Interview: A tête-à-tête with the Tote twosome

Interview: A tête-à-tête with the Tote twosome

Talk to the tastebuds behind Mumbai's newest bar -- the famously outspoken Malini and Rahul Akerkar -- who are straight up about more than just single malt
Rahul guides the bar and grill, Malini steers the ship from the front, with a glass of single malt.

Tote, the latest venture by the deGustibus Hospitality braintrust of Malini and Rahul Akerkar, re-imagines Mumbai's historic Royal Western India Turf Club as a restaurant, bar, nightclub and banquet space on the turf in Mahalaxmi. In September, the restaurant opened to great fanfare. Catching the Akerkars between breaths, we talked to the renowned restaurateurs about what's right and wrong with local nightlife, and the biggest difference between Dehli and Mumbai drinkers.

CNNGo: Before opening Tote, what did you feel people in Mumbai wanted from a night out?

Malini: I don’t know what the twenty year olds want, but my perception is a serious, serious party, great music and lots of alcohol. I think people in their forties are looking for something a little different. The other night I was at the bar with a friend of mine who said that it was so much easier to be here (at Tote) on a Wednesday and that coming here on a Friday night was terrifying. 

Rahul: When someone from Mumbai goes out they want other people, too; we are a great people for watching people.

CNNGo: Has Mumbai bar culture changed in the last five years?

Malini: Hugely! People have evolved in their taste and are looking for new experiences.

Rahul: What is nice to see are places like Blue Frog and Zenzi that are music focused. People now have a yearning for entertainment. A few years ago we had traditional outlets like a staid bar and a disco-type nightclub, but now they are looking for alternative entertainment.

CNNGo: What does Tote bring to the scene?

Malini: Tote has the restaurant, the bar and within the bar there are different experiences during the week. Great music and great conversation, but that doesn’t happen on a Friday and Saturday night. It’s like a monster that takes on a life of its own and it’s amazing to watch.

Rahul: Dining and good food draws people to Tote. You present the food in an environment that is aesthetically appealing and it makes the experience of the food that much better.

Malini: I don’t agree with him, I could want to be at Tote today and Hawaiian Shack tomorrow depending on what I feel. I go to Trishna for the food, not the décor.

CNNGo: If Tote were a beverage what would it be?

Rahul: A hot brandy toddy. It's very comforting and it has got spice, which Tote has, too, and I think heat, which has to do with a passion that is part of the vibe.

Malini: I am torn between a fabulous single malt and a great bottle of red wine, but I would say a robust red wine. There is a great deal of complexity in red wine and Tote has these multiple elements that come together like a fine glass of red. And it's spicy, like Rahul says.

Tote is a melting pot. It is a modern Indian space. It provides people with a little bit of an anchor.— Malini Akerkar

CNNGo: New Delhi is called India’s whisky capital. What is Mumbai's favorite alcohol?

Rahul: Vodka, in a cocktail or straight.

Malini: In fact, we have experienced that in all our other spaces.

Rahul: I have bartended a few nights and people want a lot of it and they are brand sensitive, too, with what kind of Vodka they will drink.

CNNGo: What does Mumbai lack when it comes to nightlife?

Malini: Originality and variety. There are very few places to go to. We have a long way to go.

Rahul: Sophistication. Also the fact that concerts and everything have to shut down at 10:30pm, it’s repressive.

Malini: I remember our favorite thing was to go to Rang Bhavan Jazz Yatra, but that shut down. It seems the more we progress as a country, the more we regress as an international city. We lack a cultural identity because the government doesn’t allow us to express ourselves. I understand the need for law, but to have blanket rules kills culture. A 10:30pm closing time is absurd, people in India only start going out at 9pm.

We need to break down these barriers to express ourselves in a modern global way with our own cultural influences.

Rahul: Dealing with citizens is akin to raising a child in a very strict manner. Eventually the child grows up and just goes berserk experiencing things in an extreme way. It is better to raise a child, or your citizenry, in a balanced way and there won’t be so many abuses.

We have had so many cultural influences in our history; we are confused as a people. I think we are a very insecure, so there is a need to put boundaries to get some kind of framework. My dad used to say we have no national character, we are a nation of characters.

Malini: I think Delhi is much more advanced and cosmopolitan, but it has a huge culture identity and I think Mumbai used to be really cosmopolitan, but it has regressed. That doesn’t mean I prefer nightlife in Delhi. I feel insecure there.

CNNGo: What do you mean when you say Mumbai's nightlife lacks originality? Do you mean something that is singularly Indian?

Malini: When we opened Indigo people said, "Oh, this is just like New York." But it is not. It was a modern space and it was expressed in an Indian contemporary sense. It is not like we have taken a concept and forced it onto India. The whole situation is very ambivalent between aping the west and expressing yourself in a contemporary sense.

Rahul: Modern Japan is a great example. It is a culture unto itself, it is steeped in tradition, but it is very modern. From that ferment comes a refinement. I think India is going to struggle to find its national identity.

Malini: Tote is a melting pot. It is a modern Indian space. It provides people with a little bit of an anchor. Here is something very internationally modern but it's here at home.

There is no place like it in the country.

Getting there

Tote on the Turf
Mahalaxmi Race Course, Keshva Rao Khadye Marg
Mahalaxmi, Mumbai
tel. +91 (0) 22 6157 7777

Raised in several cities across India, Tarini's constant search for new homes forms the basis of her desire to explore incessantly.
Read more about Tarini Awatramani