Five-star hotels in small towns play a huge role in defining a city’s lifestyle and dining expectations
BILASPUR IN Chattisgarh has no airport. At a function that I happened to peep into when home minister Rajnath Singh was visiting the city, all that the gathered city dignitaries asked for was an airport. What Bilaspur does have is the second-busiest railway junction in central India and the third-longest railway platform in the country. This sort of trivia helps in small towns, especially one that is aspiring for a new identity with an urgency that is palpable. It made me think about what it means to a city when it gets its first five-star hotel like Bilaspur has with Marriott Courtyard.
It’s difficult for those who have lived in a big city to imagine that. The iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, for example, is over a hundred years old. With little to no tourism in Bilaspur, Marriott here caters primarily to locals and visiting businessmen. Bilaspur is also not on the film promotion circuit like, say, Bhopal, so it gets very little celebrity sprinkling. The subtle work here is to introduce its local clientele to the five-star world.
MoMo Cafe, Marriott’s all-day dining restaurant, is cleverly designed. It operates as a lobby, as well as a restaurant, with lobby-style seating in the central section and traditional restaurant-style seating in the wings. This layout manages to out-step the often-cited complaint of guests of wanting to be served tea and other eats in the lobby, a practice that is discouraged. MoMo Cafe’s design is art deco in influence and the buffet is on a par with what one would find in other cities. Whilst chain hotels abroad are moving away from standardisation and localising their brands to reflect local sensibilities, in India, a conformity of experience is at play, setting a standard for experience across cities.
Needless to mention, it’s a step ‘behind’ what’s happening in other parts of the world. The buffet might be on a par, but the guests are not accustomed to not being served at tables, so the buffet is merely a walk-through and the food is brought to their table. The dining-out experience in Bilaspur is still about being served. The Indian kitchen remains the strongest in terms of repertoire—it’s a reflection of what people choose to eat. Cuisines like Thai or Pan Asian are yet to make a debut on the collective palate of the city. But nonetheless, there are stirrings and the buffet remains the testing ground for this. One piques the tastebuds of traditional diners by introducing items on the buffet and if the response is good enough, the dish enters the menu.
Hotels like Marriott in Bilaspur are an interesting study for the role they play in defining a city’s lifestyle and dining expectations by catering to aspiration, while sticking to the road of what is comfortable. Two hours away, its sister hotel in Raipur faces a more evolved dining clientele.
MoMo Cafe sits in the heart of the lobby, with a high-ceilinged atrium. The Sunday brunch is a smash. I am here on Father’s Day and little paper badges are being pinned on to men’s attires. A few older men in their 60s, outfitted in kurta-pyjamas with no children accompanying them, seem a little incredulous, but play along sportingly. The Sunday brunch is not coy and alcohol is included, ushering in daytime revelry. There are live stations, a chaat counter, Mexican food and kebab stations, and an expansive dessert spread. A bar tender makes drinks in a corner. He, however, spends a good part of his time concocting pretty-coloured cocktails for the ladies. The mother-daughter duo sitting next to me have a pink and blue one, respectively, and are taking photos with their drinks that will be posted on Facebook. The ladies are out to brunch. It is evident from their knee-high dresses, dainty heels and ironed hair. The men, as mentioned earlier, are playing along. At another end of the restaurant, some casually-dressed youngsters sit and chatter away loudly. They sit there for long, as one would at a Starbucks.
The brunch crowd in Raipur has different motivations for being here. The Mexican counter surpasses itself and, with the mojitos, it’s quite simply one of the best Mexican meals I have had. Yet again, the fajitas and burriots are brought to the table. While the sophistication quotient is up in Raipur, the service demands are still ‘Chattisgarhiya’. All good things take time.
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