Changing cities

Delhi’s historic commercial centre, Connaught Place, is now the hottest destination for a pub crawl

The colonnade lost ground to newer commercial districts and malls – only to be reborn as a hub of watering holes and restaurants.

Connaught Place isn’t what it used to be.

Over the years, New Delhi’s busy commercial hub has been home to a handful of banks, airlines, upmarket restaurants, and cinema halls, besides India’s largest life insurer, the Life Insurance Corporation of India.

Today, however, it is home to the city’s most happening nightlife.

With better connectivity, locals from Delhi’s far-flung neighbourhoods are now flocking here once again. This has sparked a proliferation of bars, restaurants, and coffee shops in CP, as the area is known, which offer something for every budget: family, student, office goer, and government official.

Designed as two concentric circles, CP, one of India’s oldest business districts, was built in the late 1920s and inspired by European Renaissance architecture. Seven key radial roads cross the British-era colonnade. In the middle is a busy metro station, Rajiv Chowk, which connects commuters to various parts of Delhi. CP is around five km east of the Indian parliament and a little over four km from Old Delhi’s Red Fort.

In the 1990s, it was a favourite for family outings. With the preparations for the 2010 Commonwealth Games resulting in years of renovation, construction, and attendant mayhem, the locality had lost its charm considerably in the 2000s.

One of the most expensive commercial real estates in the country, it also lost out to Delhi’s new commercial hubs of Gurugram and shopping malls such as Select City Walk.

However, the last few years have seen CP regain its past allure. Perhaps, more than just regain.

“It really has become an all-day, all-night phenomenon,” said Anshuman Magazine, chairman for India and South East Asia at real-estate consultancy CBRE. “It’s thriving like never before.”

Business is back

CP today has almost 100 watering holes and restaurants, including two Starbucks outlets, a property of the trendy Social bar chain, Warehouse Cafe, and the upscale Farzi Cafe.

“If you told someone three years ago that there would be 100-plus bars in Connaught Place and that they were all doing well, no one would have believed you,” said Riyaaz Amlani, CEO and MD at Impresario Entertainment and Hospitality.

Rahul Singh, who owns the Beer Cafe chain of bars, concurs. When he invested in his first outlet in CP back in 2012, he wasn’t sure about it as the area was a mess. “It is unbelievable now,” he said. “Despite the competition, each of our outlets in CP is growing month on month.” What’s more, he’s set to open his third CP outlet in just a few months from now.

Meanwhile, in 2016, Swedish fast-fashion retailer H&M opened a 28,000-square foot store in the area, becoming one of the first fast-fashion brands to acknowledge CP’s might as a retail hot-spot.

This renewed interest is partly because the area is well-serviced by the Rajiv Chowk metro station, which was opened in 2005. Rajiv Chowk is Delhi Metro’s busy transfer station right in the heart of CP and draws around 5,00,000 commuters every day even from the far corners of the city.

“It is the most varied footfall you can get… it changes every hour,” said Singh. In the afternoons, for instance, Beer Cafe is usually busy with tourists and college students; towards the evening the office crowd comes in, which includes government officials.

CP’s boom also coincides with the country’s growing appetite for eating out and trying new cuisines. And everybody’s invited to Delhi’s biggest party zone.

“CP has clearly given a new set of consumers within Delhi access to better bars and dining,” said Abhimanyu Bhagatji, director at Eat Bud Foods, which runs restaurants such as 52 Janpath in the area. “It has drawn crowds away from popular places like Hauz Khas and even Gurugram and brought them to the centre of the city.”

And these customers are happy.

Take 28-year-old Neha Kalra, a consultant working in Gurugram, a suburb in the neighbouring state of Haryana. Kalra visits CP at least thrice a month for dinner or drinks. “It has so many options and it is easier for me to get there,” said Kalra, a resident of West Delhi’s Janakpuri area, which itself is a good 15 kilometres from CP.

Until three years ago, CP wasn’t on Kalra’s radar, but now she has happily swapped the popular but crowded pubs in Haus Khaz Village for CP’s up and coming bars. Distances don’t matter anymore.

Time to transform

Even as new players revel in its resurrection, many old businesses in CP are feeling the pinch.

For instance, Rodeo’s, a Mexican bar and restaurant that opened in 1994, has shut shop temporarily for renovation. “Seeing the times right now and the way things have changed, we need to change too,” said Ahsan Shervani, vice-president at Shervani Hospitality, a restaurant and hotel company founded by his father in the 198os.

Growing competition doesn’t make things any easier. Despite the high rentals, which average at Rs 850 per square feet, and other expenses, bars and restaurants are forced to offer cheap drinks to woo customers; the margins per table aren’t much to talk about.

Even when new restaurants start off with bold, experimental dishes, they soon revert to standard fare so as to capture the mass market. “Most menus feature variants of chicken tikka and chicken masala,” said Shuchir Suri, founder at Food Talk India, an online community of food lovers.

This suggests that it will take a few more years of development and change before CP can truly become Delhi’s food and drinks centre.

“At this point, CP is overrun only with a huge number of watering holes,” said restaurateur AD Singh, who runs popular high-end restaurant chains such as Olive and Monkey Bar. Recently, however, the Monkey Bar in CP has been shut down, with Singh opening bar and restaurant Lady Baga in its place.

“CP’s rebirth has been explosive but… it’s still in its first phase.”

This article first appeared on Quartz.

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