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INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.
    CURRENT ISSUE APRIL 11, 2005
 
   SOCIETY & THE ARTS: RESTAURANTS
 
Trendy By Design

With where you eat becoming as important as what you eat, restaurant designers, with their sensitivity to both form and function, have raised the bar of stand-alone eateries
 

When Ajit Shilpi gave Mumbai its first lounge bar, Athena, with stark white walls, sheer curtains and a minimalist look, the austere interiors came under some flak initially. But the whitewashed look soon took Indian nightlife by storm and Shilpi now has names like Zenzi, Aura and Café Basilico to his credit.

Only three years ago, Sumit Nath took on his first big project, No Escape in Delhi's Connaught Place. He has moved onto more than a dozen restaurants in Delhi, from Ssteel at Hotel Ashok to Shalom, the seductively lit med-lounge which regulars from Rahul Gandhi to Rohit Bal swear by. "Today, I specialise in hospitality design only," says Sumit, who has just designed Laidbackwaters, the seafood restaurant with a Moroccan theme, at the Qutab Hotel in Delhi.

  PICTURE SPEAK
SPACE AGE: Ajit Shilpi
At Zenzi, four distinct spaces have been created in one area
SOUL FACTOR: Pronit Nath
A mellow mood and attention to acoustics made Seijo and the Soul Dish a hit with diners

In Bangalore, architect and urban planner Dyan Belliappa was hired by the owners of Grasshopper to create a restaurant with a factory warehouse look. The result is a "large uncluttered space", with the sombre grey of the unembellished concrete blocks and the smooth cement flooring with the corrugated outside. Grasshopper is written about in international magazines, and is rated as the favourite eat-out place by everyone from Aamir Khan to Kumar Mangalam Birla. Belliappa went on to work on another avant garde restaurant, Road Trip.

Meet the men behind the ambience. With the restaurant bubble ensuring that what you eat is as important as where you eat it, restaurant design has become an integral part of the eating out business. A combination of architecture and acoustics, of minimalism and warmth, their work has raised the bar of stand-alone restaurants. Some feel that they are instrumental in forcing smug five-star restaurants to go in for a makeover, from the airy coffee shop 360º at Delhi's Oberoi to the Terence Conran-designed Agni at the Park Hotel in the capital. Says A.D. Singh of Olive: "When entrepreneurs like me started out, there were not too many choices. The architects and designers available had not done the work we wanted, so we were cautious. But the boom changed all that." Singh's white marvel with the banyan tree in Mehrauli, Delhi, which has won every single award there is in the country for best ambience, was designed by Nozer Wadia, an architect who has done homes for the likes of Amitabh Bachchan and Gautam Singhania.

  PICTURE SPEAK
DREAM THEME: Sumit Nath
At Laidbackwaters, the Moroccan theme is central to the ambience
SPECIAL EFFECT: Dyan Belliappa
Grasshopper, with a factory warehouse feel, is distinctive

According to Kishore DF, director, Seijo and the Soul Dish, Mumbai's latest hotspot, "The design of the place has begun to take centrestage." His restaurant, with a gurgling water wall in one corner and Manga pop art decorating another, was designed by Pronit Nath, the name behind some of Mumbai's most frequented hotspots like Lush, Zaha and Shatranj.

But in an increasingly competitive scenario, as the "buzz" around the restaurant becomes as important as the dressing on the zucchini, what distinguishes a successful design from a staid one? Singh says it is a combination of functionality and a cohesive approach to design. "While the layout, entrances, exits and spacing of furniture take care of one aspect, the design must reflect and create the central idea of the restaurant." It is a point well understood by Sumit, who refers to it as "integrity in design", and created an industrial feel at Ssteel with the steel containers and unfinished rough walls. "Earlier, restaurants would put together pretty things and a good painting and that was what design was all about. But capturing the theme has increasingly become the crucial element," says Sumit. If Shalom kept to one concept, from the cutlery to the lounge lighting, the theme is constant at Laidbackwaters, where the lights, seating and the colour palette of reds and browns keep to the Moroccan theme.

But while following the theme is one thing, overdoing it is another. "We tend to overdesign-the kitsch thing is a very Indian sensibility," says Sumit. Which explains why his reinvention of Moti Mahal in Gurgaon had a contemporary look, with the Indian touch coming from the beaten steel karhai used as a lighting element and defining the restaurant's cuisine.

Though hotels often flew in foreign designers for makeovers, the stand-alone restaurant boom has seen the rise of homegrown designing professionals. The UK-based firm Atkins would still be flown in for the ship-like Odyssey in Gurgaon, but as Singh points out: "While foreign architects know their job, they often lose out on the local sensibility."

Pronit has some rules he always adheres to. The mood of the place is to be kept in mind. At Seijo and the Soul Dish, the egg trays lining the ceiling in the bar area "give the area a distinction and are also great for the acoustics". Similarly at Lush, he devised a steel dome which reflects the movement below in "slow-moving kinetic reflections". The other is the shock and awe factor, where the customer is dazzled by a distinctive look. "At Sin, we had created sunken seating pits cut out in a sand dune-like undulating landscape format," he explains. Then there is the space aspect, where customer interest is maintained by dividing the restaurant into different areas with unique ambiences, like the new-look Athena.

The bottom line? It is not about following fads. As Singh points out, "With the success of Olive and Indigo, people are being minimalist where it is not needed." Nor, indeed, is it about set formulas of spaces, lighting and acoustics. Says Sumit: "The restaurant, whether exotic or modern, must exude a certain warmth." But it is not about creativity that goes over the top either. As Pronit sums up, good design is finally one that translates into good business.

-with Nirmala Ravindran

 

INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.
CURRENT ISSUE
APRIL 11, 2005
 IN THIS ISSUE
COVER STORY

THE NEW ARMS RACE

OTHER STORIES
 

Praxis Of Evil

Network Success

Reverse Sweep

Still At Sea

Supping With The Enemy

Enslaved By Insensitivity

Fighting Fire With Fire

The Act Needs Muscle

A New High

What You Did With Your Last Loan

Missing In Action

Breaking A Taboo

Trendy By Design

Thrills Of Hindustan

Funereal Ballet

Healing Touch

The Lone Dissident

The Duck Stops Here

 

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