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What makes a city a dining hotspot?

India is renowned for its food but do any of our cities truly qualify as culinary hubs? Lounge explores how we compare with the great global cities that are famous for their cosmopolitan food

Diversity drives a city's dining scene. (Getty)
Diversity drives a city's dining scene. (Getty)

In a matter of three hours, I had gone from snacking on fresh-off-the-wok vada pav from fast food outlet Chaat Bazaar in Jumeirah Lake Towers, Dubai, to having dinner at the Michelin-starred restaurant Moonrise, in Al Satwa. Halfway through the multi-course meal, I pondered what makes Dubai a dining hot spot.

For a place to become a dining destination, there has to be a vibrant and diverse hospitality industry—from a thriving street-food culture to casual restaurants and chef-driven places which emphasise the experiential aspect of eating out. An added bonus is being recognised by world-renowned award platforms, like the French Michelin Guide, the UK-based World’s 50 Best and the US-based James Beard. It’s a city where local dishes are celebrated, expat talent is welcome, and conspicuous consumption drives both. These are cities where a street-side eatery and a gourmet French restaurant can coexist, and run full through the week. These are cities like Bangkok, New York, London, Singapore and Dubai.

Consider New York: A tourist can have a pretzel from a street cart; try Venezuelan stuffed bread, areba, from the Arepa La Newyorkina restaurant; unwind at the Taiwanese tea room Té Company; and visit the Michelin-starred south Indian restaurant SEMMA for dinner.

“I would define a dining hot spot as a place that has options for everything,” says Raaj Sanghvi, the chief executive officer of Culinary Culture, a company that aims to expand the gourmet scene in India by bringing in celebrated chefs from around the globe for pop-up menus. Sanghvi names places like Delhi, Mumbai and Goa as the hottest dining destinations in India—the last probably comes closest to the definition of a multicultural dining destination.

While some globally recognised award platforms, like World’s 50 Best, have come to India, others, like the Michelin Guide, are yet to enter the country. The setting for a dining hot spot needs a culture that welcomes diversity. It’s not enough to have regional diversity, it should be home to people of different nationalities. In recent years, countries that have decided to promote cities as dining destinations have also begun partnering with award platforms and putting in millions to turn things around.

One city, A myriad flavours

Last month, I was invited by Dubai’s department of economy and tourism (DET) to attend the second edition of the Michelin awards ceremony in the city. The Michelin Guide is the world famous restaurant list that follows the ranking system of bestowing one, two and the coveted three stars. Apart from gourmet outlets, it awards stars to casual restaurants and street-side eateries—the most famous is run by septuagenarian Jay Fai in Bangkok.

Jay Fai in her kitchen. (Getty)
Jay Fai in her kitchen. (Getty)

Michelin evaluates an establishment on five parameters: quality products, mastery of flavour and cooking techniques, personality of the chef, value for money, and consistency of food. To select a restaurant, their evaluators (termed inspectors) visit a place repeatedly over a certain period. “Although Michelin debuted in Dubai last year, our inspectors have been here for about 10 years,” said Gwendal Poullennec, Michelin Guide international director, at the press conference after the award ceremony. I noticed that Michelin has a president and managing director, Gaganjot Singh, for Africa, Middle East and India. Does this indicate they have inspectors in India too? Despite repeated interview requests, Singh was unavailable for comment. Poullennec said he had no announcement to make.

A similar discovery platform, World’s 50 Best, has featured bars and restaurants in India on its list for several years. Their modus operandi involves a team of 1,080 industry experts around the world who vote for the best restaurants in a city. In India, several restaurants and bars—Kolkata’s 6th Ballygunge Place, Mumbai’s Shree Thaker Bhojanalay, Delhi’s Bukhara and Chennai’s Avartana, to name a few—have been on the World’s 50 Best list over the years. From fine-dining to affordable places and innovative cooking to local dishes, the scope is wide.

Core definition

The core focus of these award platforms is travel and gastronomy, driven by diversity. Just like Sanghvi (and others interviewed for this story), Poullennec stresses on diversity as an integral factor for the Michelin Guide to evaluate a city’s dining scene. It translates to variety not just in local cuisine but also global flavours driven by expat chefs and eateries run by people of different nationalities.

“To be a dining hot spot, a city has to be a melting pot of cultures,” notes Yash Bhanage, co-founder of the Mumbai-based hospitality company Hunger Inc. that runs the restaurants The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro. Before starting his entrepreneurial journey in 2014, he spent about four years in Singapore working with the Fairmont group. He noticed that the city not only attracted tourists in a big way but also welcomed people from other cultures to settle down and start businesses.

In fact, some of the most innovative bars and restaurants in the city are run by expats. Bhanage cites the example of a bar, 28 HongKong Street, helmed by three lawyers, Spencer Forhart, Paul Gabie and Snehal Patel, with an American head mixologist, Michael Callahan. It opened in 2011, starting the trend of craft cocktails in the city. In 2015, French chef Julien Royer opened the acclaimed restaurant Odette. In 2016, Michelin came to Singapore. By 2019, Odette had been awarded three stars, the highest honour by Michelin. “When that happens, it motivates the local talent and they want to be the next Royer or Callahan. It that sense, the dining scene evolves,” explains Bhanage.

A handful of Indian chefs and restaurateurs have tasted success abroad. The New York-based hospitality group Unapologetic Foods is one. Their restaurant, SEMMA, has got one Michelin star. Roni Mazumdar, co-founder of Unapologetic Foods, says, “What makes New York City so special is immigrants like us can come here and create restaurants that serve what we believe in and be well received for it.” He believes that if they started in any other city with similar restaurants, they wouldn’t have succeeded.

The concept of SEMMA is to serve what chef Vijay Kumar, who heads the kitchen, grew up eating as a farmer’s son in Tamil Nadu. Their menu has dishes with goat brains, goat intestines, snails and venison meat, offered in a casual-dining format with craft cocktails. He points out: “New Yorkers are curious and they want to see the rest of the world. This curiosity gives birth to a lot of ingenuity in food.”

In India, the place that comes closest to a multicultural dining destination is Goa. Apart from the appetising local fare of prawn balchao and sorpotel with sannas, one can opt to have lunch at the Japanese restaurant Sakana in Chapora, grab Peruvian snacks at On The Go in Porvorim, and head to the crowd-favourite Bomras for Burmese food. For innovative premium dining inspired by regional Indian food, there’s Cavatina by chef Avinash Martins and HOSA by the Delhi-based Old World Hospitality Group.

Rakshay Dhariwal is the founder of Pass Code Hospitality, which runs restaurants in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Goa. He also owns an agave distillery in Goa that produces spirits under the brand Maya Pistola Agavepura. For Dhariwal, who recalls a memorable chicken barbecue at a small Russian restaurant in Vagator, Goa is the dining capital of India.

Travel and gastronomy

Although the term dining hot spot is often associated with premium dining, it has a broader scope. Tucking into a food-coma-inducing Gujarati thali of about 30 different items at the buzzy Shree Thaker Bhojanalay in Mumbai, at an average price of 1,300 for two, is an experience like no other. It’s a place that attracts locals and tourists alike. A trip to Bangkok would be incomplete if you didn’t savour its street food, while a visit to Singapore demands soaking in the sights, sounds and cuisines of its hawker centres, such as Lau Pa Sat, located in a historic colonial building.

At the other end of the gastronomy spectrum are chef-driven experiences that are priced steeply. One of my most memorable dining experiences was at Moonrise. Helmed by chef Soleman Haddad, it adopts the intimate omakase approach, with seating for about 16 people who witness food being plated in front of them. The meal runs for about two-and-a-half hours, with the chef explaining the inspiration behind each dish. It began with a foie gras pani-puri. As the dinner progressed, the music got mellower and the lighting changed from low to bright, then dim. For the final course, with hojicha from Kyoto served with petit fours, Haddad lit a gentle wood fire, infusing the atmosphere with comfort and warmth.

Foie gras pani-puri. (Photo:, Instagram)
Foie gras pani-puri. (Photo:, Instagram)

It is experiences like these that prompt gourmands to fly in just to visit the restaurant. “Experiential dining is not only about spending money for something new, but also about investing a considerable amount of time. You could spend that time at a gallery or discover a new part of a city but people are choosing to dine for the pleasure of it,” explains Sanghvi. He shares the example of the restaurant Alchemist in Refshaleøen, near Copenhagen, a city made famous as a dining destination by Noma. Alchemist is regarded as one of the world’s most creative restaurants, with meals that run for seven hours and 50 courses. It is the brainchild of chef Rasmus Munk, who uses the meal to touch upon diverse—sometimes unsavoury—topics, from fairy tales to biodiversity and sociopolitical issues. One of their most talked about courses is a dish named Hunger. It is shaped like ribs sticking out of the chest, with a thin layer of sustainable rabbit meat. Munk posted on his Instagram account (@ RasmusMunkAlchemist) that it’s one of the harder courses to swallow. Chefs like Munk and René Redzepi, who has moved to Tokyo after closing the 16-year-old, three Michelin-starred Noma, transformed the culinary scene of Copenhagen, making it one of the top dining destinations in the world.

Is the market ready?

India isn’t there yet. There is a proliferation of pop-ups in cosmopolitan cities, with chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants being flown in. Diners don’t shy away from splurging on these meals. For instance, Culinary Culture joined hands with the gourmet arm of Marriott Hotels, Masters of Marriott Bonvoy, to invite Italian chef Massimo Bottura, of the three Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy to host two dinners in Mumbai last year. The tickets were priced at around 40,000 per head. This year, he was at the Leela Palace New Delhi with Culinary Culture and the dinner was 55,555 plus taxes per person. In both cities, the tickets sold out in minutes.

Indians have the spending power, yet well-renowned expat chefs haven’t been able to taste commercial success here. “Because the market isn’t ready yet,” notes Bhanage. He believes Indian diners will spend occasionally, not regularly; in comparison, a premium-dining restaurant in Singapore with meal experiences priced at 15,000 per head runs full on most days. “For such a restaurant concept to sustain, one needs a market that has the propensity to spend frequently. For instance, the investment bankers who populate New York and Singapore are signing it off to their corporate accounts. We go to Odette on a special occasion, whereas these guys go to impress their clients,” adds Bhanage. Apart from being food hubs, these cities are also financial capitals of the world, like Dubai, London and Hong Kong.

Vikram Achanta, co-founder of the award platform 30 Best Bars in India, was in Dubai when he got on a call with me to share his views on dining destinations. Noting the palpable “conspicuous consumption” in the city, he says it has attracted local talent, top chefs and dining franchises, including Nobu, Zuma and Brasserie Boulud by Daniel Boulud.

Another indicator is the availability of luxury ingredients, like caviar and uni (sea urchin). Sanghvi says that the chefs he brings to India are shocked that these are impossible to find. The reasons can be attributed to high taxes and import duties, as well as effort-intensive storage and almost no demand from diners. The cold chain infrastructure too is broken, discouraging importers and leading to massive wastage.

While food is a key aspect of dining, alcohol is equally important. Almost all the high quality spirits, liqueurs and syrups needed by bars for craft cocktails are priced steeply owing to prohibitive import duties. “Let’s talk about a bottle of Teremana tequila that costs $30 ( 2,460) in the US but is priced at 11,000 in the cheapest place (for alcohol) in India, which is Gurugram. The government charges one 150% import duties on liquor, and it’s just baffling,” rues Dhariwal.

Food and drinks festivals promoted by a country’s government can become powerful tools to attract tourists. Perhaps the most famous of all is Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany. The website says six million people, including a vast number of tourists, attend the beer festival every year.

Last month, Bhanage was at the Singapore Cocktail Festival and came back impressed with the way the government had supported it with an expansive venue at Marina Bay featuring an open-air cocktail village. “Imagine this happening in Mumbai. Instead of cocktails, the government (could) organise a seafood festival at a Koli village in the city with maushis (aunts) dishing out our regional delicacies. There’s uninterrupted electricity and every ingredient has the government’s stamp of approval of being hygienic. It would be such a huge hit with tourists,” he says.

Guests and bartenders at the Singapore Cocktail Festival.
Guests and bartenders at the Singapore Cocktail Festival.

In fact, Dubai’s DET is a partner of the Michelin Guide in the city, indicating that the government is wholly involved in promoting Dubai as a gastronomic hot spot to boost local culinary talent, create an ecosystem for top restaurant chains and position the city as a dining destination. It means joining hands with globally recognised award platforms, such as the World’s 50 Best and Michelin Guide. It involves money.

The money factor

A 2018 article in the food magazine Eater, The High Price Of A Michelin Guide examines how countries spend millions to bring the guide to their cities. The story points out that “the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) reportedly pledged 144 million Thai baht (approximately $4.4 million) in financial support to Michelin for five years, beginning with the first Bangkok guide in 2017. That’s about $880,000 per year with the hope that the guide will help boost food tourism in the country.”

To understand what India is doing to boost tourism through food, I tried to contact officials in the tourism ministry multiple times through emails and phone calls. There was no response.

The National Restaurant Association of India (Nrai), the official body of the restaurant industry, has appealed for longer business hours—think of it like the all-night street-food vendors of Bangkok—to cater to locals and tourists. Anurag Katriar, a trustee of Nrai and founder of the hospitality group Indigo Hospitality, says it’s one of many appeals to the Union government.

If an Indian city is to turn into a dining hub, the people who live there, and their food, will matter. It’s about whether the city makes space for people from varied cultures to showcase their food, and whether there is an audience to relish it. It can happen naturally over centuries in a place like New York or it can be manufactured, as in Dubai, which intends to position itself as a food capital. As Mazumdar of Unapologetic Foods puts it, a city has layers which contribute to a collective culinary voice.

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