Metamorphosis 1 : Cafe Universal, Fort

For those of us who have been able to change with the times, the future of our businesses is bright

My name is Gustad Dehmiri. I was born in Yazd, Iran in 1944. My fathers name was Framroze and my mothers name Keshwa, and we are four girls and two boys in our family. All of my sisters are living in Canada, one of my sisters was here, she has expired now.
I came to India 1985, my father was a partner in Leopold in Colaba for a long time. He was young when he start working in Leopold, maybe 20 years old. I still have a share in Leopold, and this place here, Café Universal I bought some time back. It was a simple beer bar and chai and bun maska place only. I renovated the place, totally changed it to beer bar and full restaurant.
The owner of Café Universal was Behram Radmanesh, today he is 75, 80 years old, all his family is in America, so he has gone, he go to the States and stay there, once a year he comes back here for a holiday, then goes back because nobody is here to look after him.
Leopold was started in 1871 – first it was a drug store, then it changed to a wine market, wine shop, then my father and my uncle started it for a restaurant about 100 years ago, in 1907 I think.
So Leopold’s was started by our family, my father, my wife’s father and two other partners – one by the name Rustam. And one by the name of Sheriar, they were co-partners, running that place, and now they expired, and today Sheriar’s sons Farhang and Farzadh and myself, my brother and my wife Thrity we are the partners of Leopold’s today. Farhang and Farzadh manage Leopold’s day to day though.
Leopold’s, like this place Café Universal, was just chai, bun maska – just a typical old Iranian restaurant. Yeah, that is the story of these old Iranian restaurants; chai, bun maska, khari biscuit, pattice and all that. After that when the beer was more freely available in Bombay people realised aelling beer is much better profit than selling just chai!
Leopold actually, the Leopold was the name of the King of Belgium, ok, the King of Belgium was named Leopold and from that, in the British time it is named by them, Leopold Restaurant, a lot of people liked royalty in those days! Times change.
So when I came to India in ’85, we changed the food, this, that and people started coming, as a tourist centre. Everybody coming from abroad directly from airport to Leopold and they know their friends are going to be there, and from that Leopold became well known. It is written the name of Leopold in guidebooks, the whole world, everywhere, in Canada, in US, India wherever you go you open the book and Leopold’s name is there, that’s why it became so famous.
Café Universal was old and run down by the time I bought it; they were a different kind of customer. They were working on the docks, most of them. But now these docks are closed here, they shut down. They went to New Bombay.
Iranis have been hardworking people, only the thing is that the young generation, they didn’t want to go after their fathers, like in restaurants, because they study so they say ‘why should I come and work in a chai restaurant with dad?’
They maybe wanted to change the model, change the design, because still you see there are a few of that old type of Irani restaurant, old chairs and tables, and I told some people “why are you not interested in remodelling the place?” They say ‘no, if we make better the tax man will come and say “oh, from where have you got this money?”’
But for those of us who have been able to change with the times, the future of our businesses is bright.
From an interview with Gustad and Thrity Dehmiri, Mumbai, April 2008
IMAGES, top to bottom:
-Gustad and Thrity Dehmiri, Mumbai, April 2008
-Cafe Universal, Shahid Bhagat Singh Road, Fort, Mumbai April 2008
-Gustad Dehmiri and Behram Radmanesh at Cafe Universal before renovations, ca 2004
-Advertisement for Leopold & Co., in Hormusji Dhunjishaw Darukhanawala, Parsi Lustre on Indian Soil, Claridge, Bombay, 1939.
-Leopold's, Colaba Causeway ca 1990 courtesy Brian J McMorrow
-Cafe Universal, Shahid Bhagat Singh Road, Fort, Mumbai December 2009

1 comment :

Sharanya said...

To whoever runs this website--

I cannot tell you JUST how grateful I am to you for keeping such a database online. People are forgetting that such a rich culture exists in the city, and one by one the cafes will fade away and only a small section of society will realize the loss. Thank you for making SO many more people aware of this. The Irani cafes are supremely close to my heart, and it pains me to tears to realize that they are a fading culture. This website will definitely go a LONG way in helping the culture stay alive. Thank you. SO much.