In most cases, plain necessity drives mall rats and hurried flyers to traditional food courts. It is assumed that for quick service at pocket-friendly rates, one must also comply with uncomfortable seating and uninspired menus. But two hospitality chains in Mumbai hope to correct this devaluation of the food court experience.

Last week, Riyaaz Amlani, chief executive officer and managing director of Impresario group, launched a novel food concept in the city’s corporate hub Kamala Mills. Flea Bazaar Café, inspired by local khau galis, hosts 14 young and established food brands in a vibrant market-style layout with a central bar powered by Social. There’s also a cosy amphitheatre space for lounging with cold brews from local micro-roasters Roasted Today.

Amlani, best known for the ever-multiplying Social chain, says the decision was prompted by this puzzling observation: “Every time I would come to Kamala Mills, I would see office-goers walk past the many good restaurants around, cross the road, and eat at the street stalls outside. A bell went off in my head, and I decided to give them variety, speed and fun without it being completely sanitized," he says.

In a similar vein, deGustibus Hospitality (the group behind Indigo, Indigo Delicatessen, Neel, and Tote on the Turf), launched 11 Kitchens, a refashioned food court, in south Mumbai’s CSR mall in January. The group’s first step towards QSR (quick service restaurants) features brands like the Indigo Burger Project that offers their dependable burgers in new flavours for under Rs200, along with south Indian fare at Dakshin Rasoi. “People usually snigger at the thought of a food court. But I thought, why can’t it be a destination for good food?" says Anurag Katriar, director of deGustibus Hospitality. With a slight image makeover, he argues, the financially viable business model can benefit from smart platform-performer alliances. “QSR has an image problem, but we decided to be brave and take the first step. I’m sure more players are going to come in."

Competitive pricing informs the strength-in-numbers food court philosophy. A meal for one in either of these establishments averages about Rs200. Both expect a certain churn in the current food offerings, and an unsentimental ousting of poor performers. “This business is not for the faint-hearted. We’re going to let people vote by their feet; it’s going to be a volume game," says Amlani

Food Court 2.0

A comparison of the two dining models

Flea Bazaar Café

In his selection, Riyaaz Amlani optioned young, inventive food entrepreneurs, such as the Travancore-born chef Deepu, who serves traditional and experimental Kerala fare at Watsappam, Munaf Patel of The Bohri Kitchen, one of the better-known names in the mix, and Yugo and Martha Tokuchi of Yugo Sushi, also the inventors of the “sushi burrito". There are well-established brands like Lucknowee Tunday and Gujarati-food favourites Soam.

11 Kitchens

The mix here is by the book, with some regulars like Subway and Zoodles. “It took me a few months to get the mix right. For instance, I wanted to get Madras Café here, but they didn’t want to leave Matunga," says Anurag Katriar.The greatest draw is Indigo Deli’s fresh burgers in flavours ranging from Chettinad spiced potatoes to Old Monk-infused chicken. A forthcoming addition is an outlet of home-style Punjabi thali veterans Bhagat Tarachand.

The dining experience

Self-service is eased with buzzers that notify you once your food is ready to be collected, plus you have the option of ordering from your table via an app. Post 9pm, the space transforms—chairs are pulleyed to the ceiling to make room for a dance floor and a charcoal-coloured van turns into an unusual DJ console.

At 11 Kitchens, the dining experience is improved with small adjustments. There is no plastic cutlery, there are several cosy booths, and standard fare is dressed up slightly. For instance, one of the special dosas at Dakshin Rasoi is a mini basil dosa with corn and ratatouille served with tomato basil dip.

The Ambience

The decor is decidedly un-uniform, with personalized stalls; The Bohri Kitchen, for instance, is fitted with windows from Bhindi Bazaar, while Watsappam is fashioned on a traditional toddy shop. Another thoughtful addition is the almost movie set-like Sharmaji paan shop at the main entrance.

Comfort and elegance are prioritized here, with cushy sofas and uniform facades. Lollipop signs are used in place of busy brand logos and colours. “This is a 200-seater and if you have one style, it has a classroom feel. So we created three distinct seating zones with distinct ceilings, floor and furniture," says Katriar.

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