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

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
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.)

Continue reading How not to design a flyover