Of new restaurants and restaurant critics

Vikram Doctor points me to an interesting couple of blogs posts, one from a restaurant chef, and the other from a restaurant reviewer.

The first post is by Alex Sanchez, a young chef from the US who’s now cooking at this new restaurant in Colaba. He complains about how restauarant reviewers in India don’t give the place a chance to settle down before reviewing. Mangal Dalal responds in Mumbai Boss making the point that restaurant culture is different here and you better get ready to hit the ground running.

Having been a restaurateur, I agree with points on both sides.

Sanchez is right; no matter how well-trained the staff, how organised the kitchen, handling a full house of customers in a new restaurant is stressful, and it is impossible to get into the flow of things for at least a month. This is why I generally don’t visit new restaurants until a month has passed since opening.

Let me share a personal experience: when I moved Shiok to a new location, my original plan was to open with not only a new look, but also a new menu. As delays hit the setup process, I also figured that things would be slow enough with a new restaurant, and there was no need to aggravate it by changing the menu as well. Despite this, things took the usual 2-3 weeks to run smoothly, and this is for a restaurant with largely the same service staff and entirely the same kitchen staff.

That said, as a paying customer, I firmly agree that if a restaurant is taking a customer’s money, they are entitled to a proper dining experience, especially in a high-end place. When Gautam and I visited Edo, the expensive Japanese restaurant in ITC Gardenia in B’lore, we had an excellent experience, despite the restaurant having been formally open only for a week or so.

My recommended way around this for restauranteurs is to not start with a big bang on day one. Restrict news about the opening to only a few connected people, and let a couple of weeks go by with low-traffic before embarking on a publicity blitz. It gives the staff time to get used to the workflow and settle down. This may not sit well with investors, but it’s the best way.

As for the other question of restaurant reviewers, I agree whole-heartedly that most don’t know their mouths from their asses. If it’s college kids writing most reviews (as Mumbai Boss points out), then they possibly don’t know enough about either restaurant reviewing or food. Every restaurant, even the best of them, can have a bad day, and it’s not fair to assess a restaurant till you’ve dined there a few times. You say you don’t have the resources to do that? Well, don’t do restaurant reviews then. You say there are too many new restaurants? Well, don’t review every last one of them. And if a critic is knowledgeable enough, he/she can surely make a judgement call on whether a screw-up is due to general incompetence of the staff or just them having a bad day. The incompetent ones need not be visited again.

Let’s face it, the whole “restaurant review” business in this country is fucked up. The “reviews” for most major newspapers are arranged by PR people, and the critic will happily turn up after informing you in advance. You will make small talk with them, make sure your best waiter is at their service, and the head chef himself handles the food for their table. If you’re a Page 3 person who has been added to the restaurant management for your celebrity value, you will schmooze with them too – so, essentially, nothing like a typical guest’s experience. They will then partake of your free food and booze, and hopefully give you a stunning review. They may even write wonderful things about food they never tasted (a newspaper critic wrote about my fragrant Beef Rendang despite not trying it, and only reading its description in my menu.)

Restaurant “awards” from major publications too are usually a matter of who has more publicity clout or is a major advertiser, and I have often gone, “you can’t be fucking serious!” after seeing a particular restaurant win a category award.

Unfortunately, the average Joe is heavily swayed by such reviews and believes them to be authoritative. And that is the real tragedy of it.

(A post about the uselessness of “user/community reviews” web sites will have to wait for another day. That much vitriol in one blog post may be too much to handle.)

How not to design a flyover

The problems with Bangalore’s infrastructure are well-known. Everybody knows
we have pathetic pot-holed roads, more traffic than the roads can handle, and an
administration that talks through the wrong orifice about fixing things. Heck,
we can boast that we are possibly the only city in the country, and perhaps the
world, that has a traffic light on a flyover, thanks to the wonderful
administration’s short-sightedness.

