Is there a straight connection between eating out and economic growth? Why is it that the number of fancy restaurants goes up when GDP rises and goes down when it sinks?
Thirty years ago when I started living in my Delhi colony, there was no proper restaurant worth the name, though the place was only a couple of miles from the prime minister's house. That was the time of the Hindu rate of growth and very few people went or could afford to go to restaurants.
Now there are at least a dozen eating places, one posher than the other, and though I do not see the prime minister in any of them, I do come across a few ministers having a whale of a time dining on sushi and fried octopus. Our GDP rate of growth is twice what is used to be thirty years ago and there are ten times as many restaurants in most cities.
London is a good example of what GDP does to restaurants. When I first arrived there just after the last war had ended, there was no Indian restaurant worth the name--not even a decent canteen in the Indian high commissioner's office. In fact, there were few eating places anywhere, only some scattered run-down dhaba-type stalls serving inedible British food, if you can call it food. It was cheap though, and you could get a cup of passable coffee for two pence, that is, more than a hundred cups per pound sterling.
Britain has boomed under Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair and you don't have to go through the Economist newspaper to see what it has done to their eating habits. Within a square mile of Piccadilly, there are maybe a thousand restaurants, perhaps half of them serving masala chicken tikka, whatever that means, and Britishers salvating all the way to Buckingham Palace as they gorge on it. When we were there last, I had to spend half an hour looking for fried-fish-and-chips place, which we located in a dingy corner of Leicester Square, itself a dingy place.
Singapore, where living standards, which means GDP per head, have reached New York levels, has so many restaurants, all of them serving excellent Chinese food, as you would expect in a Chinese city, that very few people cook or eat at home. You don't have to, because you step out right into a mouth-watering array of American chop suyi and chicken fried rice as soon as you come out of your house. Singapore, it is said, has more restaurants per square mile than dhabas in Ludhiana, though, I suppose, things can get monotonous, if you gorge on the same stuff day in and out.
According to my theory, which holds good for most places, the number of restaurants increases thrice or four times as fast as GDP. To be precise, if GDP doubles, the number of restaurants goes up eight times. If GDP trebles, the number of eating places shoots up nearly 30 times.
There are now 20,000 Indian restaurants in Britain and maybe a thousand Chinese ones. They are not really cheap-I paid a whole pound, which means nearly 80 rupees for a samosa at Victoria station, and 1,600 rupees for what it would call a simple meal of curry and rice at an eatery in Regent Street. But the Britishers don't mind. The average wage is almost Rs 2 lakh per month in London, which means that even a young typist can afford eating out every day. And what London does today, Delhi does tomorrow, or is it the other way round?