Food Over Ambience? Yes, Please!
Image Credit: Rustic tea stall

I have a young pre-millennial friend who chooses her new dining destinations according to their ‘gram’-picture-perfect quotient, if you know what I mean. She will only dine at new restaurants which have the perfect ambience, or at least good enough decor, to make it to visually-appealing Instagram posts. Picturesque, outdoorsy cafes with contemporary and well-styled furniture, elegant tableware and wallpaper, with pretty flower pots on the window sills or classic restaurants with Indian ethnic chic decor, of the plush paisley-printed silk upholstery, brass lamps, grand murals on the walls kind, etc are on top of her wish list. It so happens that Hyderabad, and for that matter, every metro is today teeming with new dining places which are absolutely spot-on, when it comes to the perfectly designed decor and fine-dining experience. 

For my friend and many of her generation, food perhaps comes a distinct second, though it goes without saying that the food should also look pretty enough, not to eat so much, as to click, in their case. 

I have asked her on occasion if she thinks that the taste of the food is not important, as some of these upmarket places don’t get their food right, many a time. I don’t remember what she replied but it was in effect just brushing the question away. 

I, for the most part, choose hygiene over tasty food most times (the hygiene standards that street vendors are following of late is admirable, though) and I have never minded dining at a fine dining place,  I mean, have you met anyone yet who will not want to dine in the grand opulence of the 101-dining table at Taj Falaknuma, for example? But if I am asked to choose a place which has indifferent ambience but top-notch food, and a fancy restaurant with mediocre food, I would choose the former, almost every single time. 

For old-school me, taste of the meal is paramount, as isn’t the main activity centred around a meal got to do with the pleasures of the palate? 

An anecdote I remember from many winters ago, when we had visited Chilika lake, Asia’s largest brackish water lagoon, in Odisha comes to my mind.  We had left around noon from our tourist lodge in Barkul near Chilika for Bhubaneswar and since we had skipped breakfast, the driver suggested breaking for lunch at a small eatery on the way near Balugaon, which is a fishing village and the hub of Chilika’s seafood (crab and prawns primarily) exports to Asian countries like Japan.

Since the driver had tried the food here, he vouched for an excellent seafood meal but, quite frankly, the place was dishevelled, to say the least.  It was not the thatched hut which was off-putting, it was the general poor upkeep, the dust all around (after all this was on the national highway) and the rickety benches and table which were not very encouraging. And while I got down to check it out, I realised that the husband was just not game and refused to alight from the car and the driver was almost wringing his hands in despair. In short, we had a situation. 

But the owner of the place, an old man who had once worked as a fisherman, was not lacking in hospitality skills, warmth or enterprise, as it soon turned out.  Shuffling out of his thatched tenement with a big smile, he literally cajoled the husband out of the back seat, saying he would spruce up the place in minutes, and he did. Then he opened up a bottle of Bisleri, with which he washed the sal leaf plates and then washed his hands well, before proceeding to serve lunch on the table. I remember there was unpolished red rice, a watery dal, hot and crisp pomfret/prawns fry and the most delectable crab (sweet and fresh) curry there could ever have been! He helpfully explained that it was the fresh morning catch of a couple of hours ago, watching over us and asking often if we needed seconds. 

And when the bill came, the husband was left amazed by the sparse three-digit figure, closer to the two-digit number than four-digit. On his maiden visit to Chilika, he was gobsmacked to learn that you could get fresh seafood at a micro-fraction of the price he was used to paying in Delhi or even to sea-friendly Mumbai! 

This experience has stayed with me as a classic example of nil ambience but rare-to-find fantastic food, with the freshest sourced ingredients from nature and backed by great cooking techniques. 

All of us have experienced waiting at restaurants, some time or the other. Nowadays, several standalone fancy dineries have an allotted waiting area for their valued patrons. But the centenarian icon of classic South Indian tiffin, the original Mavalli Tiffin Rooms outlet in Lalbagh, Bengaluru has no such pretensions, as we discovered on a recent outing. 

After a good walk around the Botanical Gardens in the winter sun, we hopped across to the nearby MTR outlet and were elated on being allotted a table, a rarity most mornings. Joyous eating of crisp rava dosa, ghee podi idli and kesari ‘bath’ followed. Just as we were ordering our filter kaapi, we noticed a bespectacled gentleman holding the newspaper sidle up to our table and without an “if you please’ ponked himself onto the empty chair opposite me and next to my husband. 

Before we could protest, he shook the newspaper folds and proceeded to read the headlines with keen attention.  The crowd in the room comprised mostly of the genteel, old-world Bangalorean and we did not somehow want to create a scene. And he was treating us as invisible and since the newspaper was a shield from his countenance, we kind of made peace with the unwanted intrusion, and sipped away on our filter coffee. A neighbouring table got vacated and our guest moved there in a flash of an eye.

While settling our bill, I asked the waiter if this was common practice at MTR and he answered with a big smile and a resounding yes, adding that the gentleman was a regular. If you have been to the original outlet in Lalbagh, you will notice that it has minimal ambience except sepia prints of VIPs whom they have served like some Congress leaders and prime ministers etc and their award plaques on the walls. But you don’t just dine at MTR Lalbagh, you inhale the rarefied environment of a legacy. 

When I asked my young instagrammer friend if she would share a table with a stranger if that was the last table standing at an iconic restaurant like MTR, her answer was a decided yes. “I would certainly like to eat their iconic masala dosa and rava idli, as well as see and feel the dining environment of an eatery dating back to my grandparents time,” she added. 

So, yes, if you ask me to choose between food and ambience, I would choose the former, every single time. But why choose, when bright spark foodpreneurs are acing their act at both ambience and food? If you look around, from the hip and happening Goa and Mumbai to Ludhiana and Hyderabad, restaurateurs are perfecting their hospitality act. And more power to their tribe!