Nowhere in India is dining more rewarding than in Mumbai. The city literally holds thousands of restaurants, and being a city of migrants, every kind of Indian cuisine is represented -- though Konkan, or coastal food, is considered the local specialty. You can mingle with the city's crème de la crème at fine-dining or hip venues, or choose from a vast array of inexpensive eating places. And while traditional restaurant-type experiences are varied and plentiful, we urge you to get down with the locals from time to time and sample traditional street food -- like vada pav and pani puri -- from one or two of the recommended outlets; we can't guarantee hygiene at places we don't mention, but your concierge should be able to tell you where you can try delicious local specialties without doing yourself an injury. Also on your must-do list should be a visit to an Udipi (or south Indian fast food) restaurant, and a meal at one of Mumbai's classic Irani restaurants serving fresh inexpensive breads and chai. Not surprisingly, vegetarians are particularly well catered to in just about all Mumbai restaurants. Note: Bear in mind that Mumbaikars usually venture out to eat late, around 9pm, so if you're intent on eating at a popular fine-dining restaurant and don't have a reservation, you may be able to score a table if you show up by 7:30pm.
Old School Seafood Thrillers -- Anyone with a penchant for seafood will love dining in Mumbai -- whether it's Coastal, Konkani, Mangalorean, or Malvani cuisine, you are in for a treat. Besides Mahesh Lunch Home, Konkan Café, and Trishna, there are plenty of old-fashioned places where you can find truly excellent fish and seafood, usually without denting your wallet much at all. Two hugely popular local favorites are right near the tourist hubs of South Mumbai: Do make an effort to check out Apoorva (Vasta House, S.A. Brelvi Marg, near Horniman Circle, Fort; tel. 022/2287-0335 or 022/2288-1457; daily 11:30am-4pm and 6pm-midnight), which has not only wonderfully authentic Manglorean fare (including delicious prawn koliwada), but a massive range of crabs, oysters, lobster, pomfret, and other thrillingly fishy fare, some of which is especially tempered for foreign tastes (read: nonspicy). In a similar league is Excellensea (Bharat House, 317 Shahid Bhagat Singh Rd.; tel. 022/2261-8991) where the obvious choice is prawn gassi, rich with sauce that demands mopping up with some fresh Indian breads (like idlis, appams, and neer dosas). Note that if you are in any of these Konkan restaurants, you may want to try the sol kadi, a slightly pungent coconut milk drink -- it takes some getting used to, but is a great appetizer. Farther north, in Bandra, you'll get real value for money and atmosphere at the friendly Soul Fry (Pali Mala Rd, across from Pali Market; tel. 022/2604-6892), serving home-style Goan dishes. Try the flaky stuffed grilled rawas (a local fish). Monday is karaoke night, and even if you can't sing to save your life, it's a great experience to watch extremely talented locals unabashedly take the mic and have the whole place rocking well past midnight. If you'd rather not head all the way to the suburbs, there's a newer branch, called Soul Fry Casa (Currimjee Bldg., MG Rd.; tel. 022/2267-1421; daily 7pm-midnight), opposite Mumbai University in Fort and promises the best of the original Soul Fry (and often even better food), plus lots of live music and action around the bar to accompany the delicious seafood.
Mumbai's Ultimate Afternoon Escape -- One of Mumbai's quintessential must-do experiences is high tea at the Taj Mahal Palace's gorgeous Sea Lounge (tel. 022/6665-3366; daily 10am-midnight), a popular haunt of the city's socialites who famously gather here to exchange gossip and tie up arrangements for family weddings. In fact, you won't only be watching boats floating by in the harbor behind the Gateway of India (seen here through gigantic picture windows), but inevitably witnessing couples in the throes of courtship while their mums and aunties get to know each other over cucumber sandwiches and cups of the finest Assam and Darjeeling teas. Along with an update of its design that's added a few contemporary colors and exquisite fabrics to the posh-but-cozy interior, the Sea Lounge now also serves traditional street snacks and chaat from a metal cart parked near the cake and sandwich buffet. For a mere Rs 850, you can stuff yourself silly, washing down the pani puri and vada pao with as much coffee and tea as you can manage. Take your time and lose yourself in the spectacular juxtaposition of the glamorous world you're in against the lively scene down by the harbor wall, always brimming with camera-clicking vacationers immortalizing themselves in front of one of India's most celebrated monuments.
What's Up with Udipi? -- Restaurants serving South Indian fast food (also called Udipi restaurants) can be found on just about every street, and a meal at one is an essential Mumbai experience. The Udipi phenomenon arrived in Mumbai in 1935 when Rama Nayak, a Kannadiga (migrant from Karnataka) entrepreneur started the legendary Udipi Boarding House in Fort. Serving traditional, nourishing, pure vegetarian meals, it was named after the town near his home village, and after he later opened two more restaurants with Udipi in the name and other migrants from western Karnataka cottoned onto the same business idea, "Udipi" became the generic moniker used by Mumbaikers when referring to South Indian eateries. There are plenty of places to choose from -- in fact, one official statistic states that Kannadigas own 70% of the city's 11,000 or so officially licensed restaurants -- but if you sample only one and are willing to go the extra mile, make it one of our two favorites in the South Indian hub of Matunga. At the compact Café Madras (King's Circle; tel. 022/2401-4419; Tues-Sun 7am-2:30pm and 4-11pm) it's Tamilian-style dosas that reign supreme, and it's worth sampling a few different varieties (check the chalkboard for the day's specials) to see what a difference the type of flour makes. For an authentic South Indian thali, you've simply got to try A. Ramanayak Udipi Shri Krishna Boarding (Lal Bahadur Shastri Market Bldg., first floor, near Matunga Railway Station; tel. 022/2414-2422; Tues-Sun 10:30am-2:30pm and 7-10pm), now run by Rama Nayak's son. Purchase a coupon for either a limited or unlimited thali, and grab a seat; you can expect a no-frills experience where food -- chapattis or puris, vegetables, dal, curd, and rice -- is served on a banana leaf, and you eat with your hands. You'll also get a cup of buttermilk, and, when you're just about done, a sweet dessert.
The Skinny on Street Food
Mumbai is probably the world capital of street food. Thousands upon thousands of workers commuting through this vast megalopolis each day need to stave off their hunger before dealing with crushing public transport, and you'll see an endless, thrilling array of places to snack on everything from bhel puri to vada pav (pronounced "pao"), which is the ultimate Mumbai street snack -- basically a bun (pav) sliced open and packed with a fried mash potato ball and a spicy concoction of chili and garlic. Street food is something you should be careful about experimenting with anywhere in India. The spots we recommend are not on the street; they serve sanitized (yet authentic) versions of what is available on the street. One place where you can safely try street food -- and it's one of our absolute favorite spots to snack -- is Kailash Parbat (Sheela Mahal, 1st Pasta Lane, Colaba; tel. 022/2281-2112), which serves authentic Sindhi food brought to Bombay by the Mulchandani family when they moved here from Karachi following Partition. Pay first, and then approach the relevant counter with your receipt. Ask for a portion of pani puri (you'll get six for Rs 25) which are like little mouthful-size explosions of flavor. The puri is a round hollow pocket of deep-fried flour; the puri wallah pokes a hole in it with his thumb and stuffs it full of chickpeas, sprouted mung beans, and mashed potato. Then he dips it in a vat of tamarind chutney to add a hint of sweet, and then into cold pani (water), flavored with mint and chilies. He'll plop it on your plate and you pop the entire thing in your mouth -- it'll be the start of an addictive relationship. After you've had your fill, march back to the cash register and order a kesar pista lassi. It takes awhile to prepare -- elegantly topped off with a layer of thick curd and a sprinkle of saffron -- but your patience will be suitably rewarded with one of the most delicious drinks you've ever tasted.
You get to eat real Mumbai-style street food under very sanitary (if busy and noisy) conditions at Swati Snacks, in Tardeo (248 Karai Estate, Tardeo Rd.; tel. 022/6580-8406 or 022/2352-4994; daily 11am-11pm), where there's inevitably a (fast-moving) queue for the restaurant, but you're also able to buy from the take-away window. They too have excellent pani puri, but are famous for panki chatni, thin pancakes steamed in banana leaf, and superb peru nu shak (spiced guava eaten with Indian bread). Locals come here more for the traditional Gujarati dishes not found anywhere else. You can also sip a soothing glass of hygienic sugar cane juice and round out your meal with homemade fruit-flavored ice creams.
You can enjoy fare similar to Swati's without the potentially long wait and in a quieter, more composed, setting at Soam (Sadguru Sadan, opposite Babulnath temple, Chowpatty; tel. 022/2369-8080; noon-11pm), a vegetarian joint with a bright, contemporary ambience and some dedicated healthier options on its menu.
Bandra's famous hygienic street-food stop is Elco Pani Puri Centre at Elco Arcade on Hill Road (tel. 022/2645-7677), once a street stall that famously operated illegally, but has since expanded to include an air-conditioned restaurant that, like Kailash Parbat, uses filtered water to prepare its snacks. You can venture inside for a more staid experience, but we still prefer the spontaneous people-watching that happens outside where you stand at the efficient pani puri counter (buy your coupon at the nearby cash register first) where the delicious mouth-size morsels are handed over one by one. Afterwards, order a glass of fresh watermelon juice, and grab a plastic stool so you can tuck into a plate of bhel puri -- crushed puris mixed with sev (tiny noodles made from chickpea flour), puffed rice, chopped boiled potato, onion, coriander, chili, and a couple of sweet and tangy chutneys.
Very Expensive -- If you really want to dine among the crème de la crème and don't mind shelling out top dollar for the experience, then by all means book a night at The Zodiac Grill, one of the fine dining establishments at the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower. The quality of the French cuisine -- served in an atmosphere of restrained opulence -- has made it a legend among the city's well heeled, many of whom no doubt come here to be completely cushioned from mainstream society. Main courses start at Rs 1,950, and a degustation menu runs Rs 5,500 to Rs 6,500
Moderate & Inexpensive -- A survivor since 1973, Delhi Darbar (Holland House, Colaba Causeway; tel. 022/2202-0235; daily 11:30am-12:30am) is a Mumbai institution serving rather standard (and oily) Mughlai and Punjabi food. It has several branches in Mumbai, but we recommend only the one at Colaba. No one comes here for the ambience or service -- most come for the tandoori dishes or the mutton or chicken biryani. Ignore the Chinese menu, and don't expect any alcohol to be served. No booze at Koyla either; a popular rooftop hangout above the Gulf Hotel (Apollo Bunder Rd; tel. 022/6636-9999; www.koylaethniccuisine.com; Tues-Sun 7:30pm-12:30am), it's recommended for its leisurely ambience and setting: a candlelit, canopied terrace with Arabian music playing in the background. The most popular item on the menu is not food, but the sheesha (hookah or pipe), with fruity flavors like green apple and strawberry. The food is mediocre, but order some kebabs just to enjoy the cool evening breeze, or come after dinner to relax, sit back, and linger over a "mocktail." The atmosphere is laid-back and no one will hustle you out -- but service can be painfully slow. Reservations are recommended; even then, expect a wait. The cover charge will be redeemed against your bill.
Feeling Peckish? -- Towards the southern end of Colaba Causeway is one food treat spot you shouldn't pass by. Theobroma (Cusrow Baug, Shop no. 24, Colaba Causeway; tel. 022/6529-2929) is a small, quite marvelous bakery run by Kainaz Messman and her mother, Kamal, who make you feel immediately at home. You can sit at one of the few tables and nibble on their famous brownies (there are 10 varieties to choose from) or one of the other innumerable rich desserts and pastries. If you're not the sweet tooth type, you can choose from various gourmet-quality sandwiches (try the chicken pesto), or freshly baked breads, the best of which is the light, flavorful focaccia.
Among the most famous eateries in this central part of town, is Jewel of India (tel. 020/2494-9435; daily 12:30-3pm and 6:30-11:30pm) at the Nehru Centre, although we often find ourselves completely absorbed at the bar, or checking out what the many Mumbai families who frequent this place are getting up to (Sunday afternoon is best for social voyeurism). It's a large, elegant, old-fashioned kind of place, and the menu looks more like a shopping list than an aid to decision-making -- there are literally dozens of Indian dishes; your best bet is to call Agneto Fernandes, the maitre d', over to your table and ask him what's what. He'd like nothing better than to help you choose wisely.
The Northern Suburbs: Juhu & Bandra
If you don't mind stepping inside the globalized interior of yet another of Mumbai's many Western chain hotels, then we don't mind drawing your attention to the quality Italian on offer at Mezzo Mezzo (tel. 022/6693-3220) in Juhu's JW Marriott. Popular with well-to-do Mumbaikers, this is one hotel eatery that's worth venturing out of tourist Colaba for (and even more enjoyable if you get a table by the window). Another lavish hotel haunt is Vista at the Taj Lands End (tel. 022/6668-1234); it's extremely popular for decadent, long-winded Sunday brunches and languid, lazy knock-out breakfasts. It's open round-the-clock, so is also the perfect place to satisfy a crazy hunger after a long, hard night on the town -- and when the sun comes up, there are great views over the ocean.
At the other end of the spectrum is Govinda's (tel. 022/2620-0337), at the Hare Krishna Temple in Juhu.
The Thali: A Meal Unto Itself
You can't leave this city without consuming at least one thali, the meal that really tests the size of your appetite! It works like this: Sit down, and in less than a minute you're expected to declare which thali you want -- ordinary, special, and so on. Seconds later, a large, stainless-steel (or silver) plate (thali) arrives along with six to eight small bowls (katoris) resting on it. The waiters then fill every one of the multiple katoris as well as the rest of the plate with a large assortment of steaming-hot spiced vegetables, savories, dals, beans, rotis, puris, and potentially much more. To wash it down, you're served water (best avoided unless you're certain it's been purified) and a glass of delicious, superthin, cumin-flavored buttermilk (chaas). As you eat, your katoris will be topped up, so indicate what you want for seconds, thirds, fourths -- a veritable onslaught that won't stop until you say so (although some waistline-minded restaurateurs have started serving "limited thalis"). Then it's a round of rice or khichdi (a mixture of rice and dal) and, in some restaurants, dessert. Not only are thalis a great value (you pay Rs 50-Rs 250), but they come pretty close to the home cooking of the country's Gujarati (or Rajasthani) population (and there are thalis from most other parts of the country, too). There are so many good thali places to choose from, but Panchvati Gaurav (Vithaldas Thackersay Marg, across from Bombay Hospital, Marine Lines; tel. 022/2208-4877; Tues-Sun 11am-3pm and 7-10:30pm; Mon lunch only) definitely stands out -- especially at lunchtime, when office workers flock here. It's dedicated to producing Gujarati thalis that are world-class, excellent value, and served with a bit of a flourish (they even have a nonspicy thali). Another local favorite, and the ideal place to end a visit to nearby Crawford Market, is Rajdhani (361 Sheik Memom St.; tel. 022/2342-6919; daily noon-4pm, Mon-Sat 7-10:30pm), which also specializes in Gujarati meals (with Rajasthani thalis once a week) -- the space is tiny, but the tastes are exceptional. If you're looking for a thali joint closer to Colaba, Chetana (34 K. Dubash Marg, Kala Ghoda; tel. 022/2284-4968; www.chetana.com) is a highly recommended, strictly vegetarian place with many delicious options, including a Maharasthrian thali, and one aimed at health-conscious foodies. Attached to the cafe is a very handy bookstore that's especially good for books on spirituality and Indian philosophy, history, and culture.
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.