Star hotels, the best of brands and an array of options to please the most eclectic of foodies — the city has never had it so good. In the first of a three-part series on the ups and downs of 2012, Zubeda Hamid examines how the venerable metro’s horizons have broadened over time

Of late, a walk down Khader Nawaz Khan road, where you can buy an outfit for Rs. 20,000 and eat an ice cream for Rs. 300, can be illuminating.

On one side of the upscale street, shops and restaurants that existed for several years are shutting down. On the other, frantic construction is on to open new shops, bigger and shinier.

2012 has been a strange, exciting and somewhat hodgepodge year for the city. A year that has seen changes to the city’s skyline, its eating habits and its desires for products.

Three new luxury hotels opened this year — ITC Grand Chola, Park Hyatt and The Leela Palace — adding to Hilton Chennai and Hyatt Regency that found their way in last year.

While these cater to only a small segment of the city or even country’s population, what their opening has achieved is twofold: marking Chennai as a desirable location in the global scenario for business and industry, and giving hotels that have traditionally held the fort in the city a run for their money, forcing them all to step up service, comfort and the experience they offer.

At the opening of the 1.5 million sq. ft. ITC Grand Chola in September, ITC chairman, Y. C. Deveshwar said, “Now, every hotel will have to compete. The objective of this hotel is to take from competition.”

And so, the competition has begun. Taj, which until now catered to cricketers, politicians and royalty visiting Chennai, is reinventing itself. The Coromandel property has updated its luxury rooms, offers personal shoppers to guests interested in exploring the labyrinth of buying experiences, and has expanded its range of cuisine.

“Chennai has seen an explosion in lifestyle in the last few years. The notion of the city being ‘conservative’ is a misnomer. While the people of Chennai are not flashy, they always expect value for money, and the city is a huge spending market,” said N. Prakash, director of operations — Oriental Hotels Ltd & General Manager — Taj Coromandel.

From 2008 to 2012, the number of hotel rooms in the city has risen by nearly 85 per cent, from 2,026 to 3763.

While the global economic slowdown has led to a decrease in occupancy — the city’s year-to-date occupancy in hotels saw a drop of 7.8 per cent this year – this does not seem to deter hoteliers, as JW Marriott and Westinn too, have plans to open here.

The coveted MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences, exhibitions) traffic, medical tourism traffic and the fact that more international airlines are making a beeline for Chennai’s airport, are all contributing to the city’s growing popularity.

Food-lovers’ paradise

This year, food-lovers have had it good.

Food, for Chennaiites, has always been a big deal. We prefer our idlis and coffee perfectly hot with just the right touch of sugar and chutney, and we like eating out in places that offer stylish ambiences and excellent food.

From kebabs in Kilpauk to the city’s latest Aromas of China, there is something on offer for everybody.

In November, patrons at The Marina on College Road, came face-to-face with blue crabs from Tuticorin, brought into the city for the first time.

Cheap but good food competes side-by-side with high-end fine dining, from Rs. 250 for a satisfactory meal, to Rs. 2,500 – and the city’s residents flock to both.

This apart, the city has seen a spate of food festivals – from the Elliot’s Beach street festival in October that saw a gamut of cuisines from across the country, to a seafood festival in ‘Ente Keralam’ .

Booze aficionados had reason to cheer with the bar timings getting extended. In July,the Tamil Nadu government had allowed five-star hotels to run their bars round-the-clock, while other star hotels could keep them open for an extra hour – from 11 p.m. to 12 a.m.

For the 190-odd hotels, bars and clubs in Chennai that serve liquor, this was a boon, as they could cater not just to late-night revellers, but also to tourists whose flights landed late or residents who felt like a drink at midnight.

“Chennai is a different market compared to say, Bangalore or Mumbai. There is not much of a floating crowd in the city, but the spending power of its residents is high. Every time I come into the city after a month’s break, I find that yet another new restaurant has opened – which speaks to the immense potential for growth Chennai offers. Also, though Chennaiites are not quite as adventurous with food compared to their counterparts in other cities, once they develop a taste for something new, there is no stopping them,” said M. Mahadevan, chairman and managing director, Oriental Cuisine.

He added that a trend towards both fine-dining and healthier eating, was growing simultaneously, indicating large numbers of discerning foodies in the city.

Brands at every corner

Five months ago, luxury brand Louis Vuitton opened its fifth store in the country, in Chennai. Conceived as a ‘new travel destination’, it offers luggage, leather goods, textiles and accessories.

And Louis Vuitton is not alone. Harley Davidson, Burberry and Armani too, have opened, and Bottega Venneta, Cartier and Jimmy Choo are all eyeing the city. The complaint that the city does not offer quite enough in terms of luxury products, is all set to vanish.

“We didn’t expect the stunning response we have had,” said Mary Sheeba, sales in-charge at the Harley Davidson outlet in the city. The outlet has sold 80 bikes in the last 11 months, ranging from a basic Rs. 6.5-lakh bike to a Rs. 27-lakh mean machine. “And it’s not just business people; even salaried employees, especially IT professionals, are buying our bikes,” added Ms. Sheeba.

Of Chennai becoming the go-to city for international luxury brands, Sanjay Kapoor, managing director, Genesis Luxury, said: “While the traditional South Indian wealthy families do not believe in conspicuous consumption, the next generation wants to indulge in their favourite fashion and lifestyle brands. ”

Chennai resident and fashion writer Shibi Kumaramangalam, said, “As someone very interested in style, I’m thrilled to have international labels open their stores here. Not only does it provide access, it also opens up a whole new perspective for city residents. But at the same time, the commercialisation of Chennai’s retail and culinary scene, has led to an increasingly consumerist culture, which is unhealthy. Style and food are about the experience they offer and people should enjoy them because they want to, not because it is parked in their neighbour’s closet or driveway.”

In 2010, Chennai, home to 4.6 million, offered 1 lakh jobs to people, making it one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

2012 has been good. At this rate, 2013 will rock.

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