Last week, the iconic Olive Mumbai completed 21 years. In a city where even popular dining hotspots don’t last beyond three to five years—and a promising few, like Qualia and Le15 Cafe, shut shop in the pandemic—celebrating such a milestone birthday is reassuring. Founder AD Singh, who turned 61 in November, opened Olive in 2000 when the concept of al-fresco dining in Mumbai’s suburbs was unheard of. The cool crowd was in SoBo (South Bombay), hanging out at Indigo or the nightclub Fire N Ice in Lower Parel. Singh took a risk and twenty years later it paid off.
In an interview with Lounge, the restaurateur who loves a good salad, talks about creating a dining space that goes beyond food and toasts to la dolce vita.
It has been 21 years, how are you feeling?
The other day, I was at a close friend's birthday party. She used to frequent Olive in the early days, and now her son, who just turned 18, does the same. We have been seeing this a lot—20 years ago Olive was a favourite with parents and now their children are fans. It’s the single most satisfying thing for me.
When you opened Olive in 2000, what did you have in mind?
It was on a family holiday in Phuket with family, when I found myself sitting at the same restaurant every day. I liked their laidback vibe with good food accompanied by great music. I thought a concrete jungle like Mumbai needed an oasis like that. When I opened Olive, it was to infuse it with that essence of Italian la dolce vita—laughter, conversation, great foods, fresh flowers, and maybe you could dance around your table if you wanted to.
What’s your recipe for creating dining spaces which go beyond food and let guests ‘dance around the table’?
It was the vision that I had. Why does a restaurant need to be quiet and only food-focussed? I was around 40 years old when Olive opened and discos or loud bars didn’t appeal to me. I loved places where one could eat, drink and have a fun evening. Over the years, we built a community and I wanted to offer them experiences that they were interested in. In the early years of Olive Mumbai, there were two big developments—wine and art. It was the time when Sula and Grovers were expanding as home-grown wine labels. We worked a lot with wines by organising classes and tasting sessions for our customers. And, I believe it helped the wine revolution at the restaurant level. We also found our guests were developing an interest in art. So, we opened an art initiative where Anjolie Ela Menon gave a talk about buying art. In 2001, we started our bar nights on Thursday and they still exist, which is fantastic. I’d say we are India’s first lifestyle restaurant which is much more than just serving good food and great service.
What is the one thing that changed about you in 21 years as a business person?
I’ve become more flexible. It’s a dynamic industry and you’ve to be adaptable, offer products as the market changes and course correct as you go along.
Few years ago, you took a break due to health reasons. How did you bounce back?
It was strange because I eat well and exercise regularly. In 2018, I got some sort of virus which led to encephalitis and meningitis. It started with a fever and all my reports were fine. One night, I went to sleep and about two weeks later woke up in an ICU. I saw my friends and family around my bed and thought what fun! I didn’t know what had happened and how close I had come to the end. I was in the hospital in March-April and after a recovery period of five-six weeks, I resumed work. Slowly, I started swimming and got back to my workouts. Over the many years, I have created a life where I don’t have regrets. I work very hard, but make time for my family and close friends. During those weeks of recovery, I evaluated my life to find if I needed to change anything. And, there was nothing that I wanted to change.
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