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What defines a café in 2023?

Want a croissant with a cocktail? Leave behind your laptop and head to a café in Mumbai

Cocktails with a breakfast spread at a café. (Istockphoto)
Cocktails with a breakfast spread at a café. (Istockphoto)

About a decade ago, a friend and I would make plans—albeit, unrealistic—to go for a breakfast with champagne. We were in the early days of our careers and aspirations were at an all-time high. There was just one problem though: We didn’t know where we would find such a breakfast, except at five-star hotels that were out of reach for us rookie journalists.

Maybe things would have been a tad different if it was the Mumbai of 2023, where the practice of cafés serving alcohol seems to be evolving into a clear trend. One may still not be able to get champagne but one can now sip on a decent wine with breakfast at a hip café in this era of Succession. In fact, when the café Veronica opened in Bandra in February, I visited with friends and ordered momos, tacos and the white wine Grüner Veltliner from Austria. It was unexpected—a unique wine like the Grüner, which is not mass-produced, is hard to come by even at gourmet restaurants in the city.

A few weeks later, in March, we were at another café at the busy Phoenix Mall in Lower Parel. It was the newly launched Cafe by The St Regis Mumbai. We got gin cocktails to go with croissant sandwiches. Clearly, more cafés in the city were opting to introduce alcohol on the menu, making for an experience similar to restaurants.

Perhaps one of the first cafés to introduce a wine experience in the city is Kala Ghoda Café, in south Mumbai. The year was 2018, and they introduced an almost speakeasy-style wine room. About 5km away is the Mag St Café, perhaps the only one serving cocktails to start operations in 2021. This year, several cafés have opened up already, with both espresso and Highballs on the menu.

“The line between cafés and restaurants is blurring because the idea is to offer a holistic experience as a diner expects more,” notes Varun Chhibber, general manager, The St Regis Mumbai. This means there will be a section dedicated to the main course alongside a segment on sandwiches and a beverage menu with speciality coffees sharing space with cocktails and wines.

The response has been encouraging. The Cafe by The St Regis Mumbai gets the mall crowd. On weekends, it’s impossible to get a table at Veronica or the Mag St Café.

“These spaces have started to operate like mini restaurants,” observes Aditi Dugar. She is the founder of the Mumbai-based hospitality brand Urban Gourmet India, which runs the restaurant Masque and recently opened the bistro Circle Sixty Nine in partnership with Sangita Devi Kathiwada, founder of the multi-designer fashion store Mélange. Dugar also heads operations at the all-day café SeeSaw in Mumbai and the ARAKU Coffee café in Bengaluru. A restaurant, she explains, is a formal set-up with full-fledged lunch and dinner menus; a café is an informal set-up where one can work from (and walk in wearing shorts or open footwear); while a bistro is somewhere in between.

Working from cafés had become the norm, especially in the pandemic. “It’s almost like a free seat one can occupy to use free Wi-Fi. But I think that’s changing,” she says. For an intrepid foodie, it’s a question of choice. If you happen to be in Bandra on a Friday, head to Blue Tokai, which offers a seat to work fuelled by medium roast pour-overs. Then hop over to Veronica to get a rosé with an open toast sandwich. There’s space for both.

Also read | What makes a city a dining hotspot?

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