It’s the beginning of the new year and the start of the last quarter of the financial year—when businesses take stock of what was and what is to come. Restaurants did not have it easy in 2022, given the impact of the pandemic. Many restaurants, across cities, had no choice but to permanently shut down operations, devastating livelihoods. But, as is always the case, things began to look up as the country came out of the grip of covid-19. Restaurants reopened, new ones were launched and revenge dining out (similar to revenge travel) made it hard to get a table, particularly from Diwali 2022 onwards.
At the beginning of the new year, here is a look at three dining out trends that will define 2023, based on our conversations with Kabir Suri, co-founder, Azure Hospitality, and president, National Restaurant Association of India; Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal, curator and editor-in-chief, Godrej Food Trends Report; and restaurateurs.
CULINARY GROWTH IN TIER 2 CITIES
“While the consumer of 2023 remains the same, there is an increase of disposable income in the metros and an overall expansion of markets in tier 1 and 2 cities,” says Suri. He forecasts chain-based expansion in existing and new markets.
“Tier 2 cities are increasingly becoming food hubs, with big brands opening up. We now have the likes of a Smokehouse Deli in Dehradun, which shows a change in demographics and spending power,” adds Ghildiyal.
“We saw a lot of people come back to their hometowns during the pandemic and continue to stay there, especially with hybrid working models,” says Mangaluru-based chef Shriya Shetty, who runs BuCo.—Artisanal Bakery & Café. “The city always had a well-travelled population that craved things they ate abroad, and now people are increasingly travelling to smaller cities and documenting their discoveries on social media.”
BuCo is a Mangalurean-European bakery with a small menu that showcases all things Mangalurean—from locally sourced ingredients to handmade, small-batch bakes. “I see such gourmet offerings and the acceptance of newer cuisines in their authentic forms (rather) than an Indianised version faring well in the future as people are rooting for where they come from. Knowing that visitors to Mangaluru put us, a bakery, on their must-visit list in a coastal town famous for seafood is a great sign of how things have changed,” says Shetty.
CONCEPT RESTAURANTS AND SMALLER MENUS
“We will see more restaurants targeting the Indian youth, with global influences setting the trend. Menus will be simplified and the approach will be more concept-driven and not merely cuisine-focused,” says Suri.
One such example is chef Kavan Kuttappa’s Naru Noodle Bar in Bengaluru—an eight-seater ramen bar with a unique over-the-counter interactive dining experience. Reservations open online just once a week for all dining slots and the restaurant is often booked out in seconds.
At the newly launched Half Pint in Little Vagator, Goa, co-founded by Nakul Bhonsle, (founder of Great State Aleworks) and Gaurav Sikka (founder and CEO, Arbor Brewing Company India), sticking to a small food menu helps complement the extensive and diverse beer offering while not overshadowing it.
“Small menus enable a chef to showcase their creativity through signature dishes, unique ingredients and cooking techniques. The lack of ‘variety’ results in a natural tendency to try what the chef specialises in instead of what the customer is naturally comfortable ordering. The biggest draw we see with our small menu is the pleasant surprise a guest experiences when pairing a Seafood Stew with a Tamarind Wheat Ale or a Blue Cheese Beetroot Tart with a rich Stout. You are naturally encouraged to experiment with new pairings, which wouldn’t be possible if we had an extensive menu of the regular ‘bar snacks’,” says Bhonsle.
THE CULINARY ADVENTURER
Food-focused travel experiences are picking up.“Earlier, we didn’t plan travel itineraries solely to eat. But now we take trips to a place like Indore simply to eat street food. With the work-from-home situation, people found themselves capable of making more time to do what they want. A culinary adventurer seeks out chef-led restaurants, interesting crossovers and pop-ups and is interested in the storytelling aspect of a menu. The last factor gives the diner brag value on social media,” says Ghildiyal.
One example is Bengaluru’s The Conservatory (by The Courtyard), set up by Akhila Srinivas, that has regular chef pop-ups with a no-rules-apply philosophy to the food. Each meal is a multi-sensorial experience.
Another example is the farm-to-table, open-to-sky dining experience at MharoKhet, a 40-acre farmland space in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. Tables are perched under the canopy of trees in a two-decade-old guava orchard, with the team serving a seven-course, pre-plated, plant-forward meal. Each course has a plant as a protagonist, and over 90% of the ingredients that are used are grown on the farm itself.
“Dining experiences are more than just satiating one’s hunger, they are a form of recreation. People now want more than tasty food, and that is where dining experiences feature. For us, just the idea of celebrating plants in an otherwise desert region of Rajasthan, the paradox of it, is what draws people towards us,” explains MharoKhet founder Rajnush Agarwal.
Food enthusiasts, though, need not be limited by these trends—for the possibilities are aplenty. “Dining out choices will also be made based on whom you are dining with. A group of friends catching up may head to a cocktail bar, whereas a couple may opt for a fine-dining space and a family for a more casual setting,” notes Ghildiyal.
As the spectre of covid-19 looms again, Suri looks back to signal hope: About 30% of restaurants in India shut down during waves of the pandemic, he notes, but many newcomers filled the vacuum. “The industry has a high rate of failure but we will see conceptually strong menus and brands with consistent food quality survive another wave.”
Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is a features journalist based in Bengaluru.