified her and promised that they would go out the following evening. “We went to the Japanese restaurant Izumi in Bandra, where we ordered two rounds of cocktails and several varieties of sushi, a lot more than we could eat. After the meal, we joined some of our friends at Soul Fry for the karaoke night,” she recounts.

Kartikeya often and vividly remembers that date night. It was not only the last time she dined out before the lockdown but also the last she saw her dear friend. “We video call a lot, now that I have so much more time. But it just doesn’t match up the experience of chatting, laughing over good food.”

Personalised service

As a chef, Irfan Pabaney knows only too well what it takes to make a dining out experience memorable for guests. And while the lockdown has allowed him the opportunity to attempt many dishes he had never cooked before, the country head at SodaBottleOpenerWala is sorely missing the service aspect of his job ― both as a chef as well as a guest.

“My daughter had her exams underway before the lockdown. Hoping to give her a break from studies, my wife and I decided to take her out for a meal. Dakshinayan in Tardeo proved ideal; their simple vegetarian South Indian fare was the perfect comfort food we needed that day,” Pabaney recounts.

However, it was the personalised service that Pabaney remembers the evening for. “Since we are regulars at the tiny eatery, the staff was that extra bit warm and attentive. Aware of how we like to have our favourite dishes on the menu, the pepper dosa and mini idlis with an extra dash of ghee for instance, they made the experience smooth and effortless,” he adds.

Pabaney believes these small gestures on part of a restaurant’s staff go a long way in making guests happy. It helps develop a relationship that both the parties cherish. “I miss seeing customers leave with their stomachs and hearts full.”

Making memories

In the six years since he joined The Bombay Canteen, Thomas Zacharias must have enjoyed scores of meals with other key partners of the Lower Parel restaurant, Sameer Seth, Yash Bhanage and Floyd Cardoz. However, it is the breakfast they had at The Nutcracker, Palladium, early March that is etched in the chef’s memory forever. “That was the last time all four of us ate out together before we lost Floyd to Covid-19,” explains the executive chef of the popular Mumbai eatery.

Cardoz, the culinary director at The Bombay Canteen who would shuttle between New York and Mumbai, was visiting Mumbai at the time. They had just launched Bombay Sweet Shop, a space dedicated to reimagined Indian desserts, and were thrilled about the success of the event. “Floyd was to fly back in a couple of days so the four of us planned to catch up for breakfast.” They chose The Nutcracker, one of their favourites. “I personally believe they serve the best akuri on toast in the city.”

Zacharias, however, had not imagined it would be their last meal together. “Most of my memories with Floyd revolve around food ― all the times when we have cooked together, dined out or travelled together to various parts of India explore regional cuisines. But now when I look back, that simple breakfast we had together feels extra special,” he says.

Trip down heritage lane

HYDERABAD, INDIA: An Indian vendor prepares kebabs and non-vegetarian delicacies in his stall outside the Mecca mosque with the Char Minar in the background in Hyderabad, 20 October 2005. I
HYDERABAD, INDIA: An Indian vendor prepares kebabs and non-vegetarian delicacies in his stall outside the Mecca mosque with the Char Minar in the background in Hyderabad, 20 October 2005. I

Shadab near Char Minar in Hyderabad had been on his list for a while for their biryani. But on his last visit to the city famous for its food, Viraf Patel decided to give their breakfast a shot. “They serve khichadi, with kheema and a special tangy chutney/gravy called khatta. Joined by my family and a few friends, I maneuvered past the crowded, winding bylanes early in the morning in order to make it in time since they sell out quickly,” says the executive chef of Bandra’s Olive Bar & Kitchen and Goregaon’s Olive Bistro.

Eating at the popular tiny eatery over half a century old made Patel feel like he was a part of its history. At the same time, it reminds him of how vulnerable such restaurants can be to economic fluctuations. “I feel sad that some of the people who run old, legendary establishments may have lost their jobs. Some such places may not survive and others may have to hire new hands, who may not be able to recreate the same taste that made these places iconic in the first place,” he rues.

Eating is learning

On his trip to Ecuador, Rahul Akerkar decided to dedicate a day to discovering diverse local food. He woke up on a Saturday morning and made his way to Feria de Animales or the local animal market in Otavalo. After watching a variety of animals being traded, from chickens and pigs to horses and dogs, he tried the local street food at the adjoining stalls. “The smells and tastes couldn’t have screamed louder as I ate the freshly butchered and roasted meats, served with tubers and other local ingredients,” he recounts. The chef who formerly helmed Indigo, now has his own restaurant Qualia in Lower Parel.

Big metal bowl of Fritada, fried pork meat, traditional homemade ecuadorian and andean typical food. Top view.
Big metal bowl of Fritada, fried pork meat, traditional homemade ecuadorian and andean typical food. Top view.

While that experience helped Akerkar explore one aspect of the local food, the day progressed to teach him some more about Ecuadorian cuisine. And this is the part about dining out that the chef misses the most during the ongoing lockdown - the learning. That same Saturday evening, Akerkar had a multi-course dinner with chef Damiel Maldonado in his Quito restaurant Urko Cocina Local. This time, the food was elevated, refined and had a story to tell. It was governed by the idea of ‘Raymis’ or the Andrean astral cycle that dictates what you should eat and when. Delicate, whimsically inventive and entirely locally sourced, it underscored the chef’s love for cultural heritage.

“I love dining experiences where the chef is thinking about what they are serving and why. When you have this presented against the backdrop of culinary creativity and brilliant cooking skills, you will always have a winner - a meal that you will remember for years to come,” asserts Akerkar.

Food as a celebration

To mark her husband’s birthday, Gauri Devidayal chose to surprise him with a stay at Casa Maria Luigia on the outskirts of Modena. Massimo Bottura’s quaint property offering an Emilian countryside experience, it boasts of one of the finest restaurants in Italy, Osteria Francescana.

While the dinner was a delight, Devidayal, of Colaba’s The Table, remembers the trip for the breakfast they had. “I am a sucker for good breakfasts. It’s my favourite meal of the day and one I cannot do without,” says Devidayal, whose Magazine Street Kitchen in Byculla churns out some of the best breads and pastries in Mumbai. “The unassuming breakfast, an Emilian feast of freshly baked breads, cakes, pastries and traditional Italian staples including sausages, quiches and plenty of cheese, dished out by the lovely head chef Jessica Roval and her team, left an indelible mark in my mind.”