But apart from the "oh my gawd, we didn’t foresee the hordes of people
moving in" excuse, there are certain problems with the way infrastructure,
is  designed, that makes you wonder if we might indeed have better luck
entrusting the planning work to a large group of chimpanzees, banging away at
AutoCAD. For instance, at some places, you will find bus stops right after a
traffic light. At others, you will find them around corners. This doesn’t need
some genius-level IQ to figure out, for cryin’ out loud. Who in their right
minds can’t see that erecting a bus stop right after a damn traffic light
is a sure way to cause a traffic block? Couldn’t they move it, say, 200 metres
ahead?

Another thing that the planners don’t seem to understand is the concept of a
"bottleneck". You simply have to look at Old Madras Road, where the 4
lane road is being widened to 8 lanes. Oh, that’s a good thing, you think.
Except that it’s being widened only up to the point of a busy intersection, so
all that happens is that the bottleneck shifts to another point instead.

Let me illustrate this in some detail with the example of the Airport Road-Koramangala
flyover
that’s being constructed. This fine piece of work (I almost choked while
writing that) was started in
February 2003 and was supposed to be finished the same year, but of course, all
kinds of bureaucratic problems (methinks somebody didn’t get a big enough share
of the "incidental expenses" pie) led to numerous delays and the first
phase is apparently ready for opening in a fortnight – 3 years later.

The purpose of the flyover is to alleviate the congestion on Airport Road
because the intersection of Koramangala Ring Road, Indiranagar 100 ft Road, and
Airport Road is where three major streams of traffic meet. And anything that can
ease traffic jams is good, right? Flyovers are supposed to help the smooth flow
of vehicles without the problems of having a traffic light, aren’t they? (Unless
you’re using the aforementioned Richmond Road flyover, of course.)

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The corrupt and the religious

Till recently, I was just a salaried bloke without much need to interact with various government agencies. I have learnt a lot in the one and a half years I have been running my own business as an entrepreneur. Firstly, those who tell you that the Licence Raj is behind us have never run a company that needs a thousand and one licences to actually get it off the ground. And of course each department wants its share of “performance incentive” fees to get things done. So I have been exposed to the ugly and sleazy part of running a business in India – a part I thoroughly despise.
A curious thing you observe while visiting various government offices is the number of images of gods and goddesses that abound there. Yes, many of these government officials are very religious people. Every morning, Ganesh will be worshipped, fresh garlands will adorn the idol, and the nice people will pray earnestly. No business will be conducted in the Rahu Kaalam, the inauspicious part of the day (Saturn’s evil influence, see) that usually (conveniently?) falls just after lunch time. I’m serious! We didn’t get one of our licences in the afternoon, the official insisting that we wait till Rahu Kaalam had passed. We got it around 5 PM.
I am an avowed atheist as most of my readers know, so these things don’t concern me in the least. What I find baffling, however, is the fact that these same religious people have absolutely no qualm or shame in demanding and accepting dough for their “services”. How does this fit in with their religious views? If you believe in an all-powerful, all-seeing deity that dispenses justice based on your actions in this world (a view that is part of most religions), then surely wouldn’t you also believe that this deity sees your corrupt, despicable actions and will make you pay for your sins in the afterlife or the next life? Somehow, this doesn’t seem to bother any of our nice government employees in the least, who merrily conduct large transactions every day at most offices. And yet the greedy, money-grubbing government lackey will make regular visits to Tirupati, Dharmasthala, and numerous other “holy” places to seek the blessings of the almighty. They must have missed their religion’s lessons about leading a virtuous life.
What a wonderful country we have…

Old laws in India

As most Indians who have been through the Indian courts for a legal case will tell you, the Indian justice system is not famous for its speed or efficiency. The backlog of cases is in the order of millions of cases, and it is not at all uncommon for cases to languish in our wonderful courts for decades, making you wonder if the justice system should really be called “the injustice system”.
For libertarians like me, a strong and effective judiciary is vital if we have to enforce property rights, resolve contract disputes, and make tort laws effective. (And if you ask Yazad, he will probably say that only private arbitration bodies are required.)
Over on The Examined Life, Ravikiran makes a case that legal options for regular folks like us are not desirable because our complicated laws actually favour large corporate groups with lots of money who can afford to wait around for years while the common man goes nuts waging his battle against them. Says Ravikiran:

Our legal system is too slow because we have too many laws. Each law is individually vague and each individual action is covered by so many laws that there is no way to tell whether an action is legal or not till it is actually brought to court and a judge actually pronounces on it.

