• TLS Staff

Longing for a restaurant I have never been to: The Bombay Canteen

I yearn for more places than I have been to. In the summer of 2016, when I was wallowing in the indistinct joy of being done with my board exams and mindlessly swiping through stories, I came across an account that changed my perception of what restaurants could be, forever. I am talking about one of Mumbai’s most celebrated, welcoming, and lively restaurants, The Bombay Canteen.

Image Courtesy: The Bombay Canteen (Instagram)

In 2018, Atlas Obscura (a community of explorers) gave a platform to its readers to articulate a feeling we have all experienced at some point in our life. The article spoke about the German concept of “fernweh”. Fernweh translates as ​“far sickness” and refers to ​“feeling homesick for a place you’ve never been or could never go.” Readers poetically wrote about their longing, from the yearning to be in the Irish countryside and Scottish Highlands to wishing for the Narnia fictional world to be real, the people poured their hearts out writing about places they have not even been to. And that is when I started thinking intensively about what it means to create these little escapades in our head. What it means to constantly yearn for people we have not even met and places we have not even been to. I think a lot.

My first sense of fernweh was in the 4th grade when our librarian recommended us to read Enid Blyton’s “Malory Towers”. What a world Blyton created for us kids! Blyton’s description of Malory Towers, a girls' boarding school located in picturesque surroundings by the sea in Cornwall, castle-like building on the cliffs, a courtyard, as well as a swimming-pool amid the rocks which is filled with seawater by the tides, filled me with joy, hope, and eternal unfulfilled longing for this place. Be it Blyton’s fictional boarding schools or Fox Traveller’s many shows on the cable during my time, for all I know, fernweh has been a part of me long before I knew there was a term for it. The most recent and longstanding homesickness I have had is for this restaurant, The Bombay Canteen. (among several others, of course!)

I have been vicariously living through the experiences this restaurant has curated for as long as I have followed them. I will not talk about the feats of this place for all of them are one google search away. What I will dabble into, along with a few other things is the genius their social media team is. For a restaurant to have the kind of following and social media presence that they have, is quite rare and commendable. The things that set them apart from the social media accounts of other popular contemporary restaurants is that they are storytellers first, and restauranteurs after.

Image Courtesy: The Bombay Canteen,(Instagram)

In an interview with NDTV food, the executive chef, Thomas Zacharias says that he considers himself a storyteller of Indian food. One look at Chef Thomas’s Instagram account and you will know what he means when he says this. His feed is full of pictures from his travels, photos of fresh local produce, and platefuls of delicacies made from the regional ingredients from the place he is in. His online persona speaks his truth and journey and that is the kind of example you want to set. The reason I talk about Chef Thomas extensively is that a lot of Bombay Canteen is what it is due to Chef Zacharias’s prowess and vision. Inspired by his grandmother at a very early age, Chef Zacharias is on a mission to make Indians fall in love with his #IndiaFoodMovement and #ChefOnTheRoad series. When asked if the phase of burgers and pizzas in the Indian food scene would decline, in the same interview with NDTV Food, he said “I believe that. We're sitting on a treasure trove of food. American food history is only about 200 years old. Here we have thousands of years of food history and traditions that are completely untapped." His belief in Indian cuisine is reflected in the menu at The Bombay Canteen. It is a result of relentless experimentation and a penchant for regional ingredients. The byproduct of this passion is a menu that is contemporary, dynamic, and tasteful in its truest sense. In the age of absurd fusion cuisines emerging and the laughable craze of liquid nitrogen (which according to Chef Thomas Zacharias, is the worst thing to happen to the definition of fusion food and innovation!), Bombay Canteen stands out by celebrating everything Indian.

In the picture: Chef Thomas Zacharius. #ChefOnTheRoad series.

Image Courtesy: The Bombay Canteen, Instagram

Having rambled enough about this place, you might ask, “But what makes you yearn for this place? What makes you want to write an entire article on a place that you have never even been to?” To that, I say their Instagram account! I understand the frivolity of this statement but trust me when I say, they have truly tapped into something with their social media handles. Everybody seems to have understood that the way to engage more people is to create a social media presence that is interactive, but more importantly, “aesthetic”. The definition of aesthetics is by and large limited to beauty. It is things that look and feel good. But you understand the difference between a shallow attempt to create things that merely “look good” and creating a personality that is so specific to your brand, that it is almost impossible to recreate. The Bombay Canteen has done exactly that. With pictures that speak volumes about the vibrant personality of the restaurant, they weave a seamless story of food and hospitality on their feed.

