Even as the dust from the debris of the collapsed roof in Connaught Place settled, the New Delhi Municipal Council swarmed over the storied market place staking out, and subsequently sealing operations of 21 establishments including several successful restaurants. This is hardly the first face-off between the civic authorities and the restaurant-owners with the former accusing restaurants of subverting business practices to sustain a profit and the restaurants accusing the authorities of red tapism and corruption.
It is true that restaurants endure inordinately long delays to acquire licenses to offer services like an alcohol menu, a food menu, and indeed seating. Fire safety licenses, zoning permits, spacing allowances are all earned after long waits and much greasing of the wheels and palms of various authorities. Add on the cost of daily operations, spillage, spoilage, salaries and of course, the big whammy, rent and it becomes easier to see why restaurants sometimes err on the side of the grey, to stay in the red.
Clearly there is need for an overhaul of significant proportions. The National Restaurant Association of India has reached some accords with various authorities in some matters but February’s closure shows that there’s quite a distance to go still.
And then of course, it’s location, location, location. Despite its sanctified (and heavily sanctioned) veneer, Connaught Place and its crumbling colonnades are something of a relic, now seemingly with new perils.
From the heady early days of a fire at a Hauz Khas Village bar to the more recent closures of restaurants there on account of their terrace usage and water treatment (done by the South Delhi Municipal Council in concert with the National Green Tribunal), the explosion in popularity of urban villages like HKV and Shahpur Jat, encumbered those narrow alleys with rickety stairwells, tottering signage and parking snarls from hell.
And while the swells have mostly moved away from HKV and Shahpur Jat to greener pastures (including yes, Chhattarpur), a steady flow of newly-minted college kids and those with disposable incomes who are just too lazy to leave South Delhi, keep the footfalls there hyper inflated.
Khan Market still maintains its facade, serving up an entertaining mix of near misses and palpable hits, but seems to add a new staircase at each visit, leading to tiring and often bewildering ascents as you seek sustenance. All the neighbourhood markets, in fact, seem to experience a cyclical surge and wane in popularity, whether it’s a Greater Kailash or a Lodhi Colony.
Depressing as it might be, the future might lie in malls. With their ready to use fixtures and streamlined licensing, they might just offer restaurateurs a respite from all the heat and bother of Delhi. There have in fact been some stellar properties opening at the malls in Saket and Vasant Kunj, while Noida and Gurgaon see a steady influx of people coming to their glittering edifices, promising both retail therapy and a large menu of restaurants and cuisines. Time will tell. But in the meantime, summer is coming.