Skip to comments.Mumbai loses its appetite for Irani cafes
Posted on 01/17/2014 10:27:51 PM PST by DeaconBenjamin
MUMBAI: It is a rite of passage for many young journalists and filmmakers in Mumbai. You enter the Irani cafe, take in the atmosphere of peeling walls, old calendars and dusty cabinets, the bentwood chairs and glass-topped tables, the screened-off sections that no one seems to have entered in years and the few people sipping tea or bun-maska. Then you pluck up courage, approach the aging owner at the counter and ask if you can speak to him for a story on vanishing Irani cafes.
It is some measure of the kindness usually lurking under the owners' gruff exteriors that, after mild abuses and assorted moans, they usually acquiesce and give the story: how Iranians came to the city in the late 19th century, drawn by the cotton boom that had enriched their Parsi compatriots who had come centuries earlier; how the new immigrants saved up to open cafes, taking the corner locations in buildings that were felt to be inauspicious by Hindus; how they worked hard running what was often a combined bakery, bar, cafe, restaurant and convenience store; how, regardless of community or caste, everyone who came in was served, and everyone did come, at least until now.
Many Reasons for the Change
There are many reasons they give for why it's changing. Mumbai mostly lives in the northern suburbs now, while the Irani cafes were largely in the south. There is competition from slick new coffee chains and fast-food restaurants - it was a sign of things to come when in 1998 a prominent Irani cafe, New Empire, gave way to one of the first McDonald's in Mumbai.
It is also hard work, to be open through the day, making money from small margins on cake and cups of tea. Younger Iranis no longer want this toil and as the families have grown and split so has the pressure to sell and take their shares - especially when luxury boutiques now pay crores for those same corner locations. It is a process that has been going on for a while now - The Times of India has a story on vanishing Irani cafes from 1977!
B Merwan & Co, a 100-year-old Irani cafe located next to Grant Road station and well known for its mawa cakes and decadently rich mawa samosas, was recently the latest to announce its closure, and it brought forth the usual mourning in the media, both for the vanishing cafes and the fast-changing city.
Irani cafes have become symbols of Mumbai's past, something to be lamented and longed for but not, it must be noticed, actually patronised. People want to film, write and blog about Irani cafes, but actually going there regularly - well, who has the time, or the taste for such delicious, but high-calorie food?
One answer might be people in Gurgaon or London, both places which have seen restaurants open that are, in part, loving homages to Mumbai's Irani cafes. Sodabottleopenerwala is the latest concept from AD Singh, best known for his Olive restaurants. The decor recreates some of the Irani atmosphere with glass-topped tables and tiled floors and the menu offers some old Irani staples, like kheema patties and mawa cakes.
But there are also dishes from other landmark Mumbai restaurants like Bademiya and Haji Ali Juice centre, plus street food staples like grilled sandwiches and vada-pao. "We have woven together many different stories," says Singh, and the Irani cafe atmosphere frames them all.
Dishoom, which describes itself as a Bombay cafe in London, now has two branches, in Covent Garden and Shoreditch. Both are doing very well, says Shamil Thakrar, one of the founders, who worked in Bain & Co before deciding to set up an all-day restaurant-cum-bar based on the Irani cafes he loved going to when he used to visit his family in Mumbai.
"I'm not Irani myself, but I used to love going to the cafes and listening to all those old men who ran them," he says. They might appear grumpy and were forever shouting at their staff, and sometimes the customers as well, but their tea was strong, their cakes were good and you always felt welcome when you went in.
Thakrar felt this was something worth re-creating in London, a city he says is increasingly less friendly, impersonal and stratified by an invasion of the very rich from around the world, that is slowly driving out even the middle class.
The city had pubs, the UK's traditional communal meeting places, but Thakrar points out these tend to serve local communities - "if you're from the community, then they are fine, but if you're not its harder". Irani restaurants, he knew from his chats with their owners, had come up in a Mumbai where eating out was frowned out, not least because of all the caste and community problems.
Yet by being outsiders, coming with no baggage, they were able to position themselves as acceptable to all, and this was what he wanted to do in London. This meant working at it, just as the original Irani cafes had done. One of the disservices that wrapping them up in nostalgia does is to obscure the many smart practices they pioneered to get people in. For example, those screened-off sections marked Family Room might be mostly empty now, but originally they were ways to get women to come to restaurants which were earlier seen as male-only spaces.
All those rules pasted up and much mocked, like how patrons should not comb their hairs at the wash basin or avoid political discussions were ways to teach clients unfamiliar to communal dining how to behave in ways that made them comfortable for all. Juke boxes pioneered music in restaurants (and there were slot machines too, until the Bombay police cracked down on them for contravening gambling laws), and as The Times of India reported in 1955, they were so popular that there were lines to use them - which meant people hung around till their song came up, spending even more as they waited.
Irani cafes also managed a balance between the familiar and different - they had similar features, so people knew what to expect, but each had slightly different menus, quirks in the decor and personalities that came from their owners. Each was different enough for people to pick favourites, unlike the blandly standardised outlets of today's cafe chains. (Another benefit of these loose links, which were reinforced by family bonds in the Irani community, was that they helped the owners come together in lobbying with the municipality).
Thakrar says they have tried to incorporate elements of these practices: "We have had Lakshmi Mittal or David Cameron coming in for a meal, but they are treated the same as a student at the next table having a cup of tea." These cups of tea are always topped up, he says, and no one has to ask for a WiFi password, but they can just sit down and start using it - "its chai-fi", he jokes.
And the two outlets are not identical, with each offering slightly different menus and decor. "We are not trying to create a fake Irani restaurant, but what we want is a homage to their spirit," says Thakrar emphatically.Both Dishoom and Sodabottleopenerwala are doing well enough for their owners to think of opening multiple outlets.
Dishoom has started, and Thakrar says they receive many suggestions for new places to open. Sodabottleopenerwala has also been developed with multiple outlets in mind, and Singh says they could even come to Mumbai. But do the original Irani cafes have a future? Thakrar says it's unfair to expect the owners to carry on, turning down lucrative offers, simply because we want to preserve the past.
But if owners are willing to experiment, they might succeed, he says, pointing to Cafe Leopold in Colaba, famous as a backpacker hangout and drinking place - and for the 26/11 attacks - but originally an Irani cafe, like the others. The owners changed the focus to alcohol and threw out some of the old Irani decor, but it is still a welcoming place, and always doing well.
I became interested in the cakes after reading...
‘Irani’ in India typically implies Persian non-Muslim Zoroastrians.
That would certainly explain why everyone was welcomed.
Do a Cheers like show set in Bombay India in one of these Iranian cafes. That would build the base back. It'd make them seem trendy and hip./I
Thanks for posting this. The tribal solvency of commerce is a favorite subject of mine.