Image Courtesy: The Bombay Canteen, Instagram

That is when you know that the place is committed to making an impact and have their presence acknowledged in all the spaces they occupy. By only looking at their feed once, any person would want to visit this place. And that is one of the things that stands out for me. If you are a business owner, a restaurant, a writer, a musician, an artist, a service, anything really, document your work. And by documenting, I mean talk and record and disseminate your work as much as possible and in the most palatable ways possible because that is the one thing that is going to be helpful in years to come. The Bombay Canteen documents the functioning, the operations, the employees, the chefs, the workshops, the customers, the founders, and the everything of their restaurant and that makes following them worth it.

The Bombay Canteen is not only known for introducing a shift to the average restaurant experience Indians are used to but also for always going that extra mile for their customers. Their Independence Day Daawat (meal) is a great example of that. When most restaurants decide to remain shut, the team of TBC decided to gear up. Yash Bhanage(COO), in an interview with Harvard Business Report, said that they joined all the tables in a community-style seating and invited anyone and everyone to come to eat with them. He literally went out and called the security guards and the cleaning lady, too. They didn’t put any value to the meal and it was the customer’s prerogative to leave money at the table if they wished to. Whatever money people left went to charity. When they did the first one, they served about 180 people and raised Rs 2 lakhs. The best part, he said, was that people who came to eat the first two years loved the concept so much that they became volunteers for them in the following years and even helped them cook and serve. The third year, their entire team donated their full month’s tips. And that felt good to him. For the floor staff, the tips form a big part of their earnings, and to give it all away to charity was heartwarming, said Yash Bhanage.

In picture: The Independence Day Daawat at The Bombay Canteen.

Image Courtesy: The Bombay Canteen, Instagram

During the entire pandemic situation too, they buckled up and how! They set an excellent example of how adaptability is the only way to survive situations like these. Two of the most incredible things they did, in my opinion, is creating the Onam Sadhya meal and maintaining their tradition of celebrating Independence Day in the unique way they do. They created meal boxes for both the special occasions and inserted instruction manuals to direct people the way they should go about assembling the feast. Their thoughtfulness in the packaging alone was a testament to their commitment to making every Bombay Canteen experience a convenient and joyous one.

In picture: The founders of TBC, Yash Bhanage and Sameer Seth.

Image Courtesy: The Bombay Canteen, Instagram

There are endless things that I admire about this restaurant. Be it the ambiance of the restaurant that was elevated by the brilliant folks at The Busride Design studio (Ayaz and Zameer Basrai) or the responsibility of furthering the sense of community and knowledge that they have undertaken through their workshops that go by the name “Canteen Class”, they are setting standards for the hospitality industry like never before. In an age where new restaurants are completely whitewashing their menu with heavy western influences in the food and decor, TBC shines through with their motto of celebrating all things Indian.

Image Courtesy: The Bombay Canteen, Instagram

In the same conversation with Harvard Business Report, Yash Bhanage (COO, The Bombay Canteen) when asked what drives them, said, ”We want to create experiences that guests will enjoy. We don’t believe in cookie-cutter approaches. For example, if you come in the evening, you’ll see a steward walking around with a tray of snacks. You know, in Indian homes, when you go to see someone in the evening, they’ll always bring out the best snacks. We wanted to give our guests that feeling, not in a formal way, but a fun casual way.” And to me, that pretty much sums up all that I have to say about this restaurant.

Image Courtesy: The Bombay Canteen, Instagram

It is still so ironic that I managed to pen up an entire piece on a place that I have not stepped a foot in. This restaurant invokes a sense of nostalgia, a feeling of belonging, a spirit of community, and more than anything, a consciousness about the value of staying true and rooted in the culture and food of the places you are born in.

Image Courtesy: The Bombay Canteen, Instagram

Founded by Sameer Seth, Yash Bhanage, and the late Chef Floyd Cardoz, The Bombay Canteen, tucked away in the bustling commercial noise of Kamala Mills, is a fine example of how restaurants can curate not only good food but great experiences too. From that summer of 2016 when the popular stand-up comedian Rohan Joshi could not stop raving about the food from this restaurant in his stories, I found a place that remains on my checklist of restaurants to this day. Till then, I will continue to live these experiences through Instagram and wait for the next #FloydsFood story.

- Manal Doshi


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