Irani cafes and I. . .

Right from my childhood at 233 Khetwadi Main Road in South Mumbai to this moment, Irani Cafes have been a part and parcel (takeaway?) of my life. At least three of them from those good ol’ days are extant just a five- minute walk away from my childhood home which unfortunately is extinct.

The closest to the now non-existent centre of my erstwhile existence, New Yazdani Restaurant, diagonally across Dreamland Cinema is now a liquor bar. This restaurant used to be a regular first port of call whenever I accompanied my father to the nearby Grant Road market, usually on a Sunday morning. I used to coax at least a rupee worth of boiled sweets out of him every time. A minute away from New Yazdani is Café Mazda Restaurant at the corner of Pauwala (literally unleavened bread maker) Lane and New Charni Road (now Raja Ram Mohan Roy Marg). I don’t remember ever stepping into this eatery as a child or as a grown-up, come to think of it.

In the opposite direction on the same road
at about the same distance is Cosmopolitan Restaurant & Stores at the junction of New Charni Road and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Road (earlier known as Sandhurst Road). We used to sometimes do emergency shopping there: eggs, butter, loaves of pau (unleavened bread) supposedly a Bombay specialty, khara (salted) biscuits and stuff like that.

Its next door neighbour is Famous Pharmacy under the same Irani management. The distinguishing mark Cosmopolitan and Famous shared was Mr Muchchad (Rustom Khodabux Irani), the unsmiling but jovial man with a gargantuan moustache who worked behind the counter at both the places. We used to rib him about his proud possession. He took it in his stride unsmilingly.

The Irani Café we Mankars occasionally went to on weekends was Café Darayush, quite close to the Central Cinema. Now it is a liquor bar, restaurant, bakery, pastry shop, all-in-one. In those days (I’m talking 1940s), they used to serve home-made ice cream made in a hand-cranked ice cream maker. Darayush then used to have “family rooms” with swinging half doors allowing a measure of privacy to courting couples. Marathi short stories of that era have quite a few references to this feature of the Irani Café. Later in the 70s, an eatery much favoured by courting couples as well as Blitz’s Rusi Karanjia was the open-air one storied Café Naaz on top of the Malabar Hill. Commanding an awe-inspiring panoramic view of the Queen’s Necklace, it used to serve piping hot mutton samosas to die for and even beer. Naaz closed just at the fag end of the last millennium

Going back a few decades, though, guess what scuttlebutt of yore offered as the inside secret of the refreshing Irani chai? Opium lacing, believe it or not. About as convincing as the use of pau to pollute well water and convert those who drank it to Christianity, what? That brings me to the all-time favourite Irani Café of mine. Café Excelsior opposite the New Excelsior Cinema near the Victoria Terminus (now Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus). Although they serve decent Mughlai and Chinese fare, my favourite dish there is the simple Mutton Sandwich which I take away often enough even now. My other favourite takeaway Irani café is Sassanian for mutton and chicken puffs and garlic bread. I started frequenting it after the closure of Bastani opposite Kyani at Dhobi Talao.

If you’ve been wondering why this Bombay bloke has not mentioned even once brun pau (hard brown bread) smothered in maska (butter), the Bambaiya fad food for slumming preferred by the denizens of Page 3, the answer is he simply doesn’t fancy it. But somebody close to him does. Yes, whenever our son Ashutosh, who lives and works in New Jersey, drops in to see us, one of his must-visit spots is Sunshine Café at the junction of Babasaheb Jayakar Marg (Old Thakurdwar Road) and Jagannath Shankarseth Marg (Girgaum Road). That’s very close to where we live now. This restaurant with an attached beer bar also sells bread, eggs, butter, cheese, milk, pastry and so on. We shop there occasionally.

And, if you haven’t still had had your fill of my geographically, chronologically and palatably mapped memories, here is the parting shot. About eight months after I joined an advertising company in 1976 that was situated in Kitab Mahal above Café Excelsior, I fell ill. During convalescence, I grew a beard which is extant even today albeit in an abridged avatar. This is what came out of a close encounter of the real kind in an Irani café immediately after the said beard’s debut:

a case of mistaken identity
summarily dismissed

i met a woman
with gaps in her grin
mad enough to mistake
me for saint francis

my bald pate and beard
were the clues
she said

i soon showed her
the error of her ways
by refusing to grant
her the boon of a measly
cup of tea

surely i argued
saint francis’s munificence
cannot stoop
so low

P.S.: Famous last words supposedly heard in a Mumbai Irani café: “Khaya piyaa kuchch nahin. Sirf galas todaa. Barah anna” [Ate-drank nothing. Only broke a glass. Collect 12 annas].

Copyright © 2008 by Deepak Mankar. All rights reserved.
IMAGES, top to bottom:- Deepak Mankar with sister Malini, Bombay ca 1938
- Cosmopolitan Restaurant and Stores & Famous Pharmacy, cnr.
New Charni Road & S V Patel Road, ca 1980

- Rustom Khodabux Irani, Cosmopolitan Restaurant and Stores, ca 1950
- Detail from Map of Bombay, Imperial Gazetteer of India, 1909
- Advertisement for Cafe Naaz, ca 1965- Bastani, Dhobi Talao, ca 1980


Anonymous said...

Hello Deepak

A Bombay friend of mine just forwarded me your blog. I lived in Bombay '61-'64, and again in '75-'80 (worked with you in Everest).

Enjoyed walking down memory lane and recall eating at some of your places.. One of my favorites remains Cafe Leopold on Colaba Causeway, and I lived for a year just 2 samosas away from Naaz.

FYI I am a proud, card-carrying anti-Starbucks crusader !

Sonny Dugal
Charleston, South Carolina, USA

subs said...

You got me going donw memory lane. I am NOT Bombayite( I like the word Bombay) though in enacular I say Mumbai.
My love was the Irani food nd espeially the Chai. Most of them as mentioned by you have closed but I MISS THEM A LOT.
Whenever Iwas in Bombay I used to frequent these cafes and today it is only booze in their place. I still remember the one near the Dadar station.