Why Chennai is now India’s trendiest city for shopping, dining and nightlife

Jan 9, 2018

The capital of Tamil Nadu has been quietly but surely shaking off its conservative image, and embracing all that’s globalised, progressive and effortlessly on trend.

Centuries ago, The Bard wondered breezily what difference a name could possibly make. Well, if you look at this city, lots, apparently. Something seemed to have snapped in its psyche when its name changed from Madras to Chennai in 1996. It was as if, after grappling with the initial surprise, it decided that a new name deserved a new face. And it has never looked back since.

Certainly, the Chennai of today is not the Madras I grew up in over three decades ago. One of the largest cities in India, it had always been comfortable in its label as one of the more conservative ones. And then the name change happened – in a sudden bid to shake off the legacy of centuries of colonial rule, several Indian cities reverted to their pre-British names more than two decades ago. And just like that, Bombay turned into Mumbai overnight and Madras found itself a new avatar.

As it turns out, Chennai has been quietly ditching its old-fashioned image – but like everything it does, it has been doing so discreetly.

The party has begun

the velveteen rabbit bar chennai

My first reintroduction to this uber-cool city takes the form of a night out at Sudaka, a pub that invites Chennai-ites (as locals are known) to experience South America. And the city has been responding to its smoked cocktails and tequila shooters with great enthusiasm.

Its Nancy Sinatra, in particular, is a hit with its fusion of black and white rums and vanilla syrup, and the lingering flavours of smoked spices. Its menu – from Argentinian braised lamb turnovers to a Peruvian ceviche of pink salmon and prawns in a lime, watermelon, red onion and cilantro marinade – is a far cry from those of filter coffee and masala dosa (rice and lentil crepes with a potato filling) in the Madras I remember from my youth.

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A few evenings later, I feel a bit like Alice going down the rabbit hole as I walk down the narrow steps leading to The Velveteen Rabbit (above and main photo), a new bar in the heart of town. This cosy space in the basement of L’amandier, a popular restaurant, is strewn with mismatched tables and chairs.

Owner Nidhi Thadani shares that the casual space has gone down well with locals, who like the idea of a place where they can kick back and be themselves. And it can only help that its walls are lined with quotes – life lessons, really – from Margery Williams’ popular children’s book about a stuffed rabbit, after which it is named.