Islamabad’s food is terrible, and posh restaurants cannot fix that

Published: June 13, 2017

We are enthused by black burger buns, or ice-cream shaped like pancakes.

The people of Islamabad are deprived of good food, and as a Rawalpindi-based critic, I promise not to take too much pleasure in this declaration.

We are all aware of our guests from Lahore, our undisputed food capital, being notoriously hard to impress with nearly any kind of food found in Islamabad. Islamabad is a young city, and has not had time to evolve its own unique cuisine and celebrated eateries as many other cities like Karachi, Multan, and Rawalpindi have done in the last 100 years or more.

Islamabad, true to its modern self, has wholeheartedly adopted the global trend of ‘culinary gimmickry’. We are impressed by burgers and shakes that are shockingly huge, or adorably tiny. We are enthused by black burger buns, or ice-cream shaped like pancakes. We are easily enamoured by dynamic desserts, like an extra-terrestrial chocolate, something that smokes, whistles, and spurts a small fountain of ganache before the customer, who gazes upon the spectacle with child-like wonder.

This is not an unexpected trend. Social media has ensured the transformation of every user into a perpetual performer. When you enter a restaurant, your 516 Facebook friends follow you in to watch you perform at the table.  Visual appeal takes precedence over taste. Food is not just about the joy and nourishment it brings you, but the social value it adds to your life.

This trend is not limited to Islamabad in any way, and has been spreading just as swiftly through MM Alam road. What places Islamabad at a particular disadvantage is the fact that it never had a strong foundation of good cuisine in the first place to counteract this unpalatable trend. Those rose within reach of iconic foods like Charsi Tikka, Butt Karahi, Student Biryani, Kareem samosas, were able to strike some balance between culinary showmanship and plain good taste, while Islamabad was overrun by a virtually unopposed cult of presentation.

The only thing Islamabad’s largely well-to-do populace has known, are ad hoc eateries that win you over with Instagram-worthy décor and food designs, even before one factors in the cost and quality of the food. In the higher socio-economic stratum, the city simply has almost no precedent for wholesome, affordable food to which new upscale restaurants and their patrons may look up to.

Speaking of décor, our elite’s obsession with truck art must stop. We are the class of people who would rarely deign to see the inside of an actual dhaba and bless those underprivileged shopkeepers with our business. But let there be no shame in the wholesale appropriation of their cultural heritage to cover up the death-defying walayti (foreign) blandness of our upscale cafes and restaurants, selling a glass of lassi for Rs240 plus tax.

These extravagant cafes and restaurants are frequented by the same smug people who deride the less-refined Pindi-boy class, while also tripping over each other to revel in the art and cultural practices of those very same paindus. By what sorcery do you get to mock them and be them at the same time?

It would be unfair to deny the existence of both old and upcoming eateries in Islamabad that serve great food at a reasonable cost. The popularity of local breakfast spot, Cheema and Chattha, seems well-deserved. Hong Du Noodles, an authentic one-dish restaurant on Hilal Road, is a refreshing newcomer. A bowl of daal chawal (rice and lentils) in F-10 Markaz is a serious contender to any claim of desi culinary superiority laid by a kitchen in Rawalpindi. A curious food item consisting of sausages and French fries rolled up in fresh naan may seem precisely like the sort of ‘gimmick’ I was deriding earlier, but it works somehow! It’s affordable, tasty, hassle-free food, unless you consider the hassle of almost sentient sauce-drenched fries fighting to escape your naan and dive onto your lap while you eat.

There are enough decent eateries dotted around this city to give us hope. However, Islamabad is still a city of restaurants that bank on a moneyed citizen’s sense of curiosity and wonder, more than one’s sense of comfort.

While there has been an explosion of upscale cafes and restaurants in the last 10 years, Islamabad hasn’t spawned many cultural icons like Savour Foods, that bring together people of all classes, and that too originated in College Road, Rawalpindi.

And no, elite tea houses that play nostalgic Pakistani music, while soothing our post-colonial senses with European décor, do not fill that tall order. Somehow these are metastasising to other cities too.

Islamabad needs a new crop of restaurants that aims for something higher than catching the eye of the fickle upper class; for it’s only a matter of time before your clientele flocks over to a new restaurant with a prettier molten lava cake.

We need more places that are accessible, affordable, and have cultural appeal that outlasts the thrill of their novelty.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat

A medical doctor and bubble-wrap enthusiast from Rawalpindi, who writes mostly about science and social politics (and bubble-wrap). He tweets @FarazTalat (twitter.com/FarazTalat)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Parvez

    Have been to Islamabad only a few times and that too in the distant past……it was good to read your take on the eating scene.Recommend

  • Humza

    Superbly written Faraz. Being from Rawalpindi myself, couldn’t agree more, especially the facade of truck art and similar decor and then charging extravagant prices for food that’s cheaper else where.Recommend

  • Marl Brando

    Now I want an afghani burger…Recommend

  • Riz1

    Couldn’t disagree more with what you have written. I shared the article on a food group and the response was totally opposed to your views. You have simply failed to acknowledge the diversity of cuisine due to your bias towards local food and are also ignoring the fact that Islamabad is a much younger city. In spite of that Islamabad has the most evolved food scene with authentic cuisine of many parts of the world. If you want a karahi or nihari then just go to Aabpara, Peshawar Morr, Melody or Karachi Company. Being a Pindi boy, you should have already know that! Recommend

  • Atif

    Never agreed that Lahore is our “undisputed food capital”. But it is unfair.Recommend

  • Haris

    Lahore is nowhere near the food scene in Karachi. Karachi is heaven for every/any foodie.Recommend

  • http://www.twitter.com/nidarasheed Nida Rasheed

    Went to Hong Du two weeks ago. Got food poisoning. Food tasted awesome but they need to work on the hygiene standards a bit. Recommend

  • https://insta724.com/ideas/beach beach photos instagram

    We are easily enamoured by dynamic desserts, like an extra-terrestrial chocolate, something that smokes, whistles, and spurts a small fountain of ganache before the customer, who gazes upon the spectacle with child-like wonderRecommend

  • Faisal Suhail Butt

    Well Said Bro!Recommend

  • Observer

    Islamabad food lacks taste. Even people of Islamabad and Rawalpindi do not know what tasty food is. I have my whole family members livings in Islamabad and Rawalpindi and i used to visit it after every 3 to 6 months since forever. I live in Lahore. Even Karachi food taste is good. BBQ Karachi at Clifton is very good. Lahore is excellent. But unfortunately condition of restaurants is awful offering good quality and tasty food in Lahore. Lahori restaurants lack family touch. Food is available for guys only. Islamabad has the infrastructure but lacks taste. Which i think they will catch in few years, then Islamabad will be the undisputed champion in this category.Recommend

  • Rida Ali

    You wrote my heart out. I’m a Lahori married in Isb and yes I love food but sadly 60 percent of my salary gets spent on the food here most of which I don’t even like. Sick of trying up new places every week with a hope of finding a food worthy of going back for. So far only Chattha’s (of Cheema and Chattha) have touched me like no other since my love for desi food naturally. The rest are either too expensive or have nothing new to offer besides burgers and cliche Continental cuisine or are just.. bad. Also your article missed the trend of newly opened Lahori franchises in ISB i.e. Jade Cafe, Yum and English Tea House. Whats sad is that even though they are few of my favorites back in Lahore but here their charm OR taste have left me disappointed as they again are trying to fit in that elite class of restaurants in ISB which are all show and money with no emphasis on food.
    Anyway since I am and will always be a foodie i will keep looking for food here.Recommend

  • Zaraf Shan Asad

    Exactly my thoughts. Recommend

  • Patwari

    [Hard to say whether this is a restaurant blog, or a running, meandering,
    bleeding social commentary on class..upper, middle, lower, rock bottom.]
    Gosh darn ! There are people living in Islam-basti ? …er… sorry…Islampur.,
    oops! Islamabad. Shocked to read that !! Thought it was Afghan bastis end
    to end including Nawaz bin Salman bin Abdelaziz bin Sharif bin Panama,…
    his clan, his in laws, his supplicants and a few judges who call themselves the Supreme Court of Pakland…all have their tents pitched there. And the Kuptaan known as UTurn Khan lives there too. He has his container. Across from a running sewer which is called a canal.
    And if a glass of lassi costs Rs. 240, then you should know that you are paying for the ambiance, the table cloth, the napkins, the silverware
    [not the plastic kind] the electricity, the cooks, the waiters, the managers
    and the rent, etc. etc.
    If the price of Rs. 240 grabbed your attention, fixated you, then you don’t
    belong there, and should not have gone there in the first place.
    There are many fine restaurants that cater to every pocketbook. Everywhere.
    Does Karachi has it’s own cuisine? No it does not. It’s an International city.
    Of 25 million people who all brought their epicurean tastes with them.
    You can find Gujrati, Sindhi, Balochi, Pathan, Punjabi, Chinese, French
    Thai, Burmese, Japanese, even Hindustani thalis !! All there to enjoy.
    And you can take a boat cruise in the bay and have your fresh fish
    cooked right before your eyes. Half a day or full day cruises. available.Recommend

  • Hasham Ayub

    Trust me isloo food is better than gaddhay ka gosht

    Recommend

  • Karachiite

    Islamabad seemed to me like a dead place when I visited last year… and the few live places which I found there, were damn so expensive.Recommend

  • only truth is nature

    Kitchen Cuisine ,Olive garden,Virsa,1969,Offer tasty food.Khewa and Kishmish are also good enough.and offer nice food.Food in Multan and South Punjab is very good. .Recommend