Recently two of the city’s popular Irani landmark eateries clocked a century. It’s time to raise a toast but to also ponder their future, and the need to preserve such culinary institutions
CAFé Excelsior and Café Royal. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you would have spotted, or even better, eaten at these two iconic spaces. For us, the former was always a stop before catching a film in our college going days where single-screen shows meant paisa vasool viewing. The rolls, the brun and the hawa of Bombay that flowed inside (never mind the incessant honking right outside) added up to creating an impression of the city, quite literally brewed in a teacup — no-nonsense, charming and bindaas.
Café Royal was quite the opposite. Way too ‘hip’ for us as a forever-broke college student, we were introduced to its legacy and by default, its food during our early days as a journalist. Ah, coming to think of it, it was the venue to treat some of our pals after that treasured cheque was in hand at the end of the month. The sizzlers won our hearts. So did the nostalgic vibe, which, despite the air-conditioned interiors, didn’t take away too much of the vibe. There was a special something about the place. There was a renewed buzz when it was chosen as the venue where former US President Bill Clinton decided to chat with the city’s movers and shakers. In an area that’s choc-a-bloc with plenty of competition, they’ve managed to hold their own.
Both remain beacons of hope in a city that’s fighting hard to hold on to its true character — from its heritage structures to its culinary landmarks and neighbourhood footnotes, each carrying a little tribute or a chronicle. In a previous mention within the template of this column, we had written about the slow fadeout of the original Udipi across the city and its suburbs. The Irani café/restaurant is also facing a similar challenge, and possibly a bigger hurdle due to the waning interest among the next generation to carry on the legacy, and of course, all the woes that come with a managing an institution, especially in some of the coveted parts of the city. The few that remain are holding out, one brun maska-chai order at a time. Last year, Paradise’s tragic closure had many a Bombaywallah shed a tear, and rightly so.
While some of these eateries have managed to fight the tide by reinventing their menus, others continue to stay firm with the original core. Then, there are the clones floating around, while others who have piggyback ridden on its fare, are using it as inspiration to draw in the crowds.
With the city in the grip of culinary invasions of all kinds; look around, there’s everything from Levantine to Japanese and Sri Lankan, it’s necessary to ensure the original folk aren’t left high and dry. The city cannot afford to, really, because the brick-and-mortar space and its charm is what adds to the melting pot that is Bombay
With the city in the grip of culinary invasions of all kinds; look around, there’s everything from Levantine to Japanese and Sri Lankan, it’s necessary to ensure the original folk aren’t left high and dry. The city cannot afford to, really, because the brick-and-mortar space and its charm is what adds to the melting pot that is Bombay.
How do we ensure we keep them alive? Simple. The next time you spot an Irani café around a corner (where else!) in SoBo, drop by, soak in life in slow-mo, order a chicken roll or a puff, sip on the Irani chai and biskoot, and do your bit. It’s a start.
mid-day’s Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city’s sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana