India’s culinary landscape is dotted with long standing and traditionally strong restaurants that carry a legacy of an interesting culinary history. Visiting these out- of-the-ordinary places is like taking a slice out of history as they invoke nostalgic memories of a bygone era, drawing generations of food lovers to experience their unique ambience and unforgettable flavours.
The food industry has seen quite a remarkable evolution in the last decade. This evolution is fuelled by the increasing globalisation, changing lifestyle of people and desire for experimentation. Indian consumers are becoming more discerning and demanding. To cater to this growing need, restaurants and fast food chains have mushroomed across the country. Yet many restaurants that date back several decades are still popular and continue to be frequented by a cross-section of consumers – an indication that they continue to be relevant. Not only do they remind us of a bygone era but also of the Old World charm that they exude.
“The reason for their continued patronage is the niche that they have created for themselves over the period of time in their offerings and their high quality of food with many signature items,” comments Samir Kuckreja, President, National Restaurant Association of India and Founder & CEO, Tasanaya Hospitality Pvt Ltd.
The Indian palate is still evolving as Indians are showing a gastronomic inclination towards Japanese, Thai, Mexican, Lebanese, and other cuisines as well. “There is an increasing trend of chef-owned and chef-driven restaurants opening across various cities. Such restaurants are the ones that can, over time, evolve into long standing properties,” predicts Kuckreja.
A country’s culinary history needs to be preserved. And India’s culinary landscape is steeped in history. What’s more, it continues to be alive and engaging. Restaurateurs who have preserved the essential facets of their restaurants that popularised them, do face modern day challenges as customers these days are spoilt for choice; they are more aware, more keen to experiment with new cuisines, and want value for their money (this includes good food, good service, good ambience). So they have to keep innovating to remain relevant, even while preserving the charm of yesteryears and their traditionally-rich past. “This sometimes is a challenge for restaurants that have a history, and thus might find it difficult to keep themselves updated,” feels Kuckreja. But having said that, it is also true that most of the old restaurants have changed hands, or the next (more modern) generation now holds the baton. It is up to them to preserve and carry forward their timelessness.
“There are legacies behind many of these historic restaurants and there are many interesting stories and great recipes which sets them apart in many ways. Yes, I agree, that modern culture and food trends have changed with the inflow of many international QSRs and café chains in India in recent years and there are many local players who are following suit,” says Arun Chanda, chef at Ahoy! Asia, a Delhi-based restaurant known for its Asian cuisine. “The business inflow of these restaurants has also taken a considerable hit, compared to a few years ago, but one still prefers to go to some of the good ones, especially when there is a special occasion to celebrate with family and friends.” he adds.
In the following pages we have featured some historic restaurants and cafes that hold a special place in the culinary map of India, and are a distinct landmark. Food lovers across generations keep going back to them to experience the ‘something special’ that they offer.
United Coffee House, Delhi
United Coffee House (UCH), the flagship restaurant of United Group of Restaurants, was founded by Hansraj Kalra in 1942. Even before Delhi became an ultra-nurturing food city, UCH had created a coffee house culture for politicians and bureaucrats.
The special coffee menu at UCH ranges from Indian Origin Peaberry to Aged Indian Monsoon Malabar; and from Doppio to Frappe Caramello and Affogato. Besides a cup of stimulating coffee, tea connoisseurs can enjoy great brews that range from Darjeeling Second Flush to the Nilgiri Winter; and from Kangra Oolong to Orange Pekoe with Honey and Ginger.
A colonial backdrop gives UCH a sense of timelessness. The high ceiling restaurant with chandeliers is matched by stately furniture. While the coffee-tea culture remains its strength, about 1,500 guests throng the 175 seater restaurant everyday to savour a menu that has grown over the last seven decades. “In the first two decades of our journey, the focus was on creating a rendezvous, where our customers could savour blended coffee and tea with in-house savouries and north Indian delicacies,” says Akash Kalra, Director United Group, and grandson of the late Hansraj Kalra; he took charge in 1991.
Moving on, the third decade introduced an infusion of Continental and European delicacies, which opened its door for serious diners. During the fourth and fifth decade, far Eastern and Oriental cuisine became a prominent part of the menu.
Having been listed in most of the travel guides across the world, UCH knew it was time to incorporate signature delicacies like keema samosa and chicken chaat in the sixth decade. Today, its best selling dishes are Keema Samosa and Tomato Fish. All signature dishes sell more than 100 plates per day, and an average meal for two is Rs 2,000.
The restaurant has created a comprehensive menu that draws the essence of European, Western and Mediterranean cuisine. “By the beginning of the seventh decade, UCH became one of the most important and crowd pleasing destinations in Delhi’s historic Connaught Place. Foreigners and the expat crowd became its patrons. The branding of UCH is now focussed to serve tastebuds across the globe,” says Kalra.
Given this diversity, it’s no surprise that the annual business growth in terms of sales and revenue is about 3 to 5 percent, and even goes up to 5 to10 percent sometimes. All through the day, UCH’s chefs dish up everything mentioned in the menu. The current set of chefs has been working here since the last 25-30 years. “Modern day challenges of catering are to maintain consistency, explore new areas and introduce a variety of cuisines. But it’s equally important to rediscover the old menu with good pricing that should interest patrons,” feels Kalra.
British commanders would drop by at Koshy’s in the evenings to pick up roast chicken wrapped in wax paper and sit on the steps that flanked the boulevard on MG Road. The roast chicken was a gastronomic delight. Koshy’s that was set up in 1952, is a place where artists and intellectuals gather for a stimulating conversation over coffee. Expats come for that familiar Brit flavour, while office-goers find it an ideal place for a quick bite. “During World War II, my grandfather PO Koshy set up his own bakery and supplied bread to the Army Base and Defence Department. Bread was made in the traditional English way and was called Army Loaf,” informs Polacherickal Oommen Koshy (aka Prem Koshy) who runs the restaurant along with his brother Oommen Mathew.
That was in the early 1940s after which, the restaurant was established in 1952, and an air conditioned section called Jewel Box was started alongside in 1962. Diners identify it as Koshy’s and they don’t mind spending Rs 800, which is the cost for an average meal for two. That’s because it’s not just the food but a relaxed atmosphere which encourages five generations of food lovers and dignitaries from various parts of the country to visit Koshy’s. “My mother Elizabeth Oommen was an expert at making appam and stew. The late Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi used to come home to eat it,” remembers Prem Koshy.
The menu expanded to include an exhaustive breakfast, lunch and dinner menu, and appam and stew became part of the Sunday morning menu. The restaurant