Kathmandu’s restaurants struggle to cope with the new normal

Sunny Mahat

Sunny Mahat

Kathmandu’s restaurants struggle to cope with the new normal

Restaurants are struggling just to survive. Many of them may never open again. Even Thamel’s Buddha Bar, with its two-decade-old legacy, is operating with under half of its 18-member staff

It’s 5 pm on a Friday and Thamel is deserted—a shock to someone who has been frequenting the ‘entertainment district’ of Kathmandu for a little shy of two decades and has never seen a dull evening, weekend or weekday there. But given what we are all grappling with right now, it shouldn’t have surprised him as well.

A walk towards the iconic Narsingh Chowk reveals further desolation. A few tourist-focused stores were open but without a single customer in sight. And the restaurants, bars and cafes that at other normal times would be pulsating with early birds on the weekends enjoying happy hour menus now have their shutters closed—some forever.

A familiar face stands at the small channel gate of the famous Buddha Bar. The guard gives a hint of familiarity, yet is not fully inviting. The person behind it points a radar gun on the forehead and then takes out a large bottle from which he squeezes a few drops of sanitizer into the hands of those wanting to enter.

Upstairs, it’s dark, the traditional vibrancy of Buddha Bar’s Friday night over the past 20 years completely missing. Bhupal Magar, the manager, who has been employed there for 13 years, informs they only opened that same day for takeaway and deliveries only. But since it was impossible to drive away regular patrons who showed up, they were allowed in for an hour.

“We have completely sanitized the place and are taking all possible precautionary measures,” Magar says, pointing to his staff in facemasks and face-shields. So how much business did the restaurant do on that day? “Zero,” Magar says. “We are yet to make our first sale.”

Buddha Bar’s is a representational tale of the many establishments in Kathmandu, which had mushroomed in the past few years as the capital adopted an eating-out culture. But with the lockdown, which has lasted well over three months now, they are struggling just to survive. Many of them, we fear, may never open again. Even Buddha Bar, with its two-decade legacy, is operating with less than half of its 18-staff team.

The owners of the Buddha Bar might have backup finance and an understanding landlord to get through these hard times and at least retain a part of their long-serving staff. But the same is not the case for other establishments in the neighborhood.

Kailash Shrestha, co-owner of the Grasshopper Cafe and Bar, another name that dates back over 20 years, is skeptical about his business. The iconic Grasshopper, which had just shifted to Thamel from Basantapur in December 2019, was only just picking up business at the new location when the Covid-19 outbreak hit. Now, with a six-figure rent and many expenses to bear, the future for Grasshopper—which survived the political revolution of 2000s, the great earthquake of 2015, and the Indian embargo—appears distinctly dark.

“We know a few places around Thamel are reopening—at least for delivery and takeaways—but it is not feasible for us,” Shrestha says. “Our business runs on live music and till we can do that, there is no point in opening.” Shrestha adds that Thamel without tourists is as good as dead and the management of Grasshopper is on a wait-and-watch policy for the next 2-4 months. “If the situation does not improve till then, we might have to close the business for good,” he says.

While a few establishments around Thamel—mostly small fast-food joints, takeaways, and coffee shops—have opened, most other places have completely shut down. A drive through Jhamsikhel, Durbarmarg and Lazimpat, other popular areas for eating out, shows closed shutters, and empty dining areas in the few that were open. Facebook and Instagram ads show more and more restaurants opening for takeaways, but amid an economic crisis, taking enough orders to sustain might be difficult for most of them.

At the Attic Bar, which recently shifted to Gyaneshwor, things look slightly better. As the property is spacious, Attic does let the customers dine in, with due precautions. “We had only opened for the takeaways and deliveries, but we could not turn away regular customers,” the management says. “We have also started getting requests for small gatherings of 40-50 people, but we are not taking them at the moment.” But there are venues that are already hosting small parties of 50-100 people despite the government order, the management informs.

Epidemiologist Lhamo Y. Sherpa is at first shocked that many restaurants have started allowing dine-ins. She thought it was only takeaways and deliveries. “If the restaurants serve inside, it is risky business,” Sherpa says. “Since you don’t put on masks to eat, and as these are closed spaces, people are at risk.” Sherpa acknowledges the struggle of the restaurants but suggests only the establishments with outdoor dining spaces serve customers for now.

The battle for survival is intense among thousands of businesses in Kathmandu, and for hundreds of them, the battle is already lost. With Nepal still not reaching the peak of the infection yet, by the time all this ends, many familiar names in the hospitality industry could forever vanish.