In the spiritual home of Bollywood, a swirl of cultural tradition and culinary innovation is positioning the creative capital at the forefront of the Indian century.
By Sarah Khan
August 24, 2018
Some cities are coquettes, slowly seducing you with new reveals over time. Others are slaps in the face that leave you begging for more. Mumbai—or Bombay, as you’ll pretty much only hear it called once you arrive—is unequivocally the latter, a seething mass of concrete and humanity, perpetually hung with sweat. It’s also glamorous and addictive, and I can never get enough.
I fell hard for Mumbai on my first trip there as an adult, nearly two decades after my last visit to see family. For an avowed Bollywood disciple like myself, watching a city immortalized on celluloid come to life has that dissonant quality of novelty and familiarity. The gentle curve of Marine Drive, the whitewashed churches of Bandra, the crumbling mansions of Colaba, and the Victorian and art deco and Indo-Saracenic buildings, all jostling for space against the backdrop of the Arabian Sea: I knew its motley skyline intimately even as I took it in properly for the first time. I found myself swept up in the energy pulsing through the streets, falling in with the torrent of people flowing by car, bus, cycle, rickshaw, and on foot. Since then, I’ve been forever looking for excuses to binge on Mumbai’s particular brand of magic meets madness, at the intersection of noise pollution and stardust.
The only other place that evokes such visceral emotions is New York City. Each requires endurance to navigate and brain-numbing mental gymnastics to render palatable to the mind; after a few days inhaling the air of either city, devoting the rest of your life to New York traffic or all your income to Mumbai rent—for what could in a lesser city be mistaken for a gym locker—might sound like perfectly reasonable propositions.
I’m hardly the first person to note the similarities between the two, both hubs known for their country’s commerce, media, fashion, and design. “A city like Bombay, like New York, that is a recent creation on the planet and does not have a substantial indigenous population, is full of restless people,” Suketu Mehta wrote in Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, his definitive biography of the city. “Those who have come here have not been at ease somewhere else.”
When in town, I’m both completely at ease, knowing the city is lying in wait at my doorstep, yet also eternally restless, afraid of missing a quintessentially Mumbai moment—a run-in with a Bollywood star at a hair salon; a sprint through an unexpected thundershower to hop into a rickshaw; drinks with friends at historic members-only clubs unchanged since their colonial heyday. Traffic notwithstanding, I’m on the go from the second I touch down, careening from the galleries and boutiques reviving heritage mansions in South Mumbai to the trendy restaurants and bars of Bandra, the posh suburb that’s now synonymous with India’s behemoth film industry. With each return, I discover something new: art foundations like G5 Foundation for Contemporary Culture and Bombay Art Society, stylish emporiums like Nicobar that always end up forcing me to pony up excess baggage fees, and a greater concentration of restaurants I’d happily board a plane to revisit than any other city in the world—with homegrown chefs and restaurateurs like Thomas Zacharias, Zorawar Kalra, Rahul Akerkar and expats like Kelvin Cheung and Alex Sanchez. Mumbai also hosts festivals and events catering to every conceivable creative interest: the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival draws thousands each February to theater performances, gallery openings, and author talks; Lakme India Fashion Week is where you’ll find both up-and-coming and established couturiers to the stars on display; the Design Fabric Festival, which launched this March to begin a much-needed conversation on India’s vibrant design vernacular; and St+Art Mumbai Urban Art Festival, which brings together global and Indian street artists to revamp public spaces.
One chef who’s blazed a cross-continental restaurant empire for himself is Mumbai-born, New York–based chef Floyd Cardoz. He opened the peppy Bombay Bread Bar in Manhattan’s SoHo this year, but he spends a significant portion of time going back and forth to Mumbai, where he’s opened two restaurants with cult followings: O Pedro and Bombay Canteen. “I think Bombay and New York are very very similar—Bombay is a city that doesn’t sleep, it’s a city that has multiple cultures, where everyone is welcome and you can get anything anytime,” he says. “It’s like an oyster that’s just waiting to be taken.”
So much of modern Indian hospitality borrows from the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel that it’s hard to overstate the landmark’s stature in Mumbai. According to legend, wealthy industrialist Jamsetji Tata was refused entry to the whites-only Watson’s Hotel in Colaba, which bore a sign declaring “Dogs and Indians not allowed”—so he flouted them by opening a much grander hotel down the road. While the story comes with plenty of drama and intrigue, it’s more likely that Tata saw an opportunity for an opulent waterfront hotel worthy of the booming city and seized it. Either way, the Taj Mahal Palace has been Mumbai’s most fabulous address since it opened, in 1903, in an Indo-Saracenic structure with a now-iconic silhouette: Think Gothic domes meet Indian arches. The old-world grande dame also happens to house some of Mumbai’s most cutting-edge restaurants—from Wasabi by Morimoto to the rooftop Souk. The Taj’s most worthy rival is the venerable 287-room Oberoi Mumbai, in the heart of the city’s business district at Nariman Point.The gleaming lobby atrium is clad in dark granite and blinding white Greek marble, anchored by a bold red-lacquer piano, and gives way to vast water views framed by a wall of soaring windows. The standouts here are Michelin-starred chef Vineet Bhatia’s modern-Indian restaurant Ziya and Oberoi’s legendary approach to service—before you think it, it’s ready for you, no matter what “it” may be.
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If the Taj Mahal Palace epitomizes the city’s old guard, the Four Seasons Hotel Mumbai is representative of the new. The global giant nods to local traditions in the design, from the banarasi throw pillows in the rooms to the layout itself: the glass tower was built in accordance with Vastu architectural principles. While you’re likely to spy moguls closing deals over platters of Cantonese crab and prawn har gao in the intimate corners of the pan-Asian restaurant San-Qi, Aer is where the city’s glam set congregates—the sexy rooftop bar is India’s highest, which translates to unparalleled sea and skyline views.
But the city’s buzziest new property will also be its most exclusive. When Soho House Mumbai opens its doors this fall on Juhu Beach, the rooftop bar promises some A-list people watching—if you can get access, that is.
RESTAURANTS AND BARS
Mumbai is home to one of the most underrated culinary scenes on the planet, with restaurants as dynamic and varied as any you’ll find in London, New York, or Hong Kong, but typically at a fraction of the price. Stalwart chefs constantly reinvent themselves with exciting new ventures, and upstarts set themselves apart with bold flavors and design choices. Take Basanti & Co., whose vivid pops of color are jazzing up the dining scene in the suburb of Versova; the interiors are awash in chevron patterns and splashed in teal, marigold, and fuchsia, a look that pairs well with modern takes on North Indian classics from the city of Lucknow—think bhindi naintara (okra), kulcha (bread) stuffed with lamb, and the signature chicken or lamb biryani. Don’t miss the cocktail list—masala chai bourbon, anyone?—or the paan stand, which serves quirky twists on the beloved Indian betel-leaf snack, ranging from butterscotch to blackcurrant-coffee combos.
In Bandra, Arth has all the theatricality of a Bollywood production, with good reason: Designer Gauri Khan’s husband, Shah Rukh Khan, is the industry’s biggest superstar. For her first foray into restaurant interiors, Khan paired gilded mirrors, patterned floors, and plush black-and-cobalt chairs with glittering pendant chandeliers and an eye-catching spiral wooden staircase. Despite the drama inherent in the design, the menu is a nod to traditional charcoal- and wood-fired cooking, with dishes like smoked mutton chops, charred fish with lemon caviar, and Kovalam lobster “tacos” served in uttapam shells.
But the biggest buzz has accompanied the debut of hotly anticipated new concepts from industry icons. To wit: Qualia, the much-anticipated modern European eatery that opens in Lower Parel later this fall from Rahul Akerkar, the mastermind behind the erstwhile (and greatly missed) Indigo, India’s first true fine-dining restaurant; O Pedro, the charming Goan-Portuguese second outing from the team behind Bombay Canteen (New York celebrity chef Floyd Cardoz is one of the partners); and Rivers to Oceans, a new seafood venture from restaurateur Zorawar Kalra, best known for the Indian molecular gastronomy pioneer Masala Library as well as the playful Farzi Cafe and modern Asian Pa Pa Ya. Meanwhile, Canadian chef Kelvin Cheung, whose Sunday brunch at Bastian is a fixture on Bollywood stars’ Instagram feeds, has given new life to a beloved hotspot with the relocated and reopened One Street, featuring classic comfort fare from the States. Eleven Madison Park alum Alex Sanchez, who first came to Mumbai in 2011 to bring San Francisco–style cuisine to South Mumbai at TheTable, has a new project in the pipeline this winter.
Global behemoths from Zegna to Zara have planted flags in Mumbai’s glitzy malls and shopping districts, but fashionable locals like to pair them with high-quality desi labels. To gauge what’s on-trend at any moment, head to either of the city’s top concept shops. Le Mill, in Colaba, carries global favorites like Céline, Dries van Noten, Rosie Assoulin, and Isabel Marant alongside coveted local brands Péro, Dhruv Kapoor, and Bombay Perfumery. In the unlikely setting of Mumbai’s cricket stadium you’ll find Bungalow 8, named for the address where owner Maithili Ahluwalia grew up and stocked with a lovingly edited selection of vintage finds as well as her own label’s airy tunics and dhoti pants. Obataimu marries Japanese and Indian aesthetics in unexpected ways. Creative director Noorie Sadarangani’s tucked-away space channels Tokyo’s utilitarian minimalism, stocking voluminous sweaters, structural dresses, androgynous tunics, and a curated selection of books and accessories alongside a working atelier. Many count having a home decorated entirely in Good Earth furnishings a life goal, so when the beloved interiors brand opened sister chain Nicobar, first in the Kala Ghoda district in 2016, then in a 1920’s colonial-style villa in Bandra in 2017, everyone paid attention. It was an instant hit, not only for its contemporary Indian décor and kitchenware, but also for its stylish beach-ready pants and dresses. Not far away in Colaba is the Mumbai branch of Jaipur’s generations-old Gem Palace, an art deco jewel box that stands amid South Bombay’s heritage landmarks. Inside, Dutch designer Marie Anne Oudejans conceived a playful environment for some of the nation’s finest baubles, with two levels splashed in vivid greens and corals. Fashion entrepreneur Anand Ahuja— as of recently a household name thanks to his celeb-packed wedding to Bollywood star Sonam Kapoor—is known for his two Delhi labels. Bhane is unpretentious urban fashion using simple Indian fabrics like khadi, and Veg Non Veg offers up limited-edition kicks from Adidas, Nike, Vans, and other brands that sneaker obsessive covet. He opened a Mumbai outpost at the end of July in a gallery-like space conceived by Bus Ride Design Studio that also has a cafe with coffee from Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters and confections from Le 15 Patisserie.
