When the pandemic shut down Adda’s famously busy dining room, the restaurant went out to embrace the street, neighborhood, and community.
By Roni Mazumdar as told to Zagat Stories
All Zagat Stories are written by our editorial team. This story is presented by our partner Seamless. Celebrating the Perks of being a NYer, Seamless is delivering New York restaurants to your door with Presto! Resto! curated by The Infatuation—including Adda. Find out how to win a visit. Plus get free delivery on Seamless orders from Adda between 4/23-5/2 using code ADDA.
Ever since the pandemic hit, we realized one thing—circumstances are going to continue to change. Rallying the team was important for us—making sure that morale stays at a reasonable place, because that was the biggest challenge.
So we did a few different things. We teamed up with World Central Kitchen, Rethink Food, and Off Their Plate. All combined, we were turning out somewhere between 1,500 to 2,000 meals a day for our frontline workers between the two restaurants, Rahi and Adda. We realized there was a natural need in the community, and we started delivering some of these meals individually to different places.
A restaurant has a role to play in all this—especially a neighborhood restaurant, where the neighborhood relies on it. We remain part of the fabric of the community. We are not just there as a transaction. What is our strength at this moment, and how do we share that strength with everyone around us? We realized that we needed to activate our own storefront. In May 2020, we put up a grill right outside Rahi. At Adda, we created an entire street food counter outside.
So there’s a person grilling right outside and you see the smoke, you smell the food, you can come by for pickup. People started eating off the trunks of their cars. Funnily enough, it reminded me of India, because if you go to parts of New Delhi or parts of Bombay, there are all these amazing foods that you can find on the streets. People literally pull up, and there’s a guy that’s going to come out and put a newspaper on the back of your trunk or the hood of your car. That becomes your makeshift table. You put the food right there and you enjoy it. To see that happen here in New York was just crazy. It brought a very different flavor to New York.
Adda is all about how approachable a venture can be, and how personal it can be. How do we celebrate so many imperfections and the glory within that? India is like that. I don’t think there is a human being out there that’s flawless. Too many of us look at the flaws. For once we felt like we had the freedom to celebrate those flaws, to celebrate the imperfections, and go on this collision course and design something.
On one side of the entire restaurant are these wallpapers that my wife created. They took her well over six months to create. There are over 1,000 stories that are there—newspaper prints, cutouts—that she started curating. I didn’t think it would be a famous wall. The word “adda” means a hangout spot. Adda could be a noun or a verb. The verb part of it is literally a bunch of people getting together. They hang out and they chat and they eat. Well, we’re eating. What are we chatting about? What have we been talking about for the last hundred years? “This is the new prime minister.” “This is what happened.” “India won this competition, or we didn’t win.” All the pros and the cons and the good and the bad. It wasn’t about curating this perfect image of India, but it was about reflecting reality in many ways. Halfway through I told my wife, “I think we should take the entire restaurant space and do the entire wall with this.” She was like, “You’re joking.”
The inspiration came from these local stalls and canteens in India that have all these posters up. Maybe somebody loves this actress who’s so beautiful, and the shopkeeper wants to put up a picture of her, or of a tennis superstar. They take those newspaper prints and slap them on the walls. I’ve grown up seeing that. Over time, it literally becomes this crazy wallpaper-like structure. To me it feels very normal. And when I saw the design for the Seamless Presto! Resto! truck version of Adda … wow. It looks incredible!
What we kept on trying to do was say, “There is a way that we can rise above this. There’s a way that we can fight for this and actually not let this entire situation shove us in a corner.” As New Yorkers, we fight back. So we did. And that really changed many things.
We had two problems. At Rahi, we didn’t do too much delivery because the food was designed for dine-in. At Adda, it used to be so unbelievably busy that by 5 or 5:30 p.m., we used to shut down delivery because we couldn’t handle it. But here was a totally different thing. So we said, “Well, what works? How do we make sure that people are comfortable? What will travel well?” We reworked the entire operation. We came up with these fun things that people could just pick up and go, like a fried chicken sandwich that became all the rage. We had no idea that this was even a trend. And being part of the food council at City Harvest, we decided to give back by offering $2 from each fried chicken sandwich and a drink to City Harvest to support hungry New Yorkers.
Adda’s lunch business had to be shut down since there was no one in that neighborhood, and the college across the street was closed. During these times, delivery became a massive lifeline for us. Seamless brought the most orders through our doors. We went from limited deliveries to that becoming one of the biggest revenue streams.
Going into the summer, I was very optimistic that during winter there wouldn’t be a shutdown. I really didn’t think that was possible, because if it did, it would be absolute pandemonium because now you have nowhere to run. You don’t have those outdoor seats. You don’t have the weather in your favor. What will you do? During the summer we lost our outdoor furniture and tents at least twice when storms blew in and destroyed everything.
I’ll never forget when there was a couple sitting outside. It’s pouring rain and they’re under this umbrella. All around them it’s flooding, and they’re continuing to eat. And I’m like, “We could easily have you guys wait inside and we can continue the meal afterward.” They were like, “For a moment, we feel like it’s a normal time. We’re just going to stay here.” Their feet are getting wet, their clothes are getting wet, and they’re just pretending like it doesn’t matter.
For delivery, we ended up creating a concept called the biriyani bowl. Biriyani is this one-pot recipe. We didn’t plan on launching this in the middle of a pandemic—it’s been something that was in the works for at least a year and a half. Imagine a lasagna where you layer all the pieces and everything is done and sealed with bread. It gets delivered to your home in these clay pots, and you finish it by baking it for about 45 minutes in the oven—and the freshest, most authentic version of biriyani comes to your table. And that started to really pick up. People started ordering all the way from Westchester County. People were driving in. Everyone wanted something new, something different, some way to elevate their experience at home.
I’ve been in New York for over 25 years, for most of my life. New York doesn’t let you back down. We continue to draw from that energy. I am confident we’re not only going to come out of all this, but we will come out stronger. That’s what we’re gearing up for. We’re really excited for the future. When we have that communal experience of breaking bread together—this is one of the core aspects of us as human beings. This is primal.