In the perpetual glut and glitter of market places, restaurants pose a pertinent question – the food or the mood? Food for the mood or mood for the food? To restore, is what restaurant literally means in French.
To restore, perhaps, the refreshing rapport between the mind and the body. In essence, a wholesome environment for physical as well as psychological nourishment. Ambiance, therefore, remains the basic challenge of designing public eating places. Ambiance of leisure, of vigour, of comfort, of amusement...
One of the easy to fathom, convenient to communicate and effective to identify are theme restaurants with their ambiance set in a ‘theme’. A theme that people can well relate to. One that catches imagination and stands out uniquely. What possibly could be a theme in the milieu of Ahmedabad with its part cosmopolitan yet largely ethnic society, enterprising yet tradition bound community, and calculative yet aspiring people? One proven answer is ‘Vishala’ in a theme of village. Arguably the first ever theme restaurant, recreates an ambiance of a village in an urban fringe. As nostalgic recluse from the hustle and bustle of the mechanised city routine the restaurant creates a leisurely, informal and natural rural setting. Vishala with the village theme, Mirch Masala with the rural dhaba theme, Rajwadu with an idea of conjuring the kingdom, Patang with unique revolving restaurant or Choki dhani recreating settlement of Rajasthan and Agashiye with terrace theme, have proven to be effective in associating with its users and conjuring nearly accurate comprehension of what to expect.
However, within these commonality of being theme restaurants there is one major difference amongst some of them and that is them being indoors or outdoors. The indoor ones organised within the confines of the walls lack the dynamics of outdoors in terms of changing moods with dynamics of varying light, its differing intensity, orientation and perception. This inherently changing space brings with it a sense of uniqueness of space over time. Ever evolving alchemy of time and space. Nature in the form of light, view, vegetation and people, when included as spatial aspects, they bring in spontaneity, unpredictability and there by curiosity and sense of surprise.
The other phenomenon critically inherent to them is the sense of indulgence. The very intension and effort of involving user and setting dialogue with place and people. This brings in sense of belonging. At Mirchmasala it engages one and involves with bollywood star caricatures, humour graffiti or audio-video accompaniment of Radio-TV blazing popular movie song. The loudness of music also brings in intended sense of informality to break away from decorum and formal mannerism. Yet another dimension they share in common is that there is an element of fantasy in each. May it be fantasy of chance encounters with movie star on roadside eatery next to you or being villager and going far away from modern times and urban hustle. The theme need not only be of the ambiance, theme can be of traditionality in merchandise itself. Manmohan kharek, Kali topi Lambi moochh or jasuben’s pizza fall under this, maintaining its traditional brand and identity.
The issues that prevail are whether theme, although effective and arguably the easiest, is the only answer to creating fulfilling environment and refreshing ambiance. Is success to be measured by quantity of visitors or by the quality of environment the space offers?
Should there be a compulsive conditioning through theme? Or is it that myth, mythologies, fiction and fairly tales have become integral parts of us. Can there be a story evolving out of the language of space? The grammar of light and shade, texture and pattern, planes and volumes. An eternal timeless space sustaining essentially on its experiential overtones and virtues. Space, like good cuisine, that can only be experienced and not described.
Culturally as well as climatically responsive model, quite unique to our local context has been outdoor, road side food joints. Thriving essentially on the dynamics of space and time, ever changing milieu with constantly redefining setting with people and place supported by large degree of informality and freedom, and of course the unescapable sense of indulgence. Bit of all these is what makes food joints at nukkad tick. May it be Manekchowk in East or Law garden in West or Maninagar in South; such joints have truly translated into civic nodes.
There are also some unique to Ahmedabad models of eateries with overtones of social values. Very traditional set of these ones are, edge of footpath restaurants at Teen Darwaza. They earn business while doing social service by feeding meals to footpath beggars at measly sum of ten rupees a plate in sequence and volume of donations received from the passer bys. Another interesting one in this breed is Sewa cafe, which runs through volunteers and charges no money for food in the philosophical premise that food is not to be sold as commodity but instead is an element of service to be served to all with love. It sustains the chain by receiving voluntary donations of its visitors. Not just thoughts of food but food for thought as well. A realm that restores refreshing rapport between the mind and matter.
The writer is an Ahmedabad-based architect.