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Britannia Cafe, Ballard Estate, Bombay
One day, an old Irani Café (born circa 1930, Bombay), creaking slightly at the seams, made the long trip from Bombay in 1970 to London in 2012. Tired from the long journey, it shuffled into an empty space in Shoreditch and made itself comfortable. This old Café had for some time been maintaining correspondence with its slightly more showy cousin who had made a similar trip and had found a home in Covent Garden.
However, while the cousin in Covent Garden had worked hard to polish, primp and style itself, this Café was less concerned. It knew instinctively that the layers of imperfection and eccentricity built up over the many years of serving customers in Bombay weren’t merely clutter to be cleaned up and scratches to be polished out, but were in fact its very memory and character. It decided to leave its disheveled corners right where they were, as little reminders of home.
Gradually, as it grew to know and love its new community, it realised that it felt very much at home in it. The customers enjoyed hearing its stories of old Bombay, many of which were even true. They liked the faded pictures of the relatives on the walls. They smiled as they gradually grew to know the quirks of this old Café – which seemed constantly to be hankering after a lost mid-century Bombay. They seemed to care little that the shininess of the Covent Garden cousin was absent.
And most of all the Café loved serving food and drink with so much enthusiasm. The food which came quickly out of the open kitchen. The Lamb Raan which had been cooked overnight and seemed completely at home in a burger. The warm baked biscuits and Keema puffs, just like those still being served at Sassannian Café in Bombay. The endless cups of chai, the best thing to revive energy levels on a wilted Tuesday afternoon. The bar, which served the most delicious and sincere old cocktails – Flips, Gimlets, Juleps and Sours, felt even a bit pre-‘47.
A new home
Brunch on Sunday would be deliciously lazy, laced warmly with the aroma of the bakery. Lunch with colleagues on a Wednesday, busy and brisk, waiters bustling on to the verandah with trays of abundant food. Afternoon chai would provide a calm refuge from the East London street. Meanwhile, dinner and drinks on a Friday or Saturday night would see the place at its liveliest, buzzing with Londoners coming to a good old knees-up hosted by the eccentric old Café.
Throughout, the Café smiled inwardly to itself. It was never happier than when it was being true to itself and serving its guests – sharing its love for Bombay, serving its food, telling its stories. And before too long, the Café began to feel as if it had always been there wedged comfortably into Boundary Street, accumulating its own East London layers.
Marine Drive, Bombay, in the late 1930s
Controlled by the Portuguese in the 16th, taken over by the British in the 17th, it became a major trading hub by the 18th and the commercial capital of India by the 20th. It has always been home to migrants from different communities, a lively cosmopolitan pot of traditions and cultures.
Now, of course, it’s a global megacity, leading the charge of the brave new India into the 21st century. Yet, exciting as modernity is, when we make the time to peer back over our shoulders, we notice that valuable traditions are often lost in the frantic rush of progress.
The old Bombay Cafés – or Irani Cafés – are one such tradition. They were mostly opened in the late 19th and early 20th century by immigrants from Persia, who had been coming to India for over a thousand years. These cafés were part of the fabric of urban life, functioning as an eating, meeting and drinking place for people from all communities, for rich and poor alike. They all had that distinct comfortable look of faded elegance. Britannia and Leopolds are good examples that are still around. Café Naaz is one that was much-loved but that closed in 1999.
Saloni Shukla, a Bombay filmmaker, has talked about these cafés:
“The Irani cafes have been the familiar abode of wealthy businessmen, lawyers, struggling rickshaw pullers in need of a quick refreshment to whole families for whom the local Irani could be a place for lovely lunches or dinners. For the hooker who worked the street it was a place of refuge, too…anyone, irrespective of religion, caste or creed could wander in and find comfort in the energy of the place.
An old advertisement for Café Naaz
A place where friends would chill, couples would court, business deals were signed and reforms were made by the great leaders of the past. A place where artists would get inspired, writers would find their characters and your old uncle could just sit back, drink a cup of chai and read the Sunday Times. A place where kids would lie to their parents and go eat and hang out with their mates. A place where stories began. Now, these places that have survived in our city for well over 100 years are close to the lines of extinction.”
Dishoom draws heavily from the heritage and tradition of the old Bombay Cafés. We’ll be welcoming people from morning until night, serving tasty breakfasts, quick lunches, early evening drinks and snacks, or a sociable dinner with friends. Our all-day café menu takes inspiration from the food of Bombay.
There were around four hundred of these cafés in Bombay at their peak. Now, sadly, less than thirty remain. We’d really like to capture some part of this disappearing tradition in Dishoom, and share it with Londoners.
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