The transformation of Pali Naka
The upscale Mumbai neighbourhood’s development and evolution echoes all the perks and problems of India’s new economy
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If you want to know the latest trends in Mumbai—or perhaps even the country—in health, fitness and lifestyle, then you might want to station yourself at Kitchen Garden, a café serving organic, local fare directly from farm to table at Pali Naka, Bandra.
The clientele here would be men in trendy beards, women in leotards, many others dressed in casual or sportswear and sneakers, eating salads or getting a smoothie made with ingredients such as kale, avocado, flaxseeds, raspberries, chia seeds and low-fat yoghurt. It helps that Gold’s Gym, opposite on St John Street, is a popular one among models and actors.
If you’ve finished with the healthy meal, then walk round the corner to pubs such as The Irish House or 145. These places bubble over with casually dressed consumers mostly below the age of 30, fashionably disheveled millennials, oozing the impression that they may have just rolled out of bed and into the bar—though the people frequenting these places many not necessarily be from the ‘hood’.
Bandra (West) perhaps is like downtown New York: an upscale neighbourhood, home to some of Bollywood’s biggest celebrities, trendsetters, hipsters and expatriates. It is relatively close to the airport and a few kilometres from the financial hub of Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC). It’s the reason why Bandra’s development and evolution echoes all the perks and problems of India’s new economy.
At Pali Naka, a junction with cutesy bylanes and alleyways that allow you to segue your way on to Turner Road, Carter Road, Pali Hill and 33rd Road, there are 117 restaurants, bars, pubs, bakeries and cafes—most of which have come up in the last five-seven years. If you take a bigger radius of 2-3km from Pali Naka, the number goes up to 600, according to the digital aggregator Zomato.
Some of the most famous places in the neighbourhood, such as Suzette and Pali Village Café, have come up post-2010. Nearly 50 of the 117 out-of-home food and beverage (F&B) places opened in the last 18 months—27 in 2016 and 22 in the year till May, according to Zomato. There are definitely more to come, too.
While many parts of this suburb are thriving hotspots of entertainment—including Linking Road, Turner Road, Reclamation, etc.—this location encapsulates a variety of factors. Residents mingle with tourists and visitors—not always happily—cafes co-exist with bars and restaurants, its predominantly Catholic old folk live next to film stars and cars jostle for limited space with cyclists—thus converting Pali Naka into a hotchpotch of residences, shops and eateries. This is no longer the sleepy Bandra that people of a certain vintage saw in Amol Palekar’s Baaton Baaton Mein; this is chaos induced by commerce.
Meanwhile, the rush to set up more dining experiences continues even now. “Every other restaurateur from Mumbai to Delhi who is not there wants to be there. It is the place to be,” says Chirag Maru, a former senior manager with Knight Frank and now an independent real estate broker, one of Mumbai retail’s most influential. Maru says there are close to 60 brands/owners looking for space in the area but there is none available—unless some of the existing properties sell out.
In the 1960s, Pali Naka was the last stop for the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) bus route in this direction from the Bandra local railway station. There used to be a pole in the middle of the road from where the buses would turn around, remembers Bharat Premji Shah, a second generation proprietor of Modern Medical Stores, which has been at Pali Naka for the better part of the century.
Next door, the building Dheeraj Arcade where Punjab Sweet House is today, was a tin shed 40 years ago, when the store opened. The owner, Harbinder Singh Gulati’s father, wanted to open a store room here for his catering business.
“The area used to be dull. People would be scared to go out after eight in the evening. The roads would get empty by seven o’ clock,” reminisces Gulati, 60, proprietor of the store.
“Bandra has not always been hip, it is astonishing to see (now),” says Naresh Fernandes, editor of the online news website Scroll and a quintessential “Bandra boy”. The first hipster thing in the locality was Toto’s Garage, says Fernandes, who lives in a Salcette colony (Salsette Parsi Colony) just south of Gasper Enclave—where Suzette and Kitchen Garden are—on St John Street.
The roads were narrow; low lit and there were fields in the vicinity. “The development started in the last 20 years and its pace is now increasing,” Gulati adds.
Toto’s Garage, one of Mumbai’s oldest watering holes and a Bandra mainstay for its casual ambience and repetitive rock music, came up about 25 years ago. “When we started, there were no pubs in Bandra. People did not go out to drink. This was thought to be a wrong decision at that time,” says Laju Bhatia, part-owner of the pub.
Today, the 2km radius around Pali Naka has the highest density of cafes, restaurants, pubs, bars and patisseries in India, according to Zomato. “There are close to 40 pubs within a 2km radius from us,” says Bhatia, who is not complaining about the increased competition.
Sleepy to snazzy
How did this sleepy suburb transform to sexy?
First, of course, liberalization opened up India’s economy, creating wealth and disposable income.
Shah, of Modern Stores, brings up a tenuous connection to the 1993 terror attacks that targeted commercial establishments and popular locations such as the Bombay Stock Exchange, Plaza Cinema and Zaveri Bazaar in the south of the city. He says this was one of the reasons people started moving towards the quieter residential Bandra.
The Bandra-Worli Sealink, which came up in 2009 and speeded up travel from Worli, also helped in expediting this movement. “In a few months, the face of the city changed because of the sea link,” says Jeremie Pro, one of the three French owners of Suzette and Co. and Kitchen Garden.
Many expats are drawn to Bandra because it has pavements, and is an easy place to walk around in, says Fernandes.
The development and growth of the Bandra Kurla Complex in the east as the city’s new business district meant that a lot of professionals moved to Bandra (west), which has more residences.
The neighbourhood—Pali Hill is home to some of Hindi cinema’s biggest stars—was anyways not short of glamour and an ecosystem developed, helped by redevelopment of buildings.
Suzette opened in Gasper Enclave eight months after starting in Nariman Point in 2012 on the insistence of customers who were shifting to Bandra or had offices in Bandra Kurla Complex.
“Six years ago, Bandra was starting to get hip with places such as Zenzi (a lounge bar on Waterfield Road, now shut),” explains Pierre Labail, another partner.
The city was changing—the old south seemingly fuddy-duddy compared to the younger Bandra. “Now, it’s so funny to see white girls strolling around with yoga mats and Punjabi boys with SUVs trying to drive everyone over,” says Fernandes.
In October the same year, Suzette’s three partners opened Kitchen Garden, an open kitchen serving smoothies and sandwiches and a D-I-Y salad bar next door to their French crêperie. Following the success of places such as Suzette and the older neighbour Papa Pancho, the area started picking up, among others, as a destination for vegan cafes, gluten free, organic and new age places.
“Here people like to try something new,” says Shah, who has over the years seen the crowd transform from largely Christian to cosmopolitan.
Also, “whenever one place does well, everyone comes around it,” says Suren Joshi, one of the partners at Pali Village Cafe which opened in 2010 on the Ambedkar Road side of the junction.
The good, the bad and the ugly
What works for Pali Naka is its cosy neighbourhood feel—as opposed to a BKC which is very business-like. It caters to the tony residential crowd of Pali Hill, the older residents of St John Street and visitors. The road extending northwards turns into the BR Ambedkar Road, going all the way up to Khar and Santacruz. The busy 33rd road, which runs through the Bandra grid and arterial roads such as Linking Road, is also within a 2km radius.
“You can be a tourist visiting Bandra or an expat or local living in the area. Being in Bandra is a state of mind, it’s cool and hip,” says Riyaaz Amlani, chief executive officer, Impresario Entertainment and Hospitality Pvt. Ltd, which owns the chains Smokehouse Deli, Salt Water Café and Social. Deli opened on the junction of Ambedkar Road and 33rd road recently.
Bandra offers a “very good mix of old money and new money,” says Anurag Katriar, director, deGustibus Hospitality, which owns Indigo Delicatessen on the 29th Road. The Bandra Delicatessen opened in 2012 and is probably the most expensive real estate for the chain among its nine restaurants, says Katriar.
The good part though for deGustibus is that this is also among its top three branches in revenue along with Palladium in Phoenix Mills and Lokhandwala. “The culture in Bandra is such that people eat out a lot more often. Even drinking happens a lot more in the ‘burbs compared to town (South Mumbai),” says Katriar.
Pro believes they get a lot of freelancers—models, actors, writers etc.—people who don’t have an office to go to. Therefore, they are also able to sit in cafes at any time of the day, and not necessarily during meal times only, keeping their crêperie constantly busy.
Bandra also has a lot of young professionals who live alone and don’t have help at home, so end up eating out a lot, adds Antonia Achache, co-owner of Suzette and Co. and Kitchen Garden.
India’s population has about 440 millennials and 390 million Gen Z (born after 2000)—65% of the country. The Goldman Sachs India Consumer Close-up report (June 2016) also classifies 0.08% of the working population as “movers and shakers”, people with an annual income of $250,000 who are self-employed—the kind of clientele Achache is talking about.
“People today believe in spending rather than saving,” says Bhatia.
