If you thought a trip to Goa was all about going to the beach, think again. Goa’s sun seekers have been replaced by Indian travellers who are arriving for weekend trips with just a list of Instagram-worthy places to dine and drink at, or a tribe of work-from-home professionals who are settling in the state and seeking the comforts of city life. And a big part of life in the city is dining out at restaurants and bars that offer inventive, unusual food and drinks.
Over the past two years, industry watchers say more than 100 restaurants have opened just in the tourist belt of north Goa, aimed at domestic tourists as well as residents. Chef Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar, who helms the kitchen at Edible Archives in Assagao, says there are over 20 new restaurants just in the village of Assagao, with another 25 waiting for permission to open. Even in Panaji, home largely to locals, a slew of restaurants has opened across the city and on its outskirts.
From a Japanese yakitori, Makatsu, in the heart of Panaji to authentic Spanish tapas at Uno Más in Vagator, to regional cuisine at cafés such as Mustard and Gunpowder in Assagao, you can partake of any style of cuisine whilst in Goa. Concept restaurants which focus on speciality food—such as Maka Zai, which serves hip Asian cuisine, or Edible Archives, with an accent on indigenous ingredients—have made a name for themselves alongside old favourites like Thalassa in north Goa and Joseph’s Bar in Panaji and restaurateurs from Mumbai and Delhi that have decided to open outlets in the state. As tourists began staying longer and professionals signed long leases on houses to take advantage of work-from-home policies, delivery services like Zomato and Swiggy too started operations in full swing. The state’s craft liquor brands have formed worthy alliances with new resto-bars.
The state’s culinary landscape has been transformed.
Neha Sagar, a design consultant from Delhi, moved to north Goa in 2021, after the first covid-19 wave. On her list of places to eat were the health food café Artjuna in Anjuna and the crowd favourite, Darling’s Bar, in Chapora, but she says the food scene “completely blew my mind”. Soon after she moved there, she discovered newer restaurants like Raeeth in Vagator, whose wood-fired pizza she swears by, and Makatsu, which “came as complete surprises”.
Parth Timbadia, director of popular restaurants Mahe, which serves coastal cuisine in Anjuna, and Roboto (relocating to Anjuna), known for its contemporary Japanese and Korean food, says the state now gives people an F&B experience they are unlikely to get in their hometowns. “For restaurateurs, Goa makes sense because of a more open and experimental customer profile, along with lower rents compared to Mumbai and Delhi. For travellers, Goa is a culinary destination that cannot be missed, with so many pop-ups, guest shifts and takeovers becoming common. It’s a great thing for everybody,” he says, citing the example of Tesouro, the popular bar in Colva, south Goa. “Within two years of opening in 2020, Tesouro became Asia’s fourth best bar. Clearly, it’s not hype. International and national talent is coming to Goa and putting it on the world map,” Timbadia says. Tesouro offers the ambience of a neighbourhood bar while serving cocktails that appeal to both locals and tourists.
For restaurant owners, the allure of Goa started with the pandemic. It was near impossible to continue paying high rents in metros while patrons stayed away or took long holidays in Goa once domestic flights resumed. Uno Más moved lock, stock and barrel from Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC) to the Living Room Hotel in Vagator in December 2021. Co-owners Priyanka Sharma and Pallavi Jayswal insist that they had had plans since 2019 to expand to Goa—but the lockdown provided the impetus to make the shift permanent. “We had to let go of our BKC premises because the lease was getting difficult to sustain. Goa was becoming a 12-month season (referring to the fact that tourists visit all year now, compared to just the winter months earlier). In terms of investment, Goa did not seem overwhelming. When they are on holiday, Goa as a destination prompts people to feel freer and more experimental. Since we offer speciality Spanish cuisine, we feel we have a unique positioning in the market,” says Sharma.
