It would make sense for this story to be about technology. Over the past decade, it’s almost all we’ve ever read about Bengaluru – once called Bangalore. "Bangalore: India’s Silicon Valley", headlines blared. Or perhaps, "The World’s Call Centre Capital".
The reputation is fair. The South Indian city, the capital of the state of Karnataka, has been incredibly successful in positioning itself as India’s IT capital. Tech giants like Microsoft, IBM and Amazon all have huge presences here. Tens of thousands man the phones of the city’s call centres, fielding enquiries (and complaints) from across the world. It has one of the world’s fastest-growing start-up ecosystems. And huge tech complexes have become futuristic landmarks of the city, from Electronic City in the South to Whitefield in the East. Tech, one would think, is the only story in town.
But sitting in an alfresco restaurant at UB City – the former home of United Breweries, transformed into Bengaluru’s most luxurious shopping mall – I was offered another perspective.
"In Bengaluru, you can really experience the cool, creative, progressive side of India," says Kaveri Sinhji, the founder of Bluefoot, an organisation that specialises in tours of the city’s lesser-known, difficult-to-access gems. "Since 2003, there’s really been a sense that this is the land of opportunity. It’s now a melting pot of people and this international element has made it attractive to people from around the country and from overseas. The city is really booming."
Credit: Poras Chaudhary
The tech industries have been at the centre of this. But Bangaloreans will tell you there are other reasons everyone is moving to their city. The local weather – mundane as it may seem – is far milder than India’s scorching northern cities. And its history as the old British cantonment, during the country’s colonial era, has established English as the lingua franca, removing language barriers for people moving to the city.
It’s been a recipe for a cultural boom. And this has been most noticeable in the new landscape of restaurants and bars. After all, food has always been at the centre of Bangalorean culture.
"Ask any Bangalorean for directions and they’ll tell you where to go in relation to food," says Malvika Ashwin, marketing manager at the Ritz-Carlton Bangalore. "You’ll often hear something like, 'Take a right at this pub, turn left at this stall'. It’s very Bangalore."
Today, says Bluefoot’s food expert Jackie Pinto, anyone looking for the centre of everything hip in Bengaluru food should head directly to Indiranagar. Five years ago, this neighbourhood in the city’s east enjoyed a residential calm. By 2014, it had become home to the highest density of restaurants in the entire country. Toit was what changed it all.
Some describe Toit as a restaurant. Others describe it as a brewpub. But most people I speak to call it a Bengaluru institution, a reputation built in just five years. Any night of the week, the rustic, sprawling four-floor space is packed with 600 diners and drinkers. It’s gained fame as one of India’s most successful craft breweries and is soon to open an outpost in Mumbai.
Credit: Poras Chaudhary
"I think Bangalore needed something like Toit. Before us, the place to go was Hard Rock Café," says Sibi Venkataraju, a former IT consultant who co-founded Toit with two childhood friends, Mukesh Tolani and Arun George. "Now we have great restaurants serving international modern food. After Toit, there was a huge boom in the number of affordable, great-quality restaurants – and that continues today."
Walk down 100 Foot Road and 12th Main Road – the two main strips of Indiranagar – and you’ll see what Venkataraju means. Fusion Vietnamese, an industrial-chic cocktail bar, elevated Parsi cuisine and leafy courtyard cafes are all found within a stone’s throw of each other. Slightly farther afield, there’s the whole spectrum of global cuisine, from Mexican to Chinese to, yes, even South Indian.
It’s also now happening in the city centre. Church Street Social has become the "it" place to go, with its winning recipe of globe-spanning menu, lethal cocktails and – a very Bangalorean ingredient – a co-working space. The Permit Room, a new venture from the Toit trio, celebrates South Indian food, done with a 21st-century twist. And UB City houses a clutch of hip eateries, including Farzi – a Delhi-born establishment championing a modern, fusion approach to Indian cuisine.
"Overall, the tech industry alone hasn’t fuelled this. It’s also been about the associated industries," says Venkataraju. "Things like advertising, fashion and the general start-up ecosystem have bought in all these young entrepreneurs and capital. And these people are demanding places and things that are a little more progressive, more international."
Credit: Poras Chaudhary
And it’s not just food. The music scene is thriving – head to The Humming Tree, a two-storey independent live house and hip terrace bar, or the jazz-championing BFlat Bar, for evidence. And local art and fashion have followed suit.
"There have been a lot of creative individuals who have given a thrust to the city. All this has happened because people want to make a difference and contribute in their own way," says Jason Cherian, the co-founder and designer for boutique fashion label Small Shop.
Namu Kini is one of those individuals. More than a decade ago, Kini returned to Bengaluru from the US and founded the gallery Kynkyny Contemporary Indian Art. She has just embarked on a new venture, an organic cafe called HappyHealthyMe. "Many people of my generation had to go abroad to explore the opportunities. But the millennials don’t feel the need to leave. They have immense confidence and they have a fulfilling life in their work, entertainment and social life, all here," she says. "Right now, Bangalore is a fantastic place to be, whatever your passion. It’s an exciting time to be here."
Opened in 2013, the first Ritz-Carlton in India has become a destination in itself. Located in the heart of central Bengaluru, it boasts 277 rooms and suites, all inflected with contemporary South Indian design touches. Get a taste of fine Bangalorean-Chinese food (it’s a thing) at The Lantern, the hotel’s flagship restaurant. The sky bar, Bang, hosts some of the city’s biggest parties, with panoramic views over the city centre. And the spa is open 24 hours.
Formerly the home of United Breweries, this complex underwent a massive transformation and re-opened in 2008 as the city’s most lavish shopping centre. You can find global luxury brands including Salvatore Ferragamo, Louis Vuitton, Cavali and Bottega Veneta, as well as the best of Indian high fashion at Kinaya.
Housed in a colonial bungalow, this multibrand boutique carries upscale fashion and homewares from across India. You can find pieces from Jason Cherian’s Small Shop here.
The influential sprawling craft brewpub that started the Indirinagar food explosion. It does brewery tours and also hosts regular live music.
The Permit Room
Located on one of Bengaluru’s most prominent intersections, opposite Garuda Mall, this new four-storey restopub focuses on South Indian cuisine with a modern twist.
Bluefoot conducts customised private tours catering to whatever your interest, from culture to food, temples to slums. It collaborates with corporate clients, too, and part of its proceeds goes back to helping local communities.