The curious case of restaurant launch parties

I was recently at the pre-launch party of a new restaurant coming up in Mumbai.

It was slated to be a sit down dinner. Except there was no sight of any food anywhere. Or of chairs!

Apparently a group had been seated upstairs and we had to wait till they were finished. I went and checked that section and that too looked pretty chaotic.

So we stood and waited for about an hour on a weekday evening tired after a long day at work. No evidence of food. No place to sit and rest our weary bodies. With us was a fairly senior crowd comprising of former TV show hosts, industrialists, prominent socialites….everyone looking at each other wondering what was happening. In fact we were the youngest (!) folks in the group and the only non-celeb/ Bombay Times page 3 folks around. There was an iconic octogenarian former TV show host, whom us 80s kids fondly remembered, who was desperate for a bite as it was way past 9 pm. She caught hold me of me when I was introduced to her as a food blogger and then a former food show host hoping that either of us could get her some food.

Finally we were told that we could have some tapas before dinner.

The ‘tapas’ were trays of cocktail samosas and crumb fried chicken. The sort of stuff you are offered in buffets of old school seedy Lonavla hotels. After a two hour wait we decided we had had enough and headed home to a warm meal of leftover kaatla curry, moong dal and rice.

The PR folks emailed us the next day to say there were more people than they could handle and that expat chefs who had flown in to cook the dinner had landed just two days back and were apparently overwhelmed by the crowds. They had obviously bitten more than they could chew. We didn't hear from them during the event though but then this is not the first time that I was at a chaotic event where the PR folks who had invited one had no idea what was happening.

While this was a particularly disorganized evening, I wonder if it was any different in essence from the average restaurant launch party and Mumbai has many of these. Almost three a night, every night, if one goes by the invites and twitter updates.

Most restaurant launch parties that I have been to here are packed with people. The ratio of people to chairs is really skewed and you end up standing for as long as you are there. I always come home with a backache.

The food is usually pass-around snacks. While not as passé as the potato and pea Heartbreak Hotel cocktail samosas that we were served in the party I spoke about, fried dishes are the usual favourites on offer. Quick to rustle up for the kitchen perhaps.

The bar is normally open and that’s good for folks who like to drink though you are usually restricted to weird watered down cocktails there.  So you might not get your choice of poison. I tried a sol kadi based cocktail the other night and that stank. Should have followed the lead of the octogenarian I spoke about earlier and have asked for whiskey neat.

I usually prefer to skip the booze and sip on water. I end up being the guy who flummoxes the bartender by asking for plain water. I make a quick exit if I do come to a party (usually only if I know the people throwing it and want to wish them) and leave by 9.30 pm, before the party really heats up. I prefer to have dinner at home. 

I don’t think I have the constitution to survive on iffy deep fried food and equally iffy cocktails night after night! If I am going to be a food sinner it’s going to be on food of my choice.

What about the ‘networking’ opportunities at these parties?

Well, in Mumbai you tend to meet the same set of folks in each of these dos. Over the years many of whom become your friends and you meet them in any case, parties or not.

Are sit down meals better than pass around snack parties at launch events?

Not really. These sessions can be quite the ordeal as your are trapped at the table till desserts arrive. The meals typically last for upwards of three hours and can give Raj Kapoor’s Sangam a run for its money on duration. The food is brought course by course and usually takes ages to come to the table. There have been times one has had to go and chase the hapless wait staff for food as one just wants to finish the evening and go home.

The reason for this slack is simple. The kitchen crew is new at the time of launch. They have barely got to know each other, or the menu, when they are thrown at the deep end and asked to cater to crowds much larger than what the restaurant can handle and that too with the pressure of pleasing  ‘important’ guests hanging over their head.

This is usually a recipe for disaster. This is the reason why chefs prefer it if critics review restaurants after the kitchens have settled down and have ironed out teething troubles. 

Restaurant owners, on the other hand, are impatient to drive publicity and want to spread the word as soon as possible. Truth be told, there are diners who are on the lookout for the ‘next big thing’. So launch parties are here to stay for a while.

I can think of at least two restaurants in Mumbai, Bhojohori Manna and Sassy Spoon Bandra, where we ate within the first week of their opening (as regular guests). In both cases we were not very impressed with the food. Both restaurants have improved dramatically since then and are now two of our favourite restaurants in town.

This sure makes a case for not ‘reviewing’ restaurants too early.

Unfortunately, for restaurant owners, this also makes case for not going to eat at a restaurant before they have had the time to settle down! 

That's not good for business? Think again. 

There could be some merit to a slow but sure start than going all out before one is ready.

I rarely do restaurant ‘reviews’ these days so I don’t feel compelled to check out and write about the newest opening in town. Frankly we are talking of restaurants here and not whodunnits here so what’s the rush in any case?

Which brings one to the issue of whether a launch night event is really useful if one wants to write about a new restaurant.

The service during such parties is not the normal service experience. You don’t get to know how competent the order taking is, how long the food takes to come. Chefs know reviewers are out there and are putting extra care perhaps in the kitchen. If it’s a pass-around food event do then you don’t get a hang of how the food looks, feels, what the portion sizes are like. Or how much one would spend for the meal.

If it’s a sit down dinner you don’t get to choose what you want to eat and you are so brain dead by the time all the courses arrive that you just want to run. Which in real life is not what a happy meal is unlike you have decided to break up with your date and are looking for an exit route.

So while one can build awareness for a new restaurant by Tweeting, Instagramming, Snapchatting or Facebooking from it's launch event, can one really speak with authority about how the restaurant is basis a launch party?

What do you think?



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