Alas, this is all too true. I heard someone say on TV once that our Income Tax law is the longest in the world, having gone through hundreds of modifications over the years.
But to add to what Ravi is saying, our big problem today is that the laws governing us are so convoluted simply because they are so damn old! We are governed by so many archaic, anachronistic, useless laws that just the interpretation of them ties up cases for years. Many of our laws are a century old; some even older. These laws have to be interpreted in a modern context to deal with the realities of this century, but they were written in an age when none of these issues were thought of.

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The future of matrimonial classifieds

I noticed something interesting the other day as I walked into the offices of
the Times of India to place a classifieds ad for some waiters for my
restaurant
. As I was handing in the form to the lady at the counter, a sign
on the side caught my eye (mostly because I saw a "10% off" screaming
from it.) Unfortunately, I wasn’t carrying my digicam with me, so I’ll have to
paraphrase what the sign said.

Here’s how it essentially read: "If you place a matrimonial classifieds
ad and do not specify any religion, caste, or regional criteria, we will give
you a 10% discount on the ad. We are doing our bit for the betterment of society
and eliminating bigotry."

I was quite pleasantly surprised to see an initiative like this from an
otherwise morally bankrupt publishing group. We "educated"
middle-class and upper-middle-class Indians love to tell others that the caste
system does not have a strong grip in this country, yet we are unbelievably
hypocritical when it comes to marrying off our own sons and daughters. "We
don’t believe in the caste system, but my Sanjay can get married only to a [some
language] girl from [some caste] caste."

Speaking of matrimonial classifieds ads, I think that the growing popularity
of online wedding sites like shaadi.com will
mean the slow death of the print classified ads, at least in English newspapers.
They will do what the spread of cellular phones did to the pager industry (yeah,
remember pagers in India?) It won’t happen immediately, but I give it about 3
years. The print medium has severe limitations: you can’t write more than a few
lines, which have to as short and sweet as possible, giving you only enough
space to write a bunch of numbers and abbreviations. Here’s an example:
"Smart beautiful homely [caste] girl 25/157/6000 seeks [caste] qualified
well-settled boy. Contact Box no…" Now this could fit almost anyone,
giving you very little info to go on. Online, however, you don’t have any space
restrictions, and adding more fields isn’t that complicated. It also allows you
to easily build databases that can be searched on various criteria. What’s more,
it has that most important bit of information – a photo!

When I mentioned the above Times of India signboard to one of my friends, he
pointed out to me that one of the matrimonial sites, instead of leading the way,
was actually being regressive in its approach. BharatMatrimony.com,
that advertises heavily on many sites, has an annoying "feature"
that’s also a bug. If you want to search for a bride or groom, one of the
parameters required is "language". This isn’t a multiple choice thing;
you can only select one language. It then redirects you to one of its
language-specific sub-sites where you can search away. However, if you are
slightly more modern and don’t particularly care that your prospective partner
come from a particular state, you’re out of luck. There is absolutely no way to
specify "any" as an option or even to search through more than one
language. If you want to check out women from all over the country, you just
have to conduct 29 different searches. Isn’t that amusing?

Lastly, I must mention an interesting conversation I had about our
matrimonial ads with John Rhodes (he runs webword.com
– a usability site) who was visiting Bangalore for some business. He pointed out
some differences between personal ads in the USA and over here. He found that
the most important criteria here seemed to be the person’s caste, religion and
family, while in USA, people would put their interests and partner requirements.
He was amused to note the classifieds were divided by language. I just shrugged
my shoulders and said, "well, it will take another couple of generations to
get rid of our deep-rooted prejudices."