When the Drunken Munkey [sic] opened up on the Upper East Side, it advertised itself as an upscale Anglo-Indian fusion restaurant. It played up dishes like curried beef stew and Goan pork vindaloo, many made from owner Arun Mirchandani's family recipes.
Then came the schtick.
The restaurant's Facebook page describes the concept as "a playful throwback to the times of Colonial India." There are monkey chandeliers and waiters in kurtas and turbans, and the menu promises "a touch of the old Raj." The reference seems to go over the heads of most media outlets, with Zagat boasting that the room "shouts Rudyard Kipling." Is channeling the white man's burden "playful," too?
Of course you can't talk about food without talking about colonialism. We have it to thank for all our banh mi, for instance, or tomatoes in Italian food, or that Portuguese-inspired vindaloo. But it's a troubling thing when a restaurant celebrates the colonial era's legacy while ignoring its darker aspects. And we have to wonder: is the marketing worth the trouble?
When we asked why he chose "colonial" as a guiding adjective for his restaurant, Mirchandani explained that he wanted to share his childhood experiences of eating in British-inspired supper clubs back in India. "My partner and I both grew up in India as officers' kids and spent a fair amount of time at the Defense Officer's Clubs and the Gymkhana Clubs in the 70's, 80's and 90's," he said. "All these clubs are continuing the traditions left behind by the British officers—service, style, ambience, elegance, dress codes, and such. What we attempted here is very much alive in India."
Such dining clubs continue to exist all over India, holdovers from British rule that now fully cater to an Indian crowd. I attended one the last time I was in Kolkata, where I sipped gin and tonics on a worn velvet chaise lounge as I admired the gilded columns and waited for my table. Like many things in India, it was beautiful and stately and slightly decaying, and you could feel the ghost of the British Empire hovering about—with the good sense to know that it wasn't wanted. But America doesn't have the luxury of that context. Here in New York, there's no difference between a British colonial supper club in 1913 and an Indian-reclaimed one in 2013.
Mirchandani also argues that British colonialism is a touchstone for American audiences. "The average American consumer is familiar with it, having studied their own history." he told us. "If you recall, the Boston Tea Party was the throwing overboard of tea shipped by the East India Co., and that is how America came to be a coffee-drinking nation."
That's not a fair comparison (nor is it what the Tea Party was about). We're not talking about Native Americans raiding colonial ships; this is one group of colonialists fighting another. And in between then and now we have almost 250 years of removal from the American colonial era. In India, British rule is a vivid memory for those who lived through it, not old history. Many Indians have no desire to relive it, no matter how innovative the menu. So what kind of message does the Drunken Munkey send to Indians in New York?
This isn't the only New York restaurant to play up colonial kitsch. Le Colonial has been serving its French-Vietnamese fusion in a distinctly colonial setting for twenty years now, and places like Lucky Cheng's and Ninja New York use vaguely "Asian" imagery as a draw.
Questionable as these practices may be, there's clearly a large grey area between ignoring historical fusion and celebrating imperialism itself. Maybe Drunken Munkey is in the middle, experimenting with the aesthetics and service without condoning it. Let's just not pretend that it was romantic for everyone.
Do you think colonial-themed restaurants are okay? Let us know in the comments.