The era of ‘fast’ food: Indian dinner today is spoilt for choice, ever seeking next destination to tweet about

By: | Published: March 5, 2017 2:00 AM

AMERICAN DINING arrived in India in the early- to mid-90s with TGIF.

TGIF brought quirks and, in many ways, casual dining to the mix.

AMERICAN DINING arrived in India in the early- to mid-90s with TGIF. In New Delhi, where I lived at the time, our ‘TGIF’ was Nirula’s, the candy-striped substitute, with spicy chicken tikka pizza, chole bhatura and obscure and familiar ice-cream flavours, and ice-cream ‘sodas’ straight out of Pop Tate’s in Archies comics. There was an innocence to Nirula’s. They didn’t serve alcohol and stuck to feel-good comfort food, making it a Delhi staple for a generation just like Kwality was for an earlier one. When TGIF came along, it brought to use a current term, ‘swag’, to the rather insipid free-standing dining landscape. Or, for that matter, even five-star dining, where F&B visionaries were a little more uptight when it came to dining options.

TGIF brought quirks and, in many ways, casual dining to the mix. In hospitality schools, we are taught styles of service—Russian, French, buffet, silver, etc. However, in recent times, the American style of service has taken over, although a certain amount of snobbery prevents it from getting referred to as a ‘sect’ of its own kind. Its imprint is clear: efficiency, less fuss, simple cover layout, paper napkins, DIY accruements and, of course, oversize portions. The margaritas came in the size of a mug and it was overwhelming at the time. Although the well-heeled tippling crowd was familiar with the patiala peg, this was another thing altogether.

TGIF enjoyed its run for nearly a decade, setting off the sprouting of other establishments that copied its nonchalant and easygoing style: the DJ seen for the first time outside of a nightclub, spinning on the side. There was dancing, something not too commonly found in its counterparts in America. Here, it was reconciling with the demands of a youthful outgoing public with limited options and restrictions like cover charges and stag realities. At one point, the TGIF my friends and I visited had a velvet rope outside on busy nights!

Having spent my college years in the US, I encountered this uniquely Indian TGIF experience with some amusement. Cut to a decade or so later, TGIF seems to have retreated, but Chili’s, the hangout spot in my American college town, is here.

I visited one the other night with a few school friends and the nostalgia was instantaneous. It was housed in a grand mall and was similar to the last one I visited a few years ago in a mall in Brooklyn, New York. The ambience, dishes, service portions and style were identical. The only difference was the clientele, but only in ‘look’. After all these years, the experience had travelled and settled with little transformation. It might seem insignificant, but the experience with two very similar brands, 15-odd years apart in a pre-Internet (at least in terms of penetration) world, and the one today, had changed the experience and furthermore homogenised our lives to the point of convenience and familiarity, but also resulted in the loss of the magic of discovery.

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Suddenly, the same experience didn’t feel quite as fun or different, but just ‘convenient’. Today, we are spoilt for choice, yes, but we are also willing to form loyal bonds, nooks of comfort and familiarity that we can animate in our own way, peeling through generic offerings and giving them context. It happened all those years ago because guests were willing to make those changes, assert their choices and restaurants more willing to accommodate that. Today, choice is available at the swipe of a smartphone and the diner is ever seeking the next destination, the next spot to insta or tweet about.

Advaita Kala is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants in India and abroad .

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