Chai Pani, Meherwan Irani’s Indian street food restaurant, reopened March 10 in downtown Decatur after closing March 1 for an overhaul of the menu and interiors. The James Beard awards semifinalist for “Best Chef Southeast” threw a Holi party to celebrate a fresh start for the seven-year-old Decatur restaurant, complete with complimentary pani puri, a photo booth, and Bollywood music.
Irani opened Chai Pani in 2013, two years after he opened the original restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina. While Asheville may be the first, Irani sees the Decatur Chai Pani as his “flagship” restaurant — and he says it was time for a much-needed update.
Late last year, Irani says he began to feel as though Chai Pani had lost focus on the original premise behind its food: an unhindered exploration of the vast cultural diversity of India and Indian street food.
“I started thinking we were taking things for granted here, always keeping it the same with a jumbled menu of greatest hits,” he tells Eater Atlanta. “Then I went to Gujarat, a part of India I had never been to before, and it reminded me of why I opened Chai Pani and the original essence of the restaurant.”
Gujarat is the westernmost state in India, and about 17 hours north of Irani’s hometown of Ahmednagar in Maharashtra, east of the state’s capital city of Mumbai.
The trip reintroduced Irani to the notion that food in India is always evolving, especially Indian street food. Taking favorites off the Chai Pani menu might hurt the restaurant in the short term, but Irani believes it’s necessary to continue telling the whole story behind the street foods of India in Decatur.
“We’re not going to wait another seven years to change the menu. We’re going to push the regionality of India even more than before, and have a different conversation about the foods of India.”
Diners now order their meals at the table during lunch and dinner, rather than at the counter, allowing them to explore the menu without feeling rushed. Both menus feature new dishes, like a canteen-style Desi pizza, mutton pepper fry using local goat, shallow-fried prawns koliwada, and the vegetable-laden pav bhaji served with a side of soft bread rolls for sopping. Dishes such as gobi Manchurian, a Desi-Chinese dish created by Chinese immigrants who settled in Kolkata, speaks to the diverse regionality of Indian cuisine.
The traditional thalis have been removed from the menu, while dishes like Chai Pani’s popular butter chicken are served a la carte. Some favorites return, including the Sloppy Jai sandwich made with ginger and tomato-infused lamb hash, and the SPDP — puffed puris filled with sweet yogurt, green and tamarind chutneys, potatoes, and onions.
“We’ve added some new dishes that may be like, ‘whoa, what is this,’ for some people, but we have to keep pushing the envelope,” Irani says. “Indian restaurant menus in America have traditionally seemed over-explanatory, including our menu. We have to move past having to continuously explain our food in order to move forward.”
Part of pushing Indian food forward for Irani means hosting more community events and collaborative dinners at Chai Pani to highlight India’s culinary diversity — state by state, even village by village — in order to have serious conversations about the depth and breadth of Indian cuisine.
The updated space sees the once deep, earthy reds and browns transform into white walls accented in golds, bright blues, oranges, and pinks and crimson trim. New tables and chairs have been purchased, with custom tabletops made by a carpenter in Asheville.
Irani retained some of the original artwork from the previous design, and held onto old photographs of people from Ahmednagar, which adorn the walls and shelves around the restaurant. The lobby is now home to a new mural of a tiger as well as items Irani purchased during his recent trip to India.
Chai Pani reopens for dinner tonight with a Holi celebration at 5:30 p.m. Lunch resumes Wednesday, March 11, at 11:30 a.m.
Take a look at the updated lunch and dinner menus:
Open Monday - Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 11 :30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.