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    Eating ‘out’ takes on a new dimension as Chennai’s al fresco restaurants see a boom in business

    Eating ‘out’ takes on a new dimension as Chennai’s al fresco restaurants see a boom in business

    Eating ‘out’ takes on a new dimension as Chennai’s al fresco restaurants see a boom in business
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    By Jude Sannith   IST (Published)

    Mini

    The term ‘al fresco’ refers to the outdoors in general, and usually in the context of dining. The trend is picking up in Chennai and it is significant, given that the city’s outdoor establishments have been plagued with limiting factors like heat and humidity.

    It’s a dining trend that is hard to explain: in the heat and humidity of Chennai, al fresco dining is thriving. Now, this isn’t a claim that’s made lightly, for the numbers bear testament to this fast emerging trend. A quick survey reveals that 18 of the 25 restaurants that opened or re-launched in the city last year have half their covers in outdoor spaces.
    If you didn't know, you may have guessed it by now — the term ‘al fresco’ refers to the outdoors in general, and usually in the context of dining. For Chennai, the trend is significant given that the city’s outdoor establishments have been plagued with limiting factors like heat and humidity. This has, in fact, has left the F&B scene in these parts lagging behind equivalents in Bengaluru and Hyderabad, two cities with decent weather, picturesque restaurants and pleasantly designed outdoor spaces. That is changing.
    Fine-dining restaurants and casual café-restaurants alike — this includes names such as The Mayflower, Double Roti, Sage and Lavender Bistro, Flip Flops Beach Shack, Asvah 24, the re-launched Above Sea Level — have prided themselves on their al fresco design. Some of these establishments are claiming that more of their patrons are choosing to dine outdoor now than before.
    “It’s a trend we’ve been observing ever since the pandemic, when there were restrictions on air-conditioning and patrons preferred dining outdoors,” says Suresh Anthony, Director at Ceebros Hotels, which owns well-known grill-specialty restaurant Above Sea Level at its St Mary’s Road property. “While it is no doubt humid, the sea breeze in the evening tends to negate the humidity and we see footfalls go up,” he adds.
    Such has been the demand that Above Sea Level is one of a handful of al fresco restaurants that have begun hosting their dinner service in slots. While the average number of covers is about 80 on a weeknight, weekends see over a 100 diners visiting. It’s the same story down the road at Koox, another al fresco restaurant not too far off, located atop the Novotel Chennai on Chamiers Road.
    “We have been doing 10 to 15 percent better business when compared to 2019,” says Supreet Roy, the hotel’s general manager. “We were suffering in the early evenings a few months ago but overcame them once the weather improved in July,” Roy added. While the restaurant was hosting around 75 guests on Mondays and Tuesdays, its covers typically increased to 200 on weekends, with numbers notching up beyond the 110-mark from Wednesday onwards.
    The question, however, remains — post-COVID concerns aside, what draws diners to al fresco restaurants in not-so-ideal weather? For one, the food. Most al fresco restaurants in Chennai go beyond basic offerings, with novelty cuisine on offer. From North-West Frontier cuisine, Grilled Atlantic Salmon, a range of kebabs, sushi, sashimi and Robata grills, the range is quite unlimited. In a not-so-adventurous F&B market like Chennai, they also make for a gastronomic goldmine.
    Smaller al fresco establishments have also done well to cater to less-elaborate tastes — many outdoor café-restaurants dish out some classics such as loaded fries, coffee and a bagel, even as the humble pizza continues to remain a favourite. Then there are vegan offerings too. The Sante Spa Cuisine, located on a prominently located in Besant Nagar, just a stone’s throw away from the beach, serves up a decent Wild Mushroom Foie Gras, Pan-Grilled Cauliflower Steak and Tofu Sui Mai. A premium on food (for Chennai) coupled with fuss-free décor and fewer overheads has also meant that al fresco restaurant menus rake in decent margins.
    Several al fresco restaurants do — as one restaurant manager describes it — “killer” business, especially on weeknights. That isn’t entirely surprising given that almost all establishments adopt premium pricing on their menus, fully aware of the local market’s appetite for fine-dining at good-looking restaurants, prices notwithstanding.
    It also helps that the local F&B market has been starved of a premium to super-premium F&B establishments for a while. Given that micro-breweries are not permitted to operate in Chennai and that resto-pubs are still few and far between, good food and nice ambience has always been a draw for the Chennai diner.
    So, it comes as no surprise that dinner for two at a borderline premium al fresco rooftop would end up with a bill of about Rs 4,000 to Rs 4,500, while a smaller standalone establishment sees average dinner bills of about Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000. “Weekend business easily exceeds Rs 1 lakh to Rs 2 lakh, especially given that weekends drive a lot of the business,” says a manager at a well-known standalone al fresco establishment in the city.
    With brief winter months approaching, there’s every indication that al fresco could become even more of a go-to as far as experience-driven dining goes, with several restaurants expected to launch special and festive menus and capitalize on the craze.
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