Prior to the pandemic, Goa welcomed approximately 90 lakh tourists, including around nine lakh foreigners, per year. But from March 2020, foreign tourists have paused. Backpackers and party chasers have given way to long-stay tourists, many escaping the claustrophobia of locked-down cities to rent villas by the beach for months.
While restaurants across the country began to close down, Goa witnessed the rise of stylish, responsible restaurants, focussing on local menus and finding inventive ways to put a spin on tradition, keeping in mind the change of tourists.
Goa-based writer Vikram Doctor, observes, “I think some restaurants came close to shutting down, but were saved by the fact that the winter season, where most make their profits, came between the two waves so they have been able to scrape through. Now they are expecting to do well, with everyone who can’t go abroad, coming to Goa.” He adds, “In some ways, I think, being tested by the lockdown has actually been good for Goa’s restaurants. It has forced them to develop takeaway menus that are really good, not just afterthoughts. It also made them find ways to appeal more to local, long-term customers — not just transient tourists — and to use locally sourced produce, not just stuff brought in, which they’ve realised can get cut off due to pandemic restrictions.”
Goa’s appetite for new age restaurants continued during the pandemic, even though business took a hit. At a prominent corner of Anjuna, bright yellow Maka Zai emerged in late 2020. It made its mark with hip Asian food — including a Goan-inspired sloppy Joe called baoee — cutting-edge mixology with cocktails like Trouble (tequila, tamarind, fresh coriander and sea salt), and a relaxed atmosphere.
At Mosaic Anjuna, another opening, diners can enjoy prawn omelette tacos, Andhra tendli pepper fry and raw jackfruit croquettes while sipping quirky cocktails.
Entrepreneur and restaurateur Manav Chadha, the man behind Maka Zai, says, “Concept restaurants are the new age bars. Goa’s tourists are well-travelled and know their food. People are more willing to try local cuisine or regional specialities today.” And by the looks of it, they are willing to pay top dollar.
Diners, according to Chadha, have primarily been those who are on ‘workacations’ or ‘staycations’ and take a break by dining out in the Anjuna-Assagao belt, or the tourists who have just begun to come in.
The susegado (relaxed, laidback) village of Assagao, essentially a sunken valley, is home to some of Goa’s best restaurants and cafes. It continues to enhance its culinary status with new openings. Exuding a rustic chic vibe with a handcrafted fuchsia-bougainvillea chandelier embellishing the alpendre or porch, patchwork walls adorned with traditional Indian elements and glistening copper tableware, stands Jamun, opened in December 2019. Adapting and reinterpreting Indian flavours and celebrating their diversity, the simple food, sans gimmicks, has caught the fancy of diners. A Beetroot galouti kebab, coated with popped amaranth seeds, dressed with avocado chilli and a crunchy fried curry leaf, is among the best-sellers.
The shacks may be mostly shut, awaiting foreign tourists, but locals and travellers still have a rapidly increasingly list of places to dine at. Chef Rahul Gomes Pereira aka Chef Picu of Jamun Goa, which opened in December 2019, says, “Clients who usually dine at global restaurants, have found their way to Goa and are spending top dollar on food and beverage.”
Gin bars and innovative cocktails are also wowing diners. Edible Archives, an ingredient-centric restaurant, offers plant-based cocktails like bimli urrak , teffal vodka, and kokum feni , all with seasonal ingredients in keeping with Chef Anumitra Ghosh’s philosophy. She says, “Regional Indian food is not only popular, but also getting prepped for a cosmopolitan crowd.”
- In Fontainhas, Panjim, India’s first Vinyl Bar — For the Record — has made an entry. The brainchild of audio engineer and architect, Buland Shukla, it targets lovers of analogue music, with good sound and feni-based crafted cocktails.
- Buland has been involved in the world of vinyl for quite a few years. He founded Audiophile Goa, a store for everything to do with analogue audio. Also a gypsy jazz musician, he designs and builds tube based amplifiers and speakers. The quest for spreading awareness about the analogue format of music led him to start India's very first vinyl bar.
- The concept is based on the vinyl bars of Tokyo: small, intimate spaces to enjoy music and local brews. There is a twist though, says Buland: “We have specially handcrafted a vacuum tube HiFi system for the space, which gives an unbeatable experience to the customer.”
- He adds, “If one looks at our menu, it is easy to notice our fondness for Goa’s indigenous spirit, feni . We have designed a range of cocktails for regulars as well as first-time consumers of this highly underrated spirit. Apart from that, we focus only on Indian craft spirits and brews. Our menu is limited, but we bring you the best of what the country has to offer.”
At the packed Tamil Table which opened this March, apart from unique food which includes duck pakodas and coconut milk pulao, a curry leaf gin and tonic stands cheek by jowl with a peanut whiskey sour. The purple-hued, signature cocktail ‘jamun’, served with a gin base, allures diners at Jamun.
Meanwhile, at Chef Pablo Miranda’s tapas bar in Panjim — Antonio 31 — gin infusions with butterfly pea flower, accompanied with crispy baitfish and truffle mushroom rissois (a crumb-fried Goan and Portugese snack), are a hit.
Chef Picu is of the opinion that Goa has evolved and restaurants like Jamun, are being appreciated. “Modern adaptions to cuisines is a dying trend. Authentic, traditional and historically relevant food, is the new game,” he says.
Perhaps that explains why Goan cuisine is being rediscovered with a vengeance. Cavatina, serving contemporary Goan food in quieter South Goa, attracts diners from touristy North Goa too. What’s more, even after re-opening to 50% capacity, it is doing brisk business.
Cavatina’s founder-Chef Avinash Martins says, “The trend of people hiring large villas as a family or friends’ group and inviting chefs to curate special meals is fast growing. I have done many such meals for guests from across India, who are willing to spend and experiment with local cuisine.”
He adds, “Goa, for the last year-and-a-half, has been a second home to the entire country.”