The usually crowded streets of Panaji’s Latin Quarter, which refers to Fontainhas and São Tomé, are quiet on this Sunday. Inside the Larder & Folk restaurant, people mill about, petting a poodle, munching on cookies and doughnuts, and striking up conversation with strangers. It is a lovely way to spend the afternoon, in one of Goa’s hottest neighbourhoods.
Panaji’s heritage wards of Fontainhas, São Tomé and Mala are easily the top of most tourists’ itineraries for their Goan architecture and picturesque lanes where every corner has a surprise: an old bakery, a mural, a well, or a colourful façade. Heritage wards refer to parts of the city that go back over a century.
Until recently, much of the food found here was typically Goan, offered in family-run establishments, cafés or in old-school tavernas (drinking holes). Lately, these areas are attracting a different kind of crowd: entrepreneurs and restaurateurs keen on changing the food scene.
The new places are mostly set in old Goan homes or shops, renovated to give them a modern feel. They are colourful, big on space, abundant with foliage, with large windows. The food is familiar and modern, ranging from granny-style Italian and European to Indian seafood.
“Fontainhas/São Tomé is now buzzing. If you are opening a restaurant in Panaji, you would want to be here,” says Priyanka Sardessai, who owns Larder & Folk. She began in a small space in Mala, before moving to the current location in December—once a typewriter repair shop, it’s a big space with high ceilings, exposed walls. “Customers have said that the neighbourhood feels like a small European town and it could possibly turn into another Hauz Khas (Delhi) or Kala Ghoda (Mumbai).”
“In the past five years or so, the neighbourhood has seen several new restaurants cropping up within walking distance. The charm of old buildings and the potential tourist footfalls is an incentive for entrepreneurs,” says Chryselle D’Silva Dias, writer and resident of São Tomé. She says there are interesting food choices, from the newer Casanoni and Casa Lusitana to oldies like Hospedaria Venite, which has been there for almost 70 years dishing up Goan and continental food. It now has Ground Flow with a retro vibe, which serves drinks and nibbles.
This surge is particularly evident post pandemic, which saw a slew of new places—Miski Bar, which was renovated from a taverna into a bar; local chef Pablo Miranda’s neighbourhood bar, António, and yakitori bar, Makutsu; Café Meu Lar by Barista; Tea Trunk for speciality teas; and Mo’s Café for Japanese Goan food.
These shiny new spaces have curated interiors, Instagrammable corners and elements, and food that caters to diverse palates. There is Sarvaa, with a Parilla grill, folk art, and twists on popular seafood dishes. Nearby is the plant-forward Greenr Café. Praça Prazeres by Ralph Prazeres and Stacy Gracias, the people behind the popular Padaria Prazeres in Caranzalem, is a two-storey space with a cocktail bar and European fare in São Tomé. There’s Aangan in Mala with global fare and modern twists to Goan food.
“This place is more stable and it’s all year round. I didn’t want to cater to just tourists but have more locals who become regulars,” says Moina Oberoi of Mo’s Café.
When the Delhi-based hospitality group Nir Advisors Pvt. Ltd, which runs Miss Pinto and Red, wanted to foray into Goa, they chose Fontainhas to open Casanoni Trattoria, offering traditional Italian, home-style cuisine. “Trattorias are typically small, informal, family owned spaces. We wanted to create a similar traditional, semi-formal, no-fuss dining space so, the concept worked well with this historic neighbourhood,” says Anupam Dutta, director of operations, Nir Advisors.
For Sardessai, the Latin Quarter is the first choice when seeking to expand. “It had the right kind of footfall, and there aren’t a lot of all-day eateries. It had the customers and market I wanted.”
There are perks and downsides to being one of the most visited and photographed parts of the city. “I think the dining experience will become a lot more curated here, with a focus on quality. We are a small community and everyone knows each other, especially the Goan restaurateurs, and there’s a lot of support,” says Prazeres of the neighbourhood.
D’Silva believes that the gentrification is unlikely to abate. “More footfalls create an additional burden on an already fragile ecosystem. The noise levels and general disregard that tourists show for the property and well-being of residents is a huge source of stress.” It is why most of the new restaurateurs are keen on ensuring they do not create a nuisance.
“With so many new restaurants coming about, we could do a lot, even if it’s something like cleaning the area outside the restaurant. We are mindful of our surroundings and of giving back to the community,” says Prazeres.
“Taking care of the neighbourhood is the number one way to survive here,” says Sardessai, adding that many neighbours have turned customers and drop in for a coffee and a chat. “We make sure the customers are not creating issues, and educate them on respecting the neighbourhood and people’s houses.”
The biggest perk about dining here? Stepping foot in a restaurant and meeting a resident who regales you with stories of the past.
Joanna Lobo is a Goa-based journalist.