Pune’s Elephant & Co. and Ahmedabad’s Lollo Rosso both opened in Anjuna this April, within a couple of weeks of each other. Karan Khilnani, founder of Elephant & Co., says they wanted to open their second restaurant in Mumbai but the high rents prompted them to opt for Goa instead. “The state has turned into a weekend destination for domestic travellers. Flights are packed through the year. The competition is tough, with 100-odd new restaurants, but the pie has also gotten bigger for everyone,” he says.
Mumbai-based consultant Sameer Uttamsingh, founder and creative director of Acme Hospitality, agrees that the cost of setting up an establishment in Goa is lower than it would be in a metropolis. “It provides a great opportunity to budding entrepreneurs,” he says, “but one must have a plan. As Goa is mainly a tourist destination, the busy days are Thursday to Sunday and then there’s a lull from Monday to Wednesday.”
Tarun Sibal, co-owner and chef of Titlie Goa, a culinary bar in Vagator, says that even though the space might look crowded, the right concept and location will still work. “If you have the conviction to deliver something unique in the F&B space, anybody should be open to launching a new restaurant (an all-day dining format with craft cocktails). We are looking to do just that by the end of 2022.”
TOO MANY COOKS?
While restaurateurs from Delhi, Mumbai and other cities are moving in, not many Goan chefs and owners are taking up space. “Goa is a large bebinca and everyone wants a slice of it, including people who don’t belong here. That’s why you see so many large brands coming in who have nothing to do with the state,” says Goan chef Rahul Gomes Pereira, chef partner of Delhi-based Passcode Hospitality.
The result is that local cuisine, including cafreal, sorpotel, xacuti and recheado, barely gets attention; eating “local” is equated with fish thalis and ros omelettes. It’s a bit of an irony, considering that restaurants serving global cuisine and high-end cocktail bars are making their presence felt with clever marketing strategies ranging from an Instagram and a digital push to bringing in big-name chefs and bartenders for pop-ups, to organising events with craft liquor brands, etc.
“My biggest worry is that people will start equating Goan food with the top shot of a fish thali on Instagram when there’s so much local cuisine on offer,” rues Oliver Fernandes, co-founder of The Goan Kitchen, a traditional food pop-up based in Loutolim, south Goa. He says no restaurant can match the experience of eating like a local. The Goan Kitchen serves a prawn curry without any coconut and the xacuti uses 21 spices, just as it was made traditionally in homes. Most prawn curries served in restaurants as “Goan food” have a coconut base. “But not every Goan curry uses coconut. It’s important to talk about the history and connection of our dishes too,” he says.
Assagao can be seen as a microcosm of the resto-bar boom that has hit Goa. “A village like Assagao now looks like Gurgaon. You won’t find locals there any more. The real Goa is all about socialising and village scenes but people are living in a cocoon and calling it Goa now,” says Avinash Martins, a champion of local Goan cuisine and head of Cavatina, which serves reimagined Goan food, in Benaulim, south Goa.
Martins also highlights the problems of waste disposal and pollution. “There is no system to segregate garbage in Goa. Restaurants have problems with sewage disposal and parking. Residents have trouble with noise pollution and unregulated parties, all of which affects the ecosystem of the state.”
Victor Gomes, founder of the Goa Chitra Museum, which showcases Goan farming implements, and an upcoming culinary museum in Benaulim, says the state does not have a tourism policy. “Today, it’s easier to get cherry tomatoes than red or white amaranth in restaurants because no one talks about traditional Goan ingredients. We need to have a tourism policy that takes stakeholders into account and puts legalities in place.”
Pereira, popularly known as Chef Picu, says it is not possible to operate restaurants all-year-round even though Goa has become an all-season market. “The infrastructure, from public transport to electricity, has not developed yet,” he says, adding that for most new players, Goa is just a magnet. “A lot of new places are driven by greed. There is no culture around food and the idea is to just copy-paste their space in Goa.”
The restaurant boom also highlights lesser-known sourcing and environmental problems. “Only 6% of food consumed in Goa comes from the state. The rest—that’s 94% of all ingredients—comes from elsewhere, packed in plastic and dipped in preservatives to keep them fresh,” says Sanjiv Khandelwal, founder of the sustainability platform Sensible.Earth.
