Meal Plan

From communal tables to service tax, here’s a quick guide to some of Mumbai’s new dining trends and how to deal with them.

August 5, 2011 5:32 pm by

A communable table at Le Pain.

Eating out in Mumbai is not what it used to be. Now, we sit at tables with a dozen strangers and order what the menu calls “small plates”. Often, a ten per cent “gratuity” or service charge has already been added to your bill, no matter if the staff spilled soup on your shirt. Dealing with new trends in the dining scene can be difficult; why even the folks in New York are having problems adjusting to them. While we share a few of same problems, some are uniquely our own. Here are a few of the new things we can expect at Mumbai restaurants and tips on how to best navigate them:

Knock knees with strangers, but check yourself.
Le Pain Quotidien and The Table both offer you the option of sitting at a large “communal” table, even if you are a party of just two. You eat your food sharing elbow space with strangers. “It’s fun,” says Farrokh Khambata, who recently launched Amadeus at the NCPA. “You get to meet a lot of interesting people. But sometimes, it can be a problem if you are sitting next to someone with bad food etiquette.” Eating at a communal table, according to Khambata, is much like standing at a bar, where it is polite, but not necessary, to make conversation with the people around you. So yes, a little nod and smile works, but make sure you don’t burp or talk about your sex life or skin conditions.

Eat as you like, in small bites.
“It makes sense for Mumbai because we get to try a lot of things.” says Nachiket Shetye, chef at East. While Shetye believes that our inherent nature is to share so we should, Khambata says the plates at Amadeus are not designed to split because they are just a couple of bites each. If you do share, then be prepared to do with just a taste, or call for more than one of what you like. Of course, this differs from restaurant to restaurant and their serving sizes. For example, at The Table, the “small plate” of boneless chicken wings comprises six cubes of white meat and is good enough to share. Of course, no restaurant is going to frown at you if you have a bite from a friend’s dish, but the idea behind it is variety and beating the law of diminishing marginal utility while eating for your appetite. There are no rules for eating tapas, or pizza by the slice or choosing to have several small plates and no entree, so go ahead and enjoy it.

If there are reservations, follow the rules.
Some establishments, like Mexican restaurant Sancho’s in Bandra, don’t take reservations. Instead, they will put your name on a list when you arrive and tell you the expected waiting time for you to get a table. If there is room in their always over-crowded lounge area, you can sit, have your drinks and a couple of starters while some of the lingering diners clear out. So even though you can’t book a table in advance, there is a system. When restaurants take reservations, they are likely to serve you better if you respect them. If you are late, or aren’t planning to show up at all, let them know. “It’s insider information, but I’ll let you know,” says Jeetesh Kaprani, the F&B manager at The Oberoi. “Now, restaurants and hotels track customers so well that we will turn away customers who are repeat offenders. If you have booked with us, and don’t call to say you will be late, or can’t make it over and over again, then when you call next, we will say, ‘Sorry, we have no tables available tonight’.” After all, someone else was told the same thing because you made that booking. At Amadeus, if you are a large group, when you call to make a reservation, they can take your tapas order over the phone so that you don’t have to wait when you reach the restaurant.

Before you show up with a kid in tow, check with the restaurant.
“We will not turn people with kids away, but we discourage people from bringing kids under the age of 11 to Amadeus,” says Khambata. If you’re planning to grab a couple of drinks before your meal, it’s better to leave the tots at home. “People try and walk into a bar with a child, and we have to remind them that, by law, people under a certain age are not permitted here,” says Kaprani. “Of course, we will give them the option of having a drink at one of our restaurants that also has a bar.” The job of the staff is to take your order, help you with choices, bring your meal to you, and make sure you enjoy your food. Babysitting is not part of their job description. Restaurateurs complain that waiters have to make sure that kids don’t bother other guests, break things or trip them up. If you don’t watch your child in a restaurant, be prepared to see the staff stuff his or her face in a last ditch effort to keep the kid busy and help them pass out. So call ahead to ask about the restaurant’s child policy.

If servings come for one, share at your own risk.
At Ziya at the Oberoi, you can have a nalli nihari, but it’s not anything close to what you get on Mohammed Ali Road. It is just one piece, arranged vertically with a cube of potato, meant to be eaten, as chef Vineet Bhatia had designed, by one person. “Of course, we will give you sharing plates, if you let us know you will be sharing, but we wouldn’t recommend it,” says Kaprani. Increasingly, high-end restaurants are serving European-style, plated dishes. Each dish is put together as an installation piece, often with the elements so precariously and intricately balanced that it feels like a felony to put a knife and fork to it. Most restaurants will give you side plates if you want to pass a bite to someone else, but they won’t be too thrilled about it.

Check the last line of your bill before you dole out the extra bucks.
Finding a 10 per cent service charge in the small print of a bill after I have already added a 15 per cent tip to my credit card receipt makes me feel cheated. Since when did restaurants think it was okay to take gratuity from me? By the very definition of the word, it means a giving of thanks, a sense of gratefulness for good service. If you have had terrible service, you have the right to take it up with the manager who can take off the charge (if they actually will depends largely on restaurant to restaurant), or choose to not return and spread the word about their deviousness. If you have had pleasant service, you can look at it as a convenient way of not having to do some math after a decent meal. On the other had, if you have had exemplary service, you should add another five percent to make sure they remember you and treat you well the next time you visit them.