A vibrant contemporary art scene has blossomed in the southern reaches of the city. In Colaba, drop in to Project 88, housed in a former printing press. Sakshi Gallery has launched careers for emerging artists as well as introduced the works of El Anatsui and Gregory Crewdson to Mumbai, while Volte represents Indian talents like Nalini Malani and Ranbir Kaleka as well as South African icon William Kentridge, and Jhaveri Contemporary also has a roster of celebrated Indian artists including Shambhavi Kaul and Misha Parekh. Walking north from Colaba, Jehangir Art Gallery—founded in 1952, and housing the works of Indian masters like MF Husain, Akbar Padamsee, and Anjolie Ela Menon—signals your arrival in Kala Ghoda. The city’s unofficial arts district also plays host to the lively annual Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, drawing scores of artists, authors, and actors to the neighborhood’s meandering bylanes each February. (For an expert’s perspective on the neighborhood’s rich architectural legacy, sign up for a heritage walk with conservation architect Kruti Garg.) Dive into the tangle of winding streets that make up the crescent-shaped precinct’s core, where you’ll find an outpost of the Delhi Art Gallery, spanning four floors of a heritage building. The gallery’s 25-year-old Delhi flagship—DAG also has an outpost in New York—is often credited with bringing modern Indian art to the mainstream.
While gallery culture is centered in the south, two major venues in other parts of the city are worth a visit. The G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture, in an old mill compound in Mahalaxmi, was founded by architect and filmmaker Anuradha Parikh and plays host to film screenings, art exhibits, plays, ghazal concerts, and more. And the Bombay Art Society, founded in 1888, is now housed in a cubist building designed by architect Sanjay Puri, resembling a series of boulders stacked precariously atop one another.
Three Mumbai Insiders Reveal Their Go-To Spots
Anita Dongre Designer
“Bandra is home in more ways than one. My mornings begin with a seaside walk down Pali Hill and Carter Road. I love popping by Olive for amazing meals and warm welcomes. Chef Rishim makes the best vegan cheeses in town, and Neelam, the restaurant’s ever-smiling hostess, spoils me with her company. For a nice sit-down dinner with my family, I go to the Chambers at the Taj Land’s End, a private, members-only club. The view is spectacular, and the service is flawless. I spend Sunday mornings at the Farmers’ Market in Bandra Gymkhana, buying fresh organic produce. But when chaats are a must-have, the go-to place is Ram and Shyam, in Santacruz. It has been there for over 25 years, and the second generation now runs it!”
Kelvin Cheung Chef
“My once-a-week coffee fix is down a narrow lane in Bandra West’s Chuim village at Koinonia Coffee Roasters. Dakshinayan has the city’s best giant dosas and ghee-and-gunpowder-covered idli; for the best thali, head to Shree Thaker Bhojanalay, but make sure you wear loose pants. I get all of my bespoke suits hand-stitched at NM Studio in Bandra; I also own about twenty short-sleeve button-ups, predominantly made using one-off pieces of fabric the owner picks up during scouting trips to Rajasthan. My favorite neighborhood to walk around is Crawford Market, where you’ll find local and seasonal fruits and vegetables as well as the most insane spices from all over India.”
Rahul Mehrotra Architect
The best place to get lost in another world is Banganga, a sacred water tank on Malabar Hill, a labyrinth of lanes with the stunning atmosphere of peace. I could sit there for hours. It’s always a favorite when I want to leave Mumbai behind in Mumbai. My best memory is interviewing Renzo Piano there for television. My lunch favorite is Kala Ghoda Café, close to my studio—it’s abuzz with young folks and has a fabulous menu. The eggs cooked Parsi style—scrambled and spiced—and their fresh juices make for the most relaxing lunches. There are nooks and corners to occupy, and it feels like an extension of home. PhillipsAntiques is the best browsing spot in town, a wonderful store dense with history. Each object is stacked with genuine and fascinating stories and the space is consistent with the centuries-old objects. My favorites are the maps and they have stacks of them—from Bombay to Timbuctoo!