On Monday, I was in Bandra, Mumbai, outside a yet-to-open restaurant. The floor-to-ceiling windows were covered with blinds, and the air was laden with the smell of fresh paint. A large marble table—which will be a display for fresh bread, croissants and desserts—was lit by three hanging floral lamps. A sign outside said, “Mag St. opening soon”.
I was there to speak to Gauri Devidayal, 43, the person behind this new venture. The co-founder and director of the hospitality company Food Matters Group that owns a number of brands like Mag St. and the The Table, has been on a mission to launch a restaurant in Mumbai’s café capital of Bandra for over a decade. That dream is now coming to fruition with Mag St. opening for business later this month.
In 2011, Devidayal and her husband Jay Yousuf launched the premium dining space, The Table in Colaba. They introduced concepts like farm-fresh ingredients, small plates and community table, now an inherent part of the city’s dining culture. This week, The Table completed 13 years with a menu by their new American chef Will Aghajanian. The first outlet of Mag St., formerly Mag St. Café, opened in Colaba in 2021. In the run-up to the Bandra opening, they dropped the word café from the name to position it as a casual restaurant with high-quality coffee, and a bar serving craft cocktails. The food menu offers popular dishes like pho, lobster rolls and a full English breakfast. There’s an outdoor seating area for guests with pets.
The year has started off with fresh beginnings for Devidayal. In an interview, the restaurateur talks about cafés, battling fears and the transformation in the restaurant space. Edited excerpts:
What is it about Bandra that cafés do so well?
I will find out in a month (laughs). A lot of young millennials choose to live in Bandra, and they are not just people who move into the city from other places. I know folks who shifted from Colaba to Bandra. The culture here is to eat out and order in through the day. We found via Swiggy that the highest ordered food item in a neighbourhood here is cooked eggs. Can you believe that scrambled eggs are the highest ordered breakfast item in Bandra? I haven’t heard of something like this anywhere else. Now, we are figuring out how to deliver cooked eggs without spoilage when Mag St. opens in Bandra. Even coffee delivery here is insane, and breakfast is big.
Café menus are homogenous. How does one stand out from the crowd?
There’s nothing earth-shattering about café menus. There are breakfast items, burgers and pasta—it’s not stuff that no one has seen before. In such a set format, it goes back to the basics of good-quality products, friendly service and a space with character. This place with high ceilings used to be a bank, and we sort of fell in love with it because it has potential. But, no matter how charming a place, it won’t have return customers, if the coffee is bad. So, we had to really work on quality—and even more so because these drinks and food items are available in every corner here.
You have been a restaurateur for 13 years. What has changed?
The whole ecosystem has evolved. As diners sought better food experiences, restaurants, home chefs and cloud kitchens opened to meet this demand. There was a parallel growth of suppliers to provide better quality meat, vegetables, cheese, coffee and flour. About a year ago, we started buying flour from Three One Farms in Punjab, and they have top quality products. It’s (good quality flour) something that didn’t exist before even three years ago. When we opened The Table in 2011, there were no homegrown spirits. We had beers, like Kingfisher, and wines by Indian producers. Even the quality of wines wasn’t consistent year on year. Now, the market is awash with premium flavour-forward, India-made spirits. In fact, there has been a mind-shift change. Earlier a diner ordering a beer or wine made in India was seen as someone who is unwilling to spend more; but now it’s perceived as taking pride in homegrown brands.
What is the one thing that you don’t like about the dining scene now?
The fact that restaurant and bar owners are working towards being on award lists. To each his own, but I see this happening rampantly. It’s getting competitive and being on these lists is one way to get recognition, but when that becomes the major part of the game plan, the overall experience is affected. People go to a restaurant to have a memorable experience, but they won’t remember your ranking. To have the aspiration of being on a list is good, but when you are no longer true to your vision, and you are ticking those boxes to be in the run-up for rankings, then there’s a problem.
What is your greatest fear as a restaurateur?
It used to be my chef leaving, but that happened. (Chef Alex Sanchez left The Table and started Americano). It used to be failing at a restaurant, and that happened. (Miss T opened in 2018 and it shut during the pandemic). I used to dread negative feedback, and that keeps happening. I suppose, we have faced all our fears, and we have managed to carry on.
What is your idea of a perfect restaurant?
There is no such thing. I mean that’s what we are striving towards everyday, and learning that it doesn’t happen. This question can be answered based on what I look for when I dine out: a great vibe, good fuss-free food with a fun server taking care of me.