The pandemic, for instance, has brought frozen fish to Goa, something never needed earlier. The fish comes from as far as Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, to satisfy the palate of the travelling tourist. “...Goa’s coastline simply cannot generate enough supply to meet the demand for all restaurateurs,” says Dastidar.
“The seafood being served in Goa is not from Goa. I live in a fishing village and I know what’s in season. For example, sea bass is only available in the monsoon but customers want kingfish and pomfret all year, which comes in vac-sealed packs once a week for bigger restaurants. People must realise that you won’t find sushi-grade fish or oysters in the Arabian Sea,” says Martins.
The rapid rise of restaurants has created a demand for labour, leading to an influx from other states. Uttamsingh’s Acme Hospitality had started talks with two F&B outlets in Goa before labour woes came to the fore. “With limited local talent, operators are forced to bring in labour from other states, which is more expensive. As a large number of places are opening, the attrition rate is very high. This leaves the restaurants scrambling to find new staff,” he says.
It also leaves locals feeling they have not benefitted from the hospitality boom, whether in terms of income or opportunities. On the other hand, they need to reckon with the increased costs of dining out, with everything becoming more expensive for them. “One of the biggest downsides of this boom is that it hasn’t taken into account Goan culture or helped the economy. For no fault of their own, suddenly everything has become more expensive for locals,” says chef Thomas Zacharias, who has worked at The Bombay Canteen and champions local cuisine through the multi-format digital platform The Locavore.
Martins concurs and asks, “What have they (new restaurants) given to Goa? Everything is simply outsourced.”
The demand for commercial space for restaurants has driven up rents for locals, especially in north Goa. “Traditionally, rent was never an issue in Goa. Italians opened Italian joints, Germans opened German bakeries. It’s only now that people from Delhi and Mumbai are willing to pay exorbitant rents, which is utter foolishness,” says Hansel Vaz, who produces Cazulo Premium Feni and owns the liquor distribution company Vaz Enterprises. According to his conservative estimate, rents have gone up 300% in the last five years, with most of the rise happening post-pandemic in north Goa.
Putting Goan ingredients like coconut vinegar and recheado masala, for example, back on tourist plates seems like an uphill task at the moment. If anything, national names like Fig & Maple from Delhi and even international brands are looking to open outlets in Goa in the coming months. Some, however, have decidedly crazy and environmentally-unfriendly concepts in mind, going by their blueprints.
Fernandes says the need of the hour is to convince young Goans to create dishes with Goan ingredients. “Almost 2,000 students pass out of catering schools in Goa each year and dream of making French pastries and Italian food. But if no one wants to do an internship and learn about Goan food, we are doomed. We need to put a spotlight on Goan food and have the industry take things from there,” he says. This, he hopes, will trickle down into a more sustainable and responsible way of doing business.
While well-known restaurants from metros and smaller towns will keep flocking to Goa, people in the industry believe that the shelf life for bad to average outlets will be a year or two. “Every business goes through a correction. In two years, we will see many new restaurants either rebrand, resize or shut down. On the other hand, the ones that survive the correction will do really well in the future,” says Columbus Marquis, co-owner of the Marquis Beach Resort and partner at the pan-Asian restaurant Yazu, in north Goa’s busy Candolim area.
There are quite a few optimists though, and Rakshay Dhariwal, who owns Passcode Hospitality, which runs Jamun and Saz On The Beach in north Goa as well as Raki in Dona Paula, is one of them. He believes only a few mom-and-pop establishments might resent the influx of new restaurants. “There’s enough business for everyone in Goa and each restaurant caters to a different point. There are queues outside popular seafood joint Vinayak even today despite the surge in new restaurants. To survive in Goa today, geography plays a huge role, along with your product and offering.”
Priyanko Sarkar is a Mumbai-based writer covering the F&B industry.
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