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Why restaurateurs are betting big on India's new penchant for luxe dining experiences

Post pandemic, people are more open to experimentation and quality, and willing to pay more for unique, high-quality, crafted experiences that are upscale yet casual

Published: Oct 13, 2023 04:43:36 PM IST
Updated: Oct 13, 2023 04:55:52 PM IST

Why restaurateurs are betting big on India's new penchant for luxe dining experiencesBawri Goa puts forth an elevated but traditional dining experience with many Avadhi/Mughlai gems.
In the 19th century, when Lucknow was the epitome of cosmopolitan luxury, a banquet hosted by nawab Muhammad Ali Shah, the then titular ruler of Avadh, reputedly served 70 types of pulao, including the “navratan”—with grains of rice coloured (with natural vegetable extracts) as nine coloured gems! At Bawri, Goa’s latest outpost for luxurious dining—in Assagao, where else—the pulao is once again a centrepiece.
At the end of a long evening filled with dishes signalling a long lost past, the likes of jackfruit haleem, sigri-grilled kakori, judiciously spiced nihari, and a deliciously inventive silken bheja (a Mughal-style goat brain preparation) stuffed inside black rice dosa, comes the raan biryani. It is meant to be the showstopper, combining two star Mughlai/Avadhi dishes—a whole leg of lamb and the Avadhi pulao, here tweaked to cater to pan-Indian tastes as the biryani. Chef Amninder Sandhu, chef-partner, comes bearing it on a long salver, and then carves out the raan at the table.

“It is a dish meant to be shared by at least three-four people. And we have people even flying in from Mumbai to enjoy it,” says Bawri’s owner Sahil Sambhi, a well-known restaurateur in Delhi-NCR, who is now on course to an ambitious expansion of this latest luxe outpost. While the restaurant in Goa has been attracting a steady crowd of Mumbai and Delhi HNIs, including many stars from the world of films and sports, in November, it is also set to open in Mumbai’s BKC as a sprawling 4500 square feet space, front-footing classical Indian flavours, many cooked by traditional bawarchis (professional banquet cooks) and halwais under Sandhu’s orchestrations.
“We have roughly infused Rs 9 crore in putting together this restaurant that aims at targeting HNIs and corporates,” says Sambhi, who says he will also take the brand to Dubai and London after Mumbai and is betting big on India’s new penchant for high-end, high quality restaurant experiences, even when the service style remains casual.

“Upscale casual” is how the new luxury dining in India may be defined: Unique, high quality food and beverage experiences that are not stiff or formal. This sort of eating and drinking out is commanding an unprecedented premium across restaurants and bars in India, most visibly in the metros, in markets such as Delhi, Mumbai, Goa, but also in emerging luxe restaurant hubs such as Chandigarh, Pune and Hyderabad.
“The pandemic has definitely changed people’s dining out preferences, and made them more open to experimentation and quality, and people are not hesitating in paying more for crafted experiences. Many restaurant companies are now expanding in smaller towns too because the demand for ‘experiences’ is booming,” says restaurateur Priyank Sukhija of First Fiddle Hospitality with multiple brands in different cities.
This trend towards premium food and drink experiences being sought out as markers of exclusivity is in sync with India’s status as an emerging and highly promising market for luxury goods and experiences, even as many other markets globally see a flatlining in consumption after an initial surge of revenge consumption post the lockdowns.

With economies in Europe stressed, costs of living up, uncertainty in China, and growth for luxe in the US, the biggest market for luxury in the world, slowing, India, where younger consumers are spending substantially more on personal products and experiences (including food-led ones) is seeing a steady interest from makers and marketers of global luxury. “Among the rising stars, India stands out; its luxury market could expand to 3.5 times today’s size by 2030,” says the 2023 Bain & Company report on the luxury market globally.
Also read: Gourmet Extravaganza: Top 5 immersive dining destinations with a hefty price tag

