No jukebox or fresh beer on the tap. No more breakfast offers of 'eat all you can from the first three pages of the menu’. The red upholstery on the sofas and chairs is now teal, and old American memorabilia on the walls has given way to a sketch of a chef with an elaborate spread of bowls and dishes. Acoustic Indie music now fills the speakers, instead of the sounds of the 1950s-60s.
A chequered floor, a few signature dishes and some familiar faces in the staff are the only reminders of the All American Diner which has been replaced by the newly-launched Habitat Hub at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi. The American Diner had been an integral part of the city's restaurant scene for two decades. While the venue remains where it is and the layout is the same, the name change has created a stir across social media and among the city's food enthusiasts.
The question on everyone's minds is: Why? Sunit Tandon, Director- India Habitat Centre (IHC) says, "Old World Hospitality has exited as our hospitality facilities operator. The intellectual property rights to the brands they operated stay with them. So, we obviously cannot continue with those brands. We are now managing the hospitality facilities directly and changing the brands and other aspects of these facilities at the Centre as well”.”
The other restaurants on the property are Delhi-O-Delhi, The Deck and Oriental Octopus which are on higher floors and reserved for members. They have been rebranded too. The American Diner, which is now Habitat Hub, has always welcomed non-members as well, which explains its mass appeal and emotionally-charged response to change.
The American Diner was a replica of the classic diner that Old World Hospitality Group Chairman Rohit Khattar had become fascinated with as a college student in the United States. It opened in 2001 when his group got the contract to set up all the dining facilities at the India Habitat Centre. He brought in an American chef to design a menu, which was in sync with what one would expect at a diner in the US. It was one-of-its-kind in India and soon became widely popular with a diverse bunch of people, who would visit anytime from 7am till dinner. Pancakes, eggs, bacon, donuts and freshly-brewed coffee made a breakfast for champions, who had either completed a long Sunday morning run or had spent an equally long Saturday night, cruising around town.
Hotdogs, burgers, fried chicken, corn and a range of shakes, malts and desserts were churned out through the day, while brunch-buffets were spread out in the adjacent lawn during winter. A key attraction was also the Jukebox and the rock and pop of the 60’s it played. In the early years one could put a five-rupee coin into it and select a track. That soon stopped but the jukebox continued to have its signature spot between the bar stools below the long counter. Everything from the red upholstery, to the windows and flooring, were in keeping with the theme. Located on the ground level in close proximity to the auditorium, art gallery and banquet halls, it made the perfect stop-over for people attending plays, functions, art-shows and movie-screenings, that are a regular part of the Centre’s cultural calendar.
So, if the venue is still located in exactly the same spot, why such a strong response to the name change and a few other aspects of decor and theme?
“A slice of the past has gone with it”, regrets Girija Krishan, a lawyer and a regular from the old days. “I used to bring my foreigner friends here when they visited and everyone felt it was exactly like a diner in the US. I just can’t relate to the name ‘Hub’ somehow.” The music also played an important role for Renuka Chatterjee, a publisher, who remembers it as “one of the only places where one could hear classics of the yesteryears from artists like The Beatles, Little Richard and Elvis Presley. The new ‘Indie' music simply doesn’t cut it.
Just like the name, a lot of these changes are tied down to the same technicality – the Intellectual Property Rights. Some key elements of the overall theme have to change. The fact that old loyalists are not taking to them too well, says something about a connection that develops with an establishment that goes way beyond the food. Rohit Khattar would know. Apart from The All American Diner, he has set up a few other successful fine-dining restaurants like Indian Accent and Chor Bizarre that have stood the test of time and have global branches. “It’s the memories. People naturally feel wistful about memories they have of a moment or experience in a much-loved place they have frequented, when it is changed. Speaking of which, I must state that this is not simply a ‘name change’. We (Old World Hospitality) no longer operate IHC’s hospitality and cultural facilities and all calls regarding theme and menu etc are entirely theirs. We have warm memories of co-creating the Centre and wish them all the very best,” says Khattar.
The Habitat Hub, as it is now, will be known for world cuisine. The prime location and the outdoor seating continue to be an attractive bait. The sight of a mixed bunch of people walking in from breakfast through till the evening is reassuring, as is the signature warmth of the staff. A blackboard stands in place of the Jukebox with the day’s specials written in chalk. Pizzas, pasta, sangrias, a breakfast burger, crepes, as well as some Turkish dishes like shakshuka and cilbir and Indian specials like keema pao and masala omelette, make up some of the new additions. The classic pancake combos still exist along with some other American specials, malts and shakes from the previous menu, but the choice of a ‘stack of two or three’ plain pancakes with a tad bit of maple syrup and nothing else, is sadly off the menu. This elegant simplicity will be missed as it defined the place in a city filled with restaurants where combos and toppings have no end.
Reshil Charles is a Delhi-based writer.