The Taste of India: Lowbrow vs. Highbrow Restaurants in the GTA
Written By Aesha Patel
Food holds a special place in our hearts is largely because it is deeply associated with our identity. Since food is important to culture, and our culture is a big part of who we are, food will always be special to us. More interesting however, is the fact that human beings socialize through food. Whether it is holidays, weddings, or celebrations, food unites us in different ways. I was 10 years old when I arrived to Canada with my parents. At that time, the only way I knew how to cope with being homesick was through Indian food. Thus, began my journey of trying food at various different kinds of Indian restaurants. Over the years, I have noticed very interesting trends among high and low brow Indian restaurants; they both depict the idea of authenticity in different ways. The following report will discuss how Bombay Bakers, a lowbrow Indian restaurant, and Avani Asian Indian Bistro, a high brow Indian restaurant, illustrate authenticity in different ways.
First, I decided to visit Bombay Bakers in Brampton. Upon arrival, I was taken back by the location of the restaurant. It was situated in the corner of an old plaza in the middle of a residential area. The plaza itself was quite run down, comprising of an unmaintained road, and even some of the shops were shut down. Once I entered the restaurant, it was quite congested since there were way too many individuals in comparison to the seating that was available. Individuals had to order take out due to the overcrowding. It was then that I truly understood how popular this restaurant truly was. Upon glancing at their menu, which was posted on an orange wall behind the front counter, I realized that Bombay Bakers only served street food. The menu comprised of vada pav, dosas, pav bhaji, chaat, sandwiches etc. Nonetheless, I was thrilled and amazed by the prices of their dishes because they were so inexpensive. For example, ordering two vada pav cost three dollars.
Thus, I giddily made my way to the front counter, and decided to order a vada pav dish. The girl taking orders was in her late teens, and it seemed as if she was helping her mother run the business, since her mom did not seem to understand English very well. Nonetheless, she gave me my receipt with my order number on it and asked to take a seat and wait for my order number to be yelled by another girl that looked like her younger sister. Upon waiting, I realized that there were at least two chefs in the kitchen; a middle aged man and a senior woman. It was then that I realized that Bombay Bakers was a family business in which the two daughters and their mother managed the front counter, while the father and grandmother cooked.
The ambiance of the restaurant was fairly run down with limited amenities, and uncomfortable seating arrangements with wooden and metal chairs. Moreover, the interior design of the restaurant was not aesthetically pleasing. The dining area comprised of beige walls, except one wall, which was covered in white tiles and black and white pictures on it. There was only one washroom, and it was not well maintained. The consumer demographic of Bombay Bakers was entirely South Asian; individuals primarily came with their family members. Moreover, based on the customers’ attire and the cars that they parked outside of the restaurant, it seemed as if most of them were middle class families.
Upon having my order number called after 15 minutes, I got up and collected by order. They served the vada pav on a white disposable plate on an orange food tray. When I asked for water, the lady gave me a disposable cup with a transparent jug of water for my table. So, I went back to by table full of excitement. The vada pav was shining as the top bun had butter on it, and the red and green chutney were visible on top of the patty. I squeezed the vada pav so it could fit in my mouth, and as soon as I took my first bite, my mouth was filled with a spicy, tangy, minty, garlic taste. The vada pav was warm, and the bun was very soft. It was then that I realized, customers did not come to Bombay bakers because it is a small and cozy restaurant. They only and solely come for its affordable and incredibly delicious street food. The fact that the seating was uncomfortable, the restaurant is a little messy, and that it has little amenities did not matter when you compared it to the delicious food.
Bombay Bakers only depicts authenticity in its food. Rather than placing emphasis on its environment, restaurant lets its dishes speak for themselves. Moreover, renovating its environment, in order to make it classier, would take away from the authenticity of Indian street food. Since even in India, street food is served on paper plates, with little to no seating arrangements or amenities. Additionally, after modifying the design of the restaurant, the owners may increase the price of their dished, which would take away from the low-brow street food characteristic of the restaurant. Similarly, upon reading the reviews on Yelp, many individuals agree as they state the following:
“They are short on the seating space however the quality of food far outweighs the cons.” – Emm E.