This new propensity to spend is as evident in the world of food as in, say, beauty and fashion. After the landmark Christian Dior show at the Gateway of India earlier this year, “more and more brands, including chefs and restaurants have become interested in India… if you have an explosion in luxury beauty, a category that no one thought would boom, you also have top foreign chefs, restaurants and bars come to India,” notes Aditi Dugar, owner of Masque, one of India’s top luxury restaurants.
Dugar recently played host to a team from the acclaimed New York restaurant Eleven Madison Park, led by its chef Daniel Humm, in Mumbai, for a two-day collaborative 10-course, plant-based pop up—that was sold out in nine hours flat, at a price of approximately Rs 40,000 per person.
It’s not just a chef of Humm’s stature cooking in India. Through 2023, we have increasingly seen a steady growth in food experiences helmed by top global chefs and mixologists, priced anywhere from Rs 10,000 to Rs 50,000 per head—astounding in a country where the middle class is defined as households with an annual income between Rs 6-18 lakh, or roughly monthly earnings of Rs 50,000-1.5 lakh, an amount a family may now spend on a single meal!
Despite these costly experiences becoming now fairly entrenched in India’s buzzing high-end dining scene, it is debatable how much money these pop-ups actually make—given their limited durations and pool of diners, high costs, including on publicity and marketing and free hosted meals. But their frequency suggests that sponsors are betting big on the potential of the food experience economy in India.
The larger question, however, is how deep is the Indian market for luxury dining? “Experiences” may attract a subsection of diners, but is the market deep enough to sustain multiple high-end restaurants that must depend on repeat customers in different cities—thus bucking a global trend where expensive fine dines of the pre-pandemic era are distinctly dying out?

Also read: Could the show be over for fine dining?


Bucking the global trend

“Guests are willing to pay a premium for exclusive signature offerings that are not available anywhere else. Luxury dining is about the experience at restaurants that are conscious of quality and we have seen a 1.5X increase in average spends at our other restaurants since the pandemic,” says Sambhi. It is an assessment most Indian restaurateurs concur with.
The propensity to spend is going up phenomenally. “There is a disproportionate premium for exclusivity, with a table of 4 booking out the entire private dining room with a minimum spend of Rs 75,000-1 lakh, or people seeking offbeat, off-restaurant dining locations even within a hotel such as ours, and personal butlers for 4-6 hour staged meals, where they come in for a sundowner while observing the Mahalakshmi race course, then go to a day use room to change for a formal dinner which can be held at a separate location within the hotel and so on,” notes Varun Chibber, general manager, St Regis Mumbai. People are spending more on celebrations and finding more occasions to celebrate, he notes. “My celebratory APC has gone up by 150 per cent in a year.”

Why restaurateurs are betting big on India's new penchant for luxe dining experiencesAt St Regis Mumbai, diners celebratory and curated restaurant dining is at an all time high.
Restaurants clearly have the opportunity then to create alternate streams of revenue by curating fine dining. This is in contrast to how an older model of experience-led fine dines is dismantling in the dining capitals of the world.
This was conclusively signalled by Noma, the famed temple of gastronomy in Copenhagen, announcing earlier in the year that it would permanently shut by the end of 2024, its business model having become untenable. Expensive USD 500-800 chef’s tasting menus at vaunted establishments have become tone deaf in a world where people are grappling with flailing economies, as well as increased scrutiny into what is sustainable luxury.
Most prestige restaurants globally had operated on wafer-thin margins even before the pandemic, given the high costs of “staging” experiences, and often relied on a second line of more profitable casual diners to keep the wheels oiled. But questions about the exploitative nature of labour they extracted and the disparity in money earned by their underpaid staff creating tweezed-out minutiae and money spent by splurging diners gained momentum post pandemic with younger diners championing the “real” and the sustainable.
Casual and “moreish” (with more flavour) foods are dominating restaurantscapes globally at the moment, with conversations around inclusivity and approachability gaining ground. Mintel’s latest Global Food and Drinks Trends (2024) report notes that the “priority for flavour at affordable prices is even more important when many markets continue to face a higher cost of living”.

