Delhi's dining scene is booming. Ask locals to name their favorite restaurant, and the only thing you can be sure of is that you won't get a predictable response -- from fiercely criticizing Bukhara (Delhi's long-reigning restaurant champion) to praising some modest hole-in-the-wall, people are talking, and writing, about food. With the culinary revolution clearly in full swing, it's no longer necessary to hide out in hotel eateries for fear of contracting "Delhi belly." More likely, you'll experience a dent in your budget if you choose to eat in the hotels, and you'll miss out on a highly recommended opportunity to see where the city's innumerable foodies are feasting these days. We hope you'll find your way to at least one of the stand-alone choices we've reviewed. For many more options (hundreds, in fact), you'd do worse than to consult the annual Times Food Guide, originally written by Times of India food critic Sabina Sehgal Saikia (who tragically lost her life in the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008) but now in a transition phase, it's available at booksellers and magazine vendors (Rs 100).
Expensive -- An irritating trend (at least for voyeurs) among the moneyed crowd is to eat at "members-only" restaurants. The most popular of these very hip joints is Oriental Octopus (Habitat World, India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Rd.; tel. 011/2468-2222 or 011/5122-0000, ext. 2512), where you dine at curved, meandering tables shared by gorgeous designer-clad Delhiites -- a million miles from the streets of Shahjahanabad. See if your concierge can arrange a reservation, or find a member and tag along. The food isn't bad either -- start with Singaporean steamed spring rolls, and move on to Malaysian black-pepper prawns tossed in garlic and crushed pepper. It also has an interesting bargain-priced buffet spread.
Even more irritating (for restaurateurs at any rate) has been the city's clampdown on health and safety regulations, which saw the closure of numerous venues because of unsound architecture (a problem in some of the city's more ancient structures). In mid-2007, for example, the sublime and wonderful Olive Bar and Kitchen that was located in Mehrauli had been closed and is still awaiting an imminent comeback; in the meantime, you can visit Olive Beach (9, Sardar Patel Marg, Chanakyapuri; tel. 011/4604-0404; www.olivebarandkitchen.com), although we find it better for drinks than for what comes on your plate.
For superb Italian by one of Delhi's most celebrated restaurateurs, Ritu Dalmia (also responsible for London's Vama), try to get a table at Diva (M-8, M Block Market, Greater Kailash I; tel. 011/2921-5673), which has drawn countless accolades despite fever-pitch prices. You simply can't go wrong here; any of the seafood starters are recommended, and the lamb chops in red wine are superb. Also under her able hands is the pizzeria Café at the Italian Cultural Centre (Nyaya Marg, Chanakyapuri; tel. 011/2467-4575), best done if you're in the embassy zone running around for official work or cultural screenings, as well as the brand new café Latitude 28 (tel. 011/2465-7175) run by Goodearth: with an international menu, this all-day dining focuses on unpretentious freshly prepared food. One could just have a simple panini and a juice, or go for something more wholesome like a pasta or lamb stew; there is also a huge array of organic salads for the health conscious.
Tip: We've arranged our restaurants according to pricing but it may be more useful to know where the closest recommendations are depending on where you're based, or find yourself while sightseeing or shopping; herewith some guidance: While in Old Delhi, dine at Chor Bizarre, Karims or Haldirams. If near Connaught Place, visit Veda, Ploof, United Coffee House, or Basil & Thyme. If still in Central Delhi, but near Chanakyapuri, Khan Market or Lodhi Road, dine at Crepes and More, Oriental Octopus, Olive Beach. And when in South Delhi, dine at Diva, Oh Calcutta, Park Balluchi, Punjabi by Nature, Swagath, Sagar, Smokehouse Grill, It's Greek to Me, or Naivedyam.
Moderate -- One Connaught Place institution you certainly shouldn't pass up is United Coffee House, which began 5 decades ago as a coffeehouse and is now also a multicuisine restaurant where you can sit for hours ogling the fantastic array of people who come here to feast, drink, strike deals, play cards, and pass the time. Interesting Art Deco interiors, lit by chandeliers, make this more about nostalgia than particularly inspiring cuisine, but the reasonable standard Indian food (meal for two should cost Rs 150-Rs 400), and prolonged two-for-one happy hours make this a favorite with locals and travelers alike. And, yes, the coffee is freshly brewed and brought to your table in a French press. Reserve for dinner, just in case (E-15, Inner Circle; tel. 011/2341-1697 or -6075). Crepes and More (66, first floor, Khan Market; tel. 98-1890-0005) is one of the few stand-alone breakfast joints in the city (everything from yoghurt and muesli to dozens of choices in crepes and eggs) and perfect if you opt for an early morning walk in the near-by Lodhi Gardens or want to dine light while shopping in Khan Market. A popular lunchtime venue, Basil and Thyme (Santushti Shopping Complex, New Wellington Camp; tel. 011/2467-3322), serves healthy Eurocentric fare from the kitchen of octogenarian gourmand Bhicoo Manekshaw. The day's special and other healthy selections rarely fail to please, and the fabulous homemade cheesecakes and ice creams should be declared illegal. Combine it with your visit to the surrounding shopping complex, which is bound to work up your appetite; reserve ahead.
If you want a theme restaurant and are in the Gurgaon area, head for the Garden of Five Senses and grab a table at Baujee ka Dhaba (Saed Ul Ajab; tel. 011/2953-5847; http://baujeekadhaba.com), where folk art decorates the mud-effect walls, and even the waitstaff is in traditional garb. The food is distinctively Mughlai and Punjabi fare, rich and heavy, but unquestionably well made and delicious. Get the ever-popular shammi kebab or dum pukht chicken. Or just nibble on assorted kebabs while you enjoy a reasonably priced chilled beer. A fairly recent addition to a Delhi dining scene is Oh! Calcutta (E Block, International Trade Towers, Nehru Place; tel. 011/2646-4180; www.speciality.co.in), which is obsessed with just one thing: authentic, excellent Bengali cuisine. A visit here should be prefaced with a warning, though: Don't come for the decor, service, or even the slightest hint of romantic atmosphere. The only thing you get by way of entertainment is the opportunity to watch dozens of local middle-class families who are, like you, here for reliable, reasonably priced meals. And the food really is scrumptious, which takes the bite out of the surly demeanor of the waiters (who nevertheless make very competent recommendations, so bear with them).
Inexpensive -- Sagar is one of Delhi's favorite restaurant chains, serving reliable vegetarian South Indian food at reasonable prices till 11pm. Have one of the South Indian thali platters, and eat with your hands. End your meal with Madrasi filter coffee, or you can start your day the same way -- the restaurant opens at 8am, which is the best time for traditional idli (South India's favorite breakfast dumplings) and chutneys. You'll battle to spend more than Rs 90 on food here. There's a good outlet at 18 Defence Colony Market (tel. 011/2433-3110; www.sagarratna.in), just 10 minutes from India Gate. When in Old Delhi, one must-see eatery is Haldiram's (1454/2, Chandini Chowk tel. 011/2883-3007; www.haldiram.com), always bustling with frenetic activity as locals flock to pick up the city's most legendary range of Indian sweets. Another legendary shop, worth a look in even if only to bask in the historic glow of a place that served both Nehru and Indira Gandhi (not to mention other Indian prime ministers), is a paratha shop recognizable by the sign reading THE POWER OF PRANTHAS -- PT. GAYA PRASAD SHIV CHARAN (tel. 98-1126-3137), which you'll probably need your guide to help you seek out (it's at 34 Gali Pranthe Wail, Chandni Chowk). This shouldn't be too difficult, as the little eatery has been satisfying locals since 1872 and any guide worth his salt should know it. There are 20 different varieties of paratha available, and each comes with a thalilike plate filled with sambals, vegetables, lentils, and sauces to make a more substantial meal out of the popular street food. Grab a seat and join the Old Delhi locals.
Five-Star Culinary Flagships Where You Can't Go Wrong
The city's five-star hotels offer consistent, refined service, and unlike in most capitals, the (elite) locals dine at them. All listings (barring South Delhi's Hyatt and Crowne Plaza in Gurgaon) are in Central Delhi. Expect to pay a premium.
Bukhara (tel. 011/2611-2233), the Indian restaurant at the ITC Maurya Sheraton, has a busy display kitchen, where meat and vegetables hang from swordlike kebab spears and chefs slave to produce delicacies from a menu that hasn't changed in 30 years and continues to earn accolades as one of the world's finest Asian restaurants. Staff is for instance immensely proud that Bill Clinton apparently chose to stay at the hotel "because of our restaurant," and there's even a dish named in his honor. Start by ordering an assorted kebab platter and follow that up with any of the classic lamb (raan) dishes, best savored with thin butter naans. Finish off with a traditional rice-based phirni pudding or one of their amazing kulfis (ice cream). Next door to the Sheraton is the glitzy Taj Palace Hotel, where the city's elite line up (sometimes literally) to get a table at Masala Art (tel. 011/2611-0202), which makes a very conscious (usually successful) attempt to dazzle. The chefs turn cooking into performance art, putting on engaging food demonstrations at mealtimes; spectators eat whatever delicacies are produced. Of the daily a la carte specials, look for achari jhinga (prawns flavored with raw mango), and galouti kebabs prepared with finely minced lamb and 126 different herbs. Reinventing Indian cuisine is Varq, the new restaurant at Taj Mahal. Absolutely sumptuous in design and cuisine, it soars higher than any of legendary Chef Hemant Oberoi's creations so far; a mix of contemporary meets classic, innovatively using Indian recipes with exotic ingredients -- prawns and asparagus curry from Calicut, meat curry cooked in a martabaan (clay pot), sea bass, and diver's scallops -- all seem to blend in effortlessly. Taj Palace also does old-school dining pretty well, so if you prefer a stiff, formal (and potentially very romantic) evening in the company of exquisite French cuisine, dress smart for Orient Express (tel. 011/2611-0202), where you dine in a posh replica of a Pullman train carriage. Enjoy preboarding drinks on the "platform," as the bar area is called; your four-course journey is inspired by the countries through which the Orient Express passes on its Paris-to-Istanbul run, and is likely to include items such as Camembert soufflé with paprika sauce, pan-seared reef cod with raw papaya salad, and the extremely popular oven-roasted New Zealand rack of lamb, encrusted with herbs and almonds and served with lamb jus.
If you need a good excuse to swan through the lobby of The Imperial, reserve a table at The Spice Route (tel. 011/2334-1234), voted one of the top-10 restaurants in the world by Condé Nast Traveler. The decor alone is worth a visit -- every nook and cranny is hand-painted by temple artists flown in from Kerala. The food takes you on a complex culinary journey, from the Malabar Coast to Sri Lanka, Malaysia to Indonesia, Thailand to Vietnam. Certainly, it has the best ever tom kha kai (classic Thai soup) and mouthwatering chemeen thoren (Kerala-style prawns).
There's a veritable war going on among supporters of Delhi's top Chinese restaurants. Many lean toward Taipan (tel. 011/2436-3030) at The Oberoi, where you can fill up on amazing dim sum (tiny dumplings filled with an assortment of tasty morsels, steamed, and served in bamboo baskets), best enjoyed at lunchtime with fantastic views over Delhi Golf Course. On par is the range of Oriental dishes served at the Shangri-La's beautiful 19 Oriental Avenue (tel. 011/4119-1919), where you can savor close-to-perfect Thai, Japanese, and Chinese cuisine. Thai chicken soup (flavored with galangal and lemon grass), Cantonese-style steamed red snapper (green spring onions and top-notch soy sauce bring out the flavor), and silky-smooth teppanyaki tofu steak are just a handful of recommendations from a diverse menu. There's also an exquisite sushi bar (arguably the finest in town). The Taj Mahal Hotel boasts the excellent House of Ming, which is gorgeously decorated and, thanks to a recent revolution in the kitchen, has emerged as a formidable culinary force focusing on Cantonese and Szechuan cooking; it now also offers delectable dim sum and seafood selections and has an enviable tea menu. But our current favorite is Hyatt Regency's China Kitchen the restaurant that has become pretty much the talk of the town and understandably so -- one bite of the fresh prawn dim sum and you know you've arrived! The setting is refined and the Peking duck reputed to be the best in the country with much drama attached to the way it is served; we sampled 25 different dishes and loved every one, so put your money here -- it's a sure win.
The Hyatt is also incidentally where you'll find the best pizzas in town, at La Piazza (tel. 011/2679-1234). Chef Wladimiro Gadioli dishes out authentic Italian cuisine; an extensive wine list includes superb vintages from around the world, though the prices may have you gagging into your glass. Excellent, authentic Spanish and Catalan dishes are served in classy, beautiful surroundings (with a supersexy tapas bar downstairs) at Lodhi in the new Aman hotel. While it's a big draw with Delhi's young, fun-loving crowd, it's also a great family venue. For a Spanish dish with a slightly locally twist, order the fish stew prepared with saffron, or the lamb paletilla, made with dried fruits.
Delhi's only Brazillian churrascaria, located at Crowne Plaza (Site 2, Sector 29, Gurgaon; tel. 0124/4530-0000; dinner only) is very good indeed. The sheer length and styling of the room at Wildfire, ending with flaming urns on large pebbles, makes for great ambience (make a reservation for a table by the window where the flaming urns are), but it's the food that has meat-lovers coming back for more. After sampling their salad buffet, you're meant to sit tight and experience the rodizio style of service -- various meats are brought to the table on skewers and sliced straight on to your plate. Brazillian chefs believe in not letting your plate sit empty until you raise your hands and beg them to stop. Our only grouse was with the chair design -- too high for the tables.
Finally, if you simply want to sit back and relax with a good bottle of wine and a buffet choice of pretty much anything from anywhere around the world, The Oberoi's smart, contemporary Threesixtydegrees (tel. 011/2436-3030) is open all day and somehow almost always buzzing with businessmen.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.