It’s no contest, really. Year after year, Vij’s tops the category of best Indian restaurant in Vancouver in the Georgia Straight’s Golden Plate awards.
Although some readers might take the results for granted, any restaurateur will tell you it’s not easy to stay at the top of the fast-moving restaurant industry. Co-owners Vikram Vij and Meeru Dhalwala have done so since they opened Vij’s 20 years ago this September. So as Vij prepares to launch a new restaurant in Surrey at the end of this month, the Straight chats with the owners about the secrets of their success.
“Anybody who would look at this restaurant model would say, ‘Are you crazy? This definitely would not work,’ ” Vij says over the phone with a laugh. He’s referring to the policy at Vij’s of not taking reservations—which results in an average wait of 60 to 90 minutes for a table, according to Vij—and offering free snacks and chai to those in line.
But Vij has always done things a little differently. Famous for greeting guests and working the dining room, he doesn’t believe in the typical restaurant-industry separation of front- and back-of-house. “I’ve always treated people as if they come to my house,” he says. “If you came to my house for dinner, I wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I’m just doing the cooking; I won’t get you a glass of wine.’ ”
Vij takes a hands-on approach because he’s passionate about introducing the cuisine and culture he loves to diners. Vancouverites, he notes, have come a long way since Vij’s opened two decades ago. Back then, he says, Indian food was considered “ethnic”, and most restaurant offerings didn’t go beyond butter chicken and chicken tikka masala.
He knew it was important to introduce the non–South Asian public to Indian food in a way that wasn’t intimidating. “Part of it was meeting people halfway,” he explains, giving the example of describing menu items in relatable terms, such as “wine-marinated lamb popsicles”. He didn’t simply open his restaurant and put his food out there; he guided people on how to order and eat it, roaming the floor and offering suggestions for condiments to match certain dishes. “I was becoming the motherly person, saying, ‘You have to use your hands to eat the lamb popsicles,’ ” he recalls.
While Vij became the face of the business, Dhalwala chose to stay out of the public eye. In a separate phone chat with the Straight, she explains how the two divide their duties at Vij’s and Rangoli, the more casual eatery they opened in 2004. “Vikram and I can both cook everything on the menus,” she explains. “But I’m the one who comes up with the recipes, and I’m the one who’s actually day-to-day running the kitchens. He’s out front doing the wonderful thing that he does.”
From the outset in 1994, Dhalwala wanted to focus on cooking. “As a chef, I was pretty much quiet and kept to myself for the first 10 years. No one practically knew I existed,” she says matter-of-factly. That never bothered her. In fact, she still feels it’s essential for her happiness to do what she does best and let Vij handle the distraction of publicity. She says this allows her to keep her kitchens grounded (there’s nearly zero staff turnover) and stay creative and innovative. (Vij says it was Dhalwala’s idea, for example, to put insects on the restaurants’ menus in the form of cricket paratha in the name of global-food-supply sustainability.)
In the past five or six years, however, she says that media attention has come to her. “I blossomed into that role,” she notes. “But for me, in order to keep blossoming…I know where my anchor is. I have not lost sight of my anchor. And my anchor really is my finger stinking of onions and garlic at the end of the day.”
Vij plays to his own strengths. “He is so proud of being from India and being Indian,” Dhalwala says. “His anchor really is to go out there and showcase Indian-ness. And I think that’s how it works so well between us.”
While the partners share the operation of Vij’s and Rangoli, they’re each running their own side project under the Vij’s umbrella. In December 2012, Dhalwala opened her own restaurant, Shanik, in Seattle. She spends about 60 percent of her time running Vij’s and Rangoli and the remainder at Shanik.
Although Dhalwala says that Shanik is flourishing, she learned quickly that what works in one city doesn’t necessarily work in another. Shanik launched with a no-reservations policy, for example, but it recently started to accept them. Shanik also caters to the Seattle market by offering more vegetarian dishes than Vij’s, as well as a happy hour.
Comparisons to Vij’s were inevitable but still jolting, Dhalwala says. Customers and critics claimed that Vij’s was better than Shanik, or vice versa. “I actually found myself being compared to myself,” she says, mystified. “It was the most weird thing in the world.” Throughout it all, focusing on her cooking has kept her grounded; Dhalwala’s partner at Shanik, Oguz Istif, handles most of the restaurant’s media.
For his part, Vij flourishes in the limelight and can currently be seen as a judge on television’s Recipe to Riches. “The key to surviving in this industry is thinking ahead and remaining focused on what you believe in,” he tells the Straight. To do so, chefs must keep pushing their limits, adding new menu items, and attracting attention.
Vij’s new restaurant, My Shanti (shanti means “peace” in Hindi), is part of his efforts to push the limits of Indian cuisine in Vancouver. “It’s going to be totally focused on regions,” he explains. Although Vancouverites might know the difference between northern and southern Italian cuisine, for example, many can’t distinguish between regional Indian dishes. My Shanti will highlight those.
For example, he feels that the food from the Bengal region is underappreciated: the mustard oil often used in preparing it doesn’t get the same glory as the olive oil used in Tuscan cooking. So My Shanti might feature fish that’s lightly pan-fried in mustard oil. Because the restaurant will make use of local ingredients—and serve only B.C. wine and beer—that Bengali fish could be sardines from B.C. waters.
Vij describes My Shanti as “a really warm, cozy kind of restaurant”. The casual spot will be open only for dinner and will be less expensive than Vij’s, with mains running about $16 to $19. Vij says he chose South Surrey’s Morgan Crossing area because there weren’t a lot of independent restaurants there. Surrey residents were already driving to Vij’s in South Granville, and South Surrey has “a huge clientele that loves Indian food and loves Indian flavours and has travelled”.
This fall, Vij and Dhalwala are planning to open the new Vij’s restaurant at Cambie and West 15th, a project that has been delayed for two years. It will retain the same menu as the current Vij’s, which will get a new concept. The pair haven’t yet decided what that concept will be. “We just go back and forth with ideas,” Dhalwala says.
Perhaps 10 years from now, Vancouverites could be casting their ballots for the city’s best Bengali or best Goan restaurant. Odds are good that a Vij/Dhalwala venture would win it.