“Authentic Mumbai street food at reasonable prices” – Colleen J.
Avani Asian Indian Bistro
Avani is strategically situated in a commercial area, just a block away from Heartland Town Center in Mississauga. Upon entering the restaurant, the first two things that you see are two relatively tall statues of ancient Indian doormen. Moreover, facing the entrance, there is a beautiful bar with a stone wall behind it, which has white lights and water trickling down from it. The dining area was quite large, spacious, and organized. I waited near the front until a South Asian hostess seated me. Then, another South Asian waiter came and handed me the menu and informed me that he was going to be my server for the evening. The menu comprised of a lot of options, with 12 starters, 4 soups, tandoor dishes, curries, naans, hakka dishes, naans and rotis, desserts, drinks etc. Nonetheless, I decided to order chilli paneer, paneer tikka masala, and naan.
While waiting for my order, I noticed a surprisingly diverse demographic of customers. There was a middle-aged African couple sitting in front of me, and a young white couple was seating next to me. There were even some mixed group of friends and colleagues. Most of these individuals seemed to belong to an upper-middle class to a high socioeconomic status. Thus, it occurred to me that Avani targeted a very different consumer demographic. Upon studying the ambiance of the restaurant, I noticed more Indian artifacts around the dining area. There were some elephant figurines since they are a symbol of good luck in Hinduism, there were also several Indian paintings placed on different walls. However, the most impressive piece of art were the murals on two opposite walls that depicted traditional Indian “abhla” art, which comprised on small mirrors that reflected light at certain angles. Additionally, there was a small transparent window in the kitchen, which provided customers with the perfect view of a chef cooking on the tandoor. A tandoor is a traditional Indian clay oven that is used to make various traditional dishes such as tandoori naan.
After waiting for about fifteen minutes, my server delivered the food. Interestingly, I was amused by the fact that the paneer tikka was served in a traditional Indian kadhai vessel, on a tiny bronze stand with a candle burning underneath to keep it warm. The naan was served in a breadbasket, and the chilli paneer was served in a bowl. Upon cutting a piece of the chilli panner in half, and placing it in my mouth with enough hot gravy, I was filled with warmth. The paneer was very soft and moist on the inside, and the taste of garlic, ginger, onion, and spice complemented each other perfectly. The naan was very soft when I tore a piece of it, and dipped it into the paneer tikka. As soon as it placed a portion into my mouth, I tasted the creamy and spicy tomato sauce with various different spices.
I realized that while Avani does serve authentic Indian dishes, it does not simply rely on its dishes to illustrate the restaurant’s authenticity. Rather, it also creates an authentic Indian ambiance, so the customers do not simply taste the food and assume authenticity. Customers notice the various Indian artifacts that are strategically placed around the restaurant, the Indian chef cooking on the tandoor in the kitchen, the South Asian servers, and even the kadhai that is used to serve the curry. Along with the delicious food, all of the following elements tie into the experience of dining at Avani. Thus, dining at Avani becomes an opportunity for anyone that has not experienced India before to do so, which is probably why it attracts a wider and diverse demographic of customers. Additionally, Avani is a trip home for Indians like me that miss India. Reviewers on Yelp generally stated that they enjoyed the authentic Indian food, as well as the ambiance of the restaurant. Notably, this is opposite to Bombay Bakers, since Bombay Bakers simply focuses on the food that it serves in terms of illustrating authenticity. It does not comprise of any elements of authenticity in terms of artwork, details, or the environment in general.
Overall, with an increase in South Asian populations, Indian restaurants have started to appear in the Greater Toronto Area in larger numbers. While this is advantageous for foodies, since they have more options, it is important to understand how these different restaurants portray their authenticity to different demographics of consumers. For a foodie like me, they are both appealing in different ways. While they both serve equally delicious authentic dishes, Bombay Bakers is more economical, whereas Avani provides you with a very different experience of dining at an authentic Indian restaurant.
Aesha Patel is a 22-year old Criminology undergraduate student, studying at the University of Toronto. She has lived in Toronto for a very long time, but there is still a little bit of India inside.
Check out this article if you want to read more about the questions of “ethnic” restaurants and different uses of authenticity by immigrant restauranteurs: