It isn't the coffee but hookahs, pool tables, plasma screens and multi cuisine that's driving coffee lounges, discovers Sangeetha Devi Dundoo

Any time is good to hit a coffee lounge. The myth that youngsters chill out only at dusk is beginning to be busted. More than the coffees, sandwiches and short eats, the hookas (non-tobacco, fruit-flavoured) are prime attractions. The scorching sun at noon is no deterrent for a group of students that's entered the quaint bungalow-turned-cafe, Bla Blah Sips ‘n' Gossip. The calm dining area in the garden is a contrast to the buzz inside, where there is an informal competition to blow two to three smoke rings at a go. “Some days we have more customers in the mornings than evenings. Students drop in any time,” says the owner G. Mahesh. Nestled in the bylanes of Banjara Hills and Jubilee Hills are nearly a dozen cafes that have opened in the last two years. Most of them have a few things in common — old bungalows have been refurbished, giving scope to dine alfresco amidst manicured gardens, LCD or plasma screens, a smorgasbord of cuisine, pool tables, wi-fi zones, wii games and in some cases movie lounges.

Coffee shops with hookah and snooker tables are not new to Hyderabad. Pool tables, bowling alleys and hookahs were the ‘in things' a decade ago when the cafe wave began. An intermittent absence later, a new set of cafes have mushroomed with plusher environs that have segregated areas for hookahs.

Across town

If parked Mercs, BMWs and Skodas are common near Bla Blah..., Trance, Irani Chai and Roadside Cafe in Jubilee Hills, the crowd is no less at coffee shops in Kharkana and Trimulgherry. An afternoon power cut is no dampener at Blink, Kharkana. A team takes turns at the pool table while another group discusses Academy Awards, Karthik Calling Karthik and smart phones in the same breath over hookah. The menu, like in other places, has a bit of everything — salads, coffees, sodas, smoothies, biryani and pastas.

Unusual combinations with coffee reflect the ever-changing definition of coffee shops. Acidz coffee lounge in Marredpally seeks attention with its queer name while Koffee N Kebabs in Vikrampuri and Coffeez with Bajjiz at Padmaraonagar score high for being pocket friendly. A meal for two in most places varies between Rs. 100 and 500. A session of hookah (60-90 minutes) is priced from a modest Rs. 180 to an average of Rs. 250-350 to Rs. 1500 at high-end fine dining restaurants, despite the flavours being the same. The charges vary according to ambience. The popular flavours? Grape, watermelon, paan masala, pineapple, mint, double apple and more. Even Deli 9, which started off as a patisserie, now offers hookah.

Cafés with hookahs are big crowd pullers. “We opened Trance on Road no. 2, Banjara Hills, two years ago. When we started the fine dining restaurant Trance at Jubilee Hills in June last year, we also made provision for an alfresco café with hookah to cater to the demand,” says Pankaj Chandak, the manager. The forthcoming IPL matches will be a bigger draw for cafés. Coffee houses that don't have LCD screens are fast making arrangements.

Spare a thought

But not everyone is happy riding the hookah wave. A few café owners feel having hookahs keeps the family crowd away. And there are those like Uday Srinivas of Fruit Way who have hookahs just as add-ons. A month ago, he launched Fruit Way on Road no. 1 Banjara Hills, serving juices that promise no artificial flavours and colours. “We thought health juices alone may not get attention and started having hookahs,” he says. But now, the café has repeat customers for the juices, says Uday. “People are fed up with cold coffees and the calories that come with them,” he says.

But all's not well with hookahs, according to recent scientific studies. Despite the water filtering the nicotine and smoke rising through the long water pipe, studies suggest that smoking hookah too can be detrimental. The debate rages on, but Hyderabad is happy unwinding with hookahs.