The Brothers Behind India's Top Restaurants

 Ayaz and Zameer Basrai have brought to life some of the country’s most popular restaurant spaces. Fabiola Monteiro talks to them about the elements that go into designing a successful restaurant.

“Restaurants are our modern-day temples,” Ayaz Basrai says. “It’s where my grandparents used to go meet like-minded people. Today, too, it’s where you go to meet like-minded people, to strike up a conversation, maybe hook up,” he laughs. Ayaz and his brother Zameer run The Busride Design Studio and have brought to life some of the biggest (and best) restaurants in Mumbai and the country at large. “You have the chance to create that setting, and that magic for someone. It’s very important to say meaningful things through design.” he says.

The Basrai brothers say a lot of meaningful things. In my conversations with them, they share insight into the way they design, where restaurant design is heading, and why you’ve got to ask a lot of questions. Ayaz, 39, and Zameer, 36, come from product design and architecture backgrounds respectively, but their love for interior design runs deep — to when they were kids, watching their father (also an interior designer) make sketches that bring rooms to life. The brothers are genial, and confident in the design decisions they’ve made. And they should be — their portfolio spans over a hundred restaurants, including Mumbai hotspots like The Bombay Canteen, Toit Brewery, Café Zoe, The Taj Mahal Tea House and Le15 Café.

Ayaz and Zameer Basrai run the The Busride Design Studio

Ayaz and Zameer Basrai run the The Busride Design Studio

Crafting a unique design identity for each of these restaurants is not child’s play, but the Basrai brothers make it look effortless. The communication needs to be quick, and creating the right mood is key. This mood is often based on a theme, and it’s what plays out in the sound, the food and the interiors — elements that all need to align. “Someone’s there for two hours or three hours, and you need to give them a compact package,” Zameer says. They’ve found inspiration for moods in bad jokes (The Communist-themed decor at BKC’s Social is sited in a building called The Capital) and acid jazz (For Delhi’s now-defunct Smoke House Grill, their first meeting with Riyaaz Amlani — of Smoke House Deli, Salt Water Café and Social — included four hours of listening to funky music). In other instances, their love for Bombay plays out. “Smoke House Deli is as much of an expression of city love as The Bombay Canteen is. Even, to some extent, the PizzaExpress in Colaba and Thane celebrate their localities in some way,” Ayaz says 

Regardless of the inspiration though, it’s clear that restaurant experiences are curated from the get-go. “You cannot overestimate the impact of the first handle the customer is going to hold,” Zameer says. “We’re constantly trying to get inside the head of the customer. What is this person thinking? What is my user group? When they enter a room, where do they go?” This user-experience approach is what’s enabled them to realise that people gravitate to window seats —then booths, and then, the central areas of a restaurant. At The Bombay Canteen though, it’s different — there are low walls all around. “You feel like you’re anchored in some way, like you’re in a cosier room. The booth isn’t the most important seating,” he explains.

The Bombay Canteen works as a good example to explain a lot of their design tricks. The space now occupied by the popular restaurant that focuses on spotlighting regional foods, used to be just a plain old parking lot. “We had to do a lot of work to bring out the soul of [a space like that],” Ayaz says. “With the food, they were really going back, in terms of nostalgia. We had to put people in that frame of mind before they even got the food.” A first-time customer may not consciously realise a lot of the layers that occupy a restaurant’s design — and that’s okay. Zameer calls these ‘deeper insertions’ — or things you realise after your fifth or sixth visit. If you get homely vibes at The Bombay Canteen, for instance, it is because it is a home, sliced off at three feet. “We just cut a home plan, and put that in the restaurant. So the old stone walls are actually [meant to be] ruins of an old villa. Maybe over time, you find that there are different flooring patterns [in each] ‘room’, and that there’s a verandah and a trellis,” Zameer says. It’s this discerning visitor who might also go on to wonder what the ruin of a house is even doing inside a mill building. “The mill has become the most normal commercial space in the city,” he says. “But actually, it has crazy history and it’s been through a horrible journey to arrive at this commercial space.”

Toit Brewery takes over the former Blue Frog space in Mathuradas Mills, Mumbai  Image credit: Kunal Bhatia

Toit Brewery takes over the former Blue Frog space in Mathuradas Mills, Mumbai

Image credit: Kunal Bhatia

Another mill space that found itself under Busride’s purview was Blue Frog in Mumbai’s Mathuradas Mills. When the iconic live-gig venue shut shop, Toit Brewery moved in, and the brothers were brought in to design the new site. “It was major pressure. There’s so much embedded memory and love [for Blue Frog], you cannot mess around. We’re big fans of Serie Architects (who designed Blue Frog) and their work is amazing,” Zameer says. “We’d already done the Blue Frog in Pune so we understood the idea behind what they were doing. I think the whole idea was to keep the topography the same.” This has played out interestingly — the amphitheatre layout has stayed, but where the stage used to be, there is a bar now. Blue Frog had undulating curves and dark tones; Toit maximises daylight, has more corners, and is more airy. “I thought we did a decent job at keeping the volume the same,” Zameer says. “It still feels like a day version of the topography that was made by Blue Frog.”

Of late, the studio’s work on food-and-beverage spaces has scaled back. They’ve diversified to other spaces like offices and retail stores. “We recently did a store for clothing line bhane. in Bandra,” Zameer says. “When you enter the space, it’s clearly an art gallery but you can use it as a retail store, and the tables [in the café space] can be spread out and used as a full-fledged cafe. So it’s kind of shapeshifting.” This flexible, modular practicality is what Zameer envisions for well-designed restaurant spaces too. “Especially in Bombay, you can get so much more out of a small space. There’s so much downtime in a restaurant. If you’re only doing service lunch onwards, you have the whole morning for a yoga studio or something like that,” he points out.

O Pedro in BKC, Mumbai, also designed by the Basrai brothers

O Pedro in BKC, Mumbai, also designed by the Basrai brothers

To judge good restaurant design though, Ayaz thinks you ought to trust how the space makes you feel — and it should be genuine. “To me, a Swati Snacks is really great restaurant design as well, because it’s true to what they set out to do. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t have great lighting, acoustics or furniture if you assess it with the right barometers.”

But the future is bright — according to the Basrais at least. “A lot more restaurants are now chef-driven,” Ayaz says. And that’s a good sign. “It’s the way most of the iconic food scenes all around the world have progressed. If you look at [the streets] off La Rambla in Barcelona, there about 250 tapas bars, but each one has its own individual vibe. I don’t think that’s intentional design; it’s really more about people’s personalities coming out in a more expressive way,” he explains. Alternatively, the way to play with a space’s mood could change in the future. Zameer points out that control over lighting — a simple, key factor in this sort of design — with little regulating knobs, for instance, could transform an experience. “Lots of lighting experiments happen during the design process but they don’t always get translated. If you can control the lighting on your table, it could control ambience. That’s a huge thing for the F&B business to set up your own mood at your table,” Zameer says.

No matter how this design evolves, and what role the Basrai brothers have to play in it, it’s clear that the need for deeply thought-out restaurant spaces isn’t going anywhere. Advances in technology, an increasing focus on sustainable practices, and other occurrences are bound to shape how these spaces change. We’re here for the ride.

Fabiola Monteiro writes about travel, food and culture. Formerly on the editorial teams of National Geographic Traveller India and Lonely Planet Magazine India, her work has also featured in publications like The Hindu and Mint Lounge. She tweets @thefabmonteiro and is on Instagram at @fabiolamonteiro.