Whether you are at a cavernous museum or at a theatre, food at cultural spaces in India always seems like an afterthought—over-fried samosas or wilting sandwiches with weak tea or milky coffee is usually the best on offer. And I thought this was the best “canteens” could do until I had a leisurely afternoon tea at the British Museum’s Great Court restaurant some years ago, sipping Prosecco while sampling scones, cakes and sandwiches. That a museum could be about art as well as food was eye-opening.
I had a déjà vu moment at Cumulus, which opened on 11 August in Bengaluru’s buzzy Museum of Art and Photography (MAP). The fine-dining rooftop restaurant’s stark white décor is just the setting to pause and reflect after all the sensory stimulation while walking through three floors of art. A collaboration between MAP and the couverture chocolate brand Smoor, the al fresco space is named after the cotton-candy clouds that dot Bengaluru’s skies. “It also metaphorically refers to the ‘cloud’ where the museum’s art collection is stored,” says Kanchan Achpal, head of marketing at Smoor. Achpal says Cumulus hopes to celebrate the “art of food”. “We believe that food is art because you are basically bringing ingredients to life when you cook. So, when MAP invited us to open a restaurant, we accepted,” says Achpal.
“Public cultural spaces are democratic spaces that are accessible to the widest demography. And for people to feel a sense of community here, food is the lowest common denominator that can help achieve that. For a café to work in these places, it needs to meet three basic expectations: Serve hygienic food, at friendly price points, and offer value proposition in terms of overall experience to visitors,” says Ambrish Arora, founder and principal, Studio Lotus, a Delhi-based design practice that has designed F&B establishments like Baradari, a fine-dining restaurant in Jaipur’s City Palace; Palki Cafe in the Mehrangarh Museum, Jodhpur, Rajasthan; and Café Lota in Delhi’s National Crafts Museum and Hastkala Academy.
Café Lota, launched in October 2013 as part of a publicised effort to renovate the museum, is a fine example of what can transpire if a “culture café” gets all the three aspects Arora mentions right. Within a year of its launch, its region-focused menu became a major draw. Rajesh Ojha, founder-partner of Red Cedar Hospitality, which runs the restaurant, says, “When we sat down to ideate, we thought that because the craft museum housed artefacts from different regions of India, it would be good to create a menu that featured dishes from all the states.”
Focused on showcasing lesser-known regional delicacies, Café Lota’s menu reads like a culinary expedition of India. Some of the popular dishes include mushroom uttapam, palak patta chaat, Amritsari amaranth machhli aur shakarkandi (the Café Lota version of fish ’n chips) and bhapa doi cheesecake. “We send our kitchen staff to homes to learn the recipes of every new dish that’s added to the menu,” says Ojha. Arora says the café was designed without doors or barriers for a welcoming feel. “We wanted it to exude a sense of community eating.”
In Bengaluru, Anju’s Cafe at Ranga Shankara is synonymous with a “culture café” that serves soulful food. Run by Angela Sudarshan, Anju Aunty to regulars, it enjoys a loyal following. Bengalureans and visiting theatrewallahs swear by the fare, especially the sabudana vadas and Badli akki rotis.
Shalini Sheshadri, vice-president-HR at an investment bank, has been a regular for nine years. “I like the entire set-up of the café; it’s cosy and unique with its low benches,” she says. Besides the food, Sheshadri loves Sudarshan’s hosting style. “Once you start visiting the place regularly, she recognises you and strikes up conversations with you,” says Sheshadri. “The café is my second home,” she adds. Serving a menu largely of Indian dishes and street food, the popularity of Anju’s Cafe comes from the care with which Sudarshan prepares every dish. The masalas and spice blends are prepared at home; no colours or MSG are added.
Besides location and menu, the third and perhaps most crucial element is pricing. At Lamakaan, Hyderabad’s open cultural centre in Banjara Hills, the café serves simple Hyderabadi fare—sorry, no biryani—like khatti dal, khichdi, mutton qeema and tahiri at extremely pocket-friendly prices. A plate of its all-time hit samosa is priced at Rs. 20, khatti dal is Rs. 50, and a plate of mutton qeema pulao, at Rs. 120, is the priciest. “We are an open, inclusive space and our menu’s pricing reflects that. The food has to be affordable to everyone who comes here: be it the security guards who lunch here or the artists who perform here,” says Kranti M., manager of the space. At Café Lota, the dishes are priced between Rs.175-Rs.375.
Café Lota, Lamakaan and Anju’s Cafe, not to forget Prithvi Cafe in Mumbai, are seasoned names. With some new players besides Cumulus, such as the BIC Cafe at the Bangalore International Centre, where the restaurant is run by Podi & Spice and beverages section by Arbor Brewing Company, the AMADEO by Oberoi and Indian Accent, both at the Nita Mukesh Ambani Culture Centre in Mumbai, the concept of cafés in cultural spaces is getting a fancier spin. In a country known to be price sensitive, it will be interesting to see how successful these establishments can be in creating a seamless experience that combines food with art and culture, and, more importantly, makes visitors feel welcome.