Why restaurateurs are betting big on India's new penchant for luxe dining experiences Top global chefs like the celebrated Daniel Humm, who was at Masque Mumbai last month for a collaborative pop up, have been making a beeline for India of late
In India, the global models of luxury dining never held much sway. Given the depth of the Subcontinent’s regional food cultures and the fact that the Indian market was and is heavily dependent on local diners rather than international jetsetters and corporates (who patronised prestige restaurants in New York, London, Copenhagen et al), “real” food with hearty, often traditional flavours trumped spectacle and “experience”.
Now, a demand for that combined with unique narratives and service styles is showing up as millennials and Gen Z become willing to pay for exclusivity and creativity—which comprise luxury dining—if not white table clothed formality.
Arguably India’s most successful restaurateur Rohit Khattar notes how in cities like New York “fine dining with tasting menus is now almost frowned upon”. Khattar has been on an aggressive expansion of his restaurant business under his company EHV International (in which industrialist Anand Mahindra and others) are partners with a restaurant with famed Thai chef David Thompson set to come up in Goa this year, but he is clear that the way forward is “upscale casual”, and restaurants with price points that he says are a notch below what constitutes “luxury” currently.
“You can only have two or three Indian Accents in India,” he points out, “most cities in India, beyond Delhi and Mumbai and perhaps one other cannot sustain restaurants where spends are Rs 8-10,000 per person plus. People can pay that much as one-off experiences, but whether a restaurant that relies on repeat clientele can regularly command that much in most Indian cities is questionable,” he adds.

Also read: We don't need another version of butter-poached lobster, we need sustainable dining: Daniel Humm

“Embraceable fine dine”

At the newly opened Indian Accent in Mumbai, the stunning art deco-inspired interiors and crockery sit easily with a more casual and intimate vibe than perhaps in its original Delhi outpost. But the tasting menus including those paired with reserved wines are doing well; and there is a month-long waiting queue for reservations.
There is a sense of “approachable luxury” here, though it would seem that can be upped too. “Our private dining rooms are doing well. Even if people have smaller groups of four, they don’t hesitate to book the entire space for six or 10. We are also seeing an uptick in reserve wine pairings too in both Delhi and Mumbai. Instead of adding the regular wine pairing to their tasting menus, people are going for reserve wines, taking the average spend to Rs 12-13,000 per head,” Khattar notes.

Why restaurateurs are betting big on India's new penchant for luxe dining experiencesThere's a month long waiting list for reservations at the new Indian Accent Mumbai with its art deco interiors and inventive tasting menus paired with reserved wines.
Chibber calls this format of luxury dining that seems casual but exclusive, “embraceable fine dine”, and is confident that this segment is set to explode at least in cities like Delhi and Mumbai.
Nikita Ramchandani, general manager, JW Marriott Juhu, Mumbai, makes several interesting observations: “People are willing to pay extra for theatrics on the table, the art in the ambience, unique entertainment and cultural acts that establish a deeper connection with food,” she says, noting that it is a younger audience, “in the age group of 25 to 39 years that is a big spender on luxury dining… there is a growing creed of entrepreneurs who understand luxury and personalised service.” However, she observes that for a slightly older generation, “value for money is still a small consideration”.
Also, in contrast to the avant-garde experiences prioritised as luxury in the West, in India, “dining experiences need to be designed to appeal to the community and family gatherings, keeping richness of food as the centerpiece”.
While restaurants gear up to cater to this segment, investors are ready too to back more premium experience-led F&B. Aditya Birla New Age Hospitality that recently acquired the entire portfolio of KA Hospitality with iconic brands such as Yauatcha, Hakkasan, Nara Thai and CinCin is now investing in a new restaurant to be helmed by veteran chef Rahul Akerkar. “We believe in the potential of the premium casual dining segment in India, at the convergence of escalating disposable incomes and a thriving dining out culture,” says Udai Pinnali, CEO.

Too-fine dining, as it was categorised in the West, may not be what affluent Indian diners want, but fine-r dining is hot for sure.

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