While there is a constant churn in the food and beverage (F&B) business in Mumbai, some of the old-timers managed to survive largely on neighbourhood loyalty and a cheesy cult status. Both Toto’s and Janata Bar, for example, draw people who have been frequenting them for years and are happy with lower prices and unpretentiousness. These two don’t have other branches, though largely out of personal choice. Most of the older establishments are proprietor-run places with the people at the helm coming in on a daily basis and becoming familiar with their regular customers. For example, you cannot be in Toto’s and not spot Bhatia walking around, always in dark glasses.
This though is at odds with the newer places setting up in the vicinity. Most settle here due to the area’s high commercial potential. They agree to pay high rentals and incur huge overhead costs. “It’s become show business now,” says Shah.
The downside is that it’s not always easy to break even. For instance, there was Thai-ban in place of and before Kitchen Garden; Cafe Basilico before The Irish House. The list of places that have been there and no longer exist in and around Pali Naka include Mia Cucina, Kebab Factory, Cocoberry, Cinnabon, Yellow Tree Cafe and Costa Coffee.
The average age for a new place varies between two years and four years, says a spokesperson at Zomato. This is true for fast growing hubs across the country.
Areas such as OMR Food Street, Navallur, Chennai; Balewadi High Street, Pune; Skywalk, Ulsoor, Bangalore; and Eco Park, Rajarhat New Town, Kolkata, are all fast growing food hubs.
A lot of things open and shut here within a short span of time, admits Joshi who is among the few that is expanding. The reason, he says, are high rentals. “You cannot afford to have even one bad week.”
Joshi, along with his partners, launched their second restaurant Pali Bhavan, an Indian dining concept, about four-five years-ago in Pali Naka. They are in the process of starting a third, a Thai restaurant, in the same neighbourhood.
Joshi says a 2,000-2,500 sq. ft restaurant here needs to do business of at least Rs25-30 lakh a month on average to survive. Costs for 2,000-2,500 sq. ft include Rs10 lakh on rent and Rs8 lakh on overheads as electricity and employee costs.
There is a supply-side crunch of good real estate in India, a problem magnified in Mumbai—more so in neighbourhoods such as Bandra where everyone wants to be. Anywhere in India, a commercial establishment license can be used for any form of retail: it can be an apparel store or a restaurant. In Mumbai, for opening a restaurant, you need separate permits from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. “This has further exaggerated the supply-side crunch,” explains Katriar. Rents in Bandra are among the highest in India at a minimum of Rs400 per sq. ft compared to the average of Rs200-350 per sq. ft elsewhere in Mumbai. To sustain a restaurant here, one will have to do business of minimum Rs800-1000 per sq. ft, says Katriar, adding “This is a tall order.”
“If I were to pay rent, I would not survive,” says Bhatia of Toto’s, which is open from 7pm to 1am of which three-four hours are peak hours. “So, all around if you see, it’s all day places, with coffee and happy hours. We don’t do any of that.”
The flip side
At Pali Village Café, there is no banner or board with name. The intention was to blend in with the “village”, have a quiet, peaceful location and provide valet parking to overcome the narrow roads and parking issues, says Joshi.
That, however, is what irks residents most. The street gets crowded during weekend evenings, in particular, changing the “village” into a noisy “city”. The local residents, restaurateurs and the municipality have been in conflict over several issues.
The BMC has often demolished extensions of restaurants built without permission. Residents complain of hawkers and other encroachments, besides arbitrary parking by visitors while businesses crib about the poor water supply.
For people living in the vicinity, the development has led to tremendous traffic—which is a story common to most neighbourhoods. “When you are in Bandra, it’s fine. But coming in and going out is bad,” says Labail of Suzette who though would not trade the place for any other.
“To me this is the paradox: it’s a nice place to live, then you bring your SUVs and suddenly, it is not such a nice place after all,” says Fernandes.
Hairstylist Sapna Bhavnani, who owns and runs the salon Mad-o-Wot on Pali Naka, finds it ironical that people who sell their houses and bungalows to builders for high-rises are the ones who complain about crowding and cutting down of trees.
Meanwhile, as restaurants and cars continue to increase and try to co-exist in the same space, the once empty junction is now a chaotic hub—a story perhaps reflective of India’s overall development.
This is the first in a three-part series which looks at neighbourhoods in and around Mumbai—Pali Naka, Bandra; Kala Ghoda, Fort; and Ghodbunder Road, Thane—that have transformed over time through retail and commerce, and how that has impacted their socio-economic fabric.
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