When diners sit down for their meal at Ancient Spirits & Grille, a new Ayurveda-inspired restaurant and cocktail lounge in Philadelphia, they’re met with questions a bit more personal than “still or sparkling?”
Diners scan a QR code that launches a quiz on their phone with a few questions about their mood, how they’ve been sleeping, their fitness level, and their digestion. These answers are then used to generate a menu featuring customized food and drink options meant to optimize their personal wellness.
At 7,000 square feet, with five dining rooms and three bars, Ancient Spirits & Grille is a big, splashy restaurant. The stylish space belies a deeper mission: Bringing the practice of Ayurveda, India’s traditional health and wellness system that uses food as medicine, to the masses.
“Ayurveda as a system is about keeping body and mind in balance,” says Syam Namballa, Ancient Spirits & Grille’s co-owner and a first-generation Indian immigrant. The serial entrepreneur already owns a chain of restaurants, House of Biryanis and Kebabs, with locations across Pennsylvania and New Jersey. An adherent of Ayurveda himself, he knows how powerful the wellness practice can be. “It’s physical, emotional, and behavioral. It’s not religious — it’s a science. And it starts with what you eat.”
The quiz diners take upon arrival is designed to reveal their Ayurvedic dosha. There are three doshas — vata, pitta, and kapha — that represent different body types. Each dosha has certain dominant elements that need to be balanced by eating foods associated with the complementary elements to achieve overall wellbeing. It’s a high-tech way to introduce diners to a healing tradition that’s been practiced in India for thousands of years.
For example, if the quiz reveals that your dosha is “pitta,” a fiery constitution, your personalized menu might include the duck breast served with a rosemary-plum chutney and parsnip-potato puree — because ducks are water birds and water can help balance fire. And it likely wouldn’t include chiles or other hot spices, because these ingredients could leave your already-fiery system out of balance. If the quiz shows that you’re more of a “vata” dosha, expect a personalized menu with “warming” properties that balance the “airy” qualities of a vata, such as heirloom carrot soup spiced with fragrant ginger and cilantro and enriched with coconut. According to Ayurveda (or at least the restaurant’s app), this meal should leave you feeling energetic, bubbly, enthusiastic, and friendly — qualities of a vata in balance.
“People really enjoy taking the quiz. It’s fun,” says Namballa. “They’ve never had this type of experience before.” Namballa hopes he can inspire a large, mainstream audience to learn about the benefits of Ayurveda by giving them a taste of the tradition with this new restaurant concept. And any diner who may prefer to skip it can choose from the full, uncustomized menu. They’ll still get a nourishing, Ayurveda-inspired meal.
Given Ayurveda’s roots in India, the food at Ancient Spirits & Grille isn’t necessarily what you would expect. Instead, Namballa applies Ayurvedic principles to European cuisine. Though many people associate Ayurveda with specific Indian dishes like kitchari (a stew of lentils and rice), it’s really more about choosing ingredients that balance your body type than eating specific foods.
In spite of the focus on holistic wellness, nothing about Ancient Spirits & Grille screams “health food.” On the menu, you’ll find crisp bourekas (a savory pastry) filled with duck confit and crème brûlée for dessert. According to Namballa, it’s more about bringing an element of holistic health to the indulgent experience of a night out at a restaurant. It’s not a spa — it’s a place for having fun.
This flagship location is actually just the beginning of Namballa’s ambitions for this concept. He envisions the brand will expand and eventually include many more cities, bringing the benefits of Ayurveda with it everywhere it goes. Pre-pandemic, there were even plans in place to open near Times Square in New York, and Namballa is still thinking big for the future. “I want to make this a major national brand,” he says.
And though the past year and a half has been tough on the restaurant business in general, Namballa has an entrepreneur’s ability to see the positive side of any situation. He thinks the timing might be just right for a concept like his.
“We’re in a very unprecedented time, but it’s perfect for holistic health,” he says. “And the first step of a holistic lifestyle is to eat well.”