in commentary, India

A note about Indian restaurants in the US

So, we are at an Indian restaurant again last night, and as usual, for a table of four, it got crowded really fast. Indian eating joints have this exquisite property of always seating you at tables not quite big enough for all the food you’ll order. 

But it’s not their fault. Indian food is community food. A central platter of dishes, and then our individual plates. Compare that to, say, American food, where everyone orders their own entree and all the food in contained within individual plates. That saves on space and consequently allows for smaller tables. That is space saved per tables which allows for a roomier restaurant or more tables per eating joint – especially useful for fast food joints. 

What’s the solution for Indian restaurants? How can they provide for the right amount of space for patrons? Well, they can swallow the cost of having fewer tables and just provide bigger tables – seating four at a table meant for six and two at a table meant for four. But we know they won’t do that. 

What can we as customers do? We can order thalis instead of entrees. Thalis have all of the food on the same plate, in small portions, providing a variety and a more complete meal. They’re also individualistic, so it’ll ensure everyone can get the dishes they want. But there’s two problems there – 

  1. Most restaurants don’t have a lot of varieties in thalis. They’ll have a maximum of two options. So even if we as consumers make this change in our eating habits, it’ll end up only hurting our choices. There are, of course, some restaurants which specialize in thalis and those are definitely worth visiting, but they’re few and far batween.  
  2. As a North Indian, I am geared towards larger portions of fewer dishes. That’s not going to change. 

There’s one more thing which need to address – naan (or as they’re affectionately called, ‘naan bread’). Naans are usually cooked individually and tossed into a metal bread basket which consumes an inordinate amount of space on the table. If you’re ordering a few different types for the table, those baskets quickly take up too much space, often spilling over and causing a great deal of wrangling to place everything on the table. The solution often ends up being that you consume your naan partially and then stack the baskets until someone comes along to take them away. This whole business is messy and commanded by this idea that if someone orders a garlic naan, a butter naan, and a parantha, they need to come in separate baskets, so as not to intermingle their aroma, even though most people end up sharing naans. This situation is further exacerbated by the difference in sizes of naans between different restaurants. Some make their naans huge, wherein people have to share their ‘breads’ while others serve smaller portions, making it difficult to know from the get-go whether we’ll be sharing naans or not.

I believe the solution is midway – a new kind of offering that is a cross between a thali and entree. This offering would let you pick your entree and naan but offer smaller portions for the same, to specifically cater to a single person. Some restaurants would choose to offer some options with it – raita or plain rice (which, to my utter amazement, is considered a freebie in most Indian restaurants in the US). This complete package would be constructed in such a way as to fit within a single plate, taking the right amount of space to allow for a comfortable dining experience. 

There is only one place where I’ve seen this kind of offering – Azitra in Broomfield, Colorado. Their lunch options were wonderful and the portions were filling. They too made the mistake of tossing the naan into a separate basket, but by saving space on the dish (the curry came in a beautiful boat-shaped dish), they allowed for a much cleaner and spacious table. I would like more restaurants to pick up this offering and improve our dining experience.