Time was when people would head out to a restaurant, order masala dosas, wash it down with mosambi juice and call it an evening well spent. Then food acquired some frills and furbelows. Basic fare became stylish, the side dishes acquired a personality, and food presentation became an art. Soon your order came topped with a jaunty leaf, caramelised flower, wedge of fruit/vegetable, with sauce drizzled artistically about the plate and patterns made with cocoa and flavoured powders. Things, and food, were beginning to look good.
Then, basic fare was put on furlough and cuisine turned modern, avant-garde, and even emotional. Molecular gastronomy made its debut; food was isolated, fragmented, liquefied, blown apart, fused together with foam. Diners got used to the smallest mounds of plated dishes, for which they paid astronomical sums, which vanished into their mouths in just three delicious spoonfuls, sometimes just two.
One place where the best traditions of good hearty food and drink were retained were the pubs; where you could order a plate of something meaty, something tasty, something fried up to go down with your Guinness stout, beer or ale; fancy-free fare at fancy-free prices.
But now the pub has gotten a makeover. It’s become the place where you get food as good as, if not better than, the drink. Enter the gastropub.
The term gastropub — an artful meld of the words gastronomy and pub — originated in the United Kingdom in the late 20 century. Casual was the keyword, and original pub fare like steak and kidney pie, bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie, fish and chips were joined by the likes of burgers, lasagna and even chilli.
It obviously made its way to India pretty soon: Monkey Bar and The Chatter House in Delhi; Monkey Bar, Roadhouse and Tilt in Bangalore, and Woodside Inn in Mumbai. “The gastropub addresses multiple moods, needs and sensibilities,” says Chef Manu Chandra, executive chef and partner, Monkey Bar, and arguably the pioneer of this concept in India.
Abhishek Honawar of Mumbai’s Woodside Inn explains, “Unlike your standard bars and restaurants, gastropubs tend to have a very relaxed and non-intimidating atmosphere where guests can walk in at any time and enjoy a variety of great alcoholic beverages and fantastic food, too.”
What this translates to is: cooking is upscale, plating has become imaginative but the price remains down to earth. A meal for two without alcohol rarely goes beyond Rs.1,200. Innovation is the keyword; from the drink to the food, ambience, the music. Fries now could be sweet potato fried in truffle oil, burgers are wood grilled, pork sorpotel comes in jam jars, laksa, chorizo and brain fry are readily available. The bar has been redefined too, as tastes become more sophisticated. Cocktails come in glass jars and copper tumblers while whisky, tequila and vodka get new avatars.
“Our theme replicates a traditional high-end British pub and our food is a mix of traditional pub grub and specials like galauti or boti kabab,” says Swadeep Popli, founder of The Chatter House. “We have weekly specials like Jamaican jerk chicken and charred chicken, and our bakery is in-house, so all breads and desserts are home-made.”
In Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai, reactions have been enthusiastic. Mahesh, a Gurgaon-based lawyer, likes the casual atmosphere. “The beer is great and my girlfriend loves the sangria at Delhi’s Monkey Bar.”
“It’s about good food, good drink and a good atmosphere; it appeals to the true nature of the Mumbaikar,” says Smita Desai, Director, Chrysalis International Education Service. Helen Issar, owner of Penny Lane Social, a social media agency in Bangalore, agrees, “It’s absolute value for one’s money.”
The gastropub market is growing and Chandra is aware of that. “A gastropub ups the ante of the dining and wining ethos, sets benchmarks of quality and innovation at hugely affordable price points.”
Popli has another take: “You give guests a reason to come back again and again because of the food. Right now, bars and pubs do not focus too much on their food, so when the initial hype fizzles out, the place also fizzles out.” Honawar underscores this: “A space you can walk into unwind, grab a coffee or a beer, and satisfy your hunger with some thoughtfully designed food. Gastropubs are going to get bigger and better.”
It’s hard to disagree. Good drink, good food, good times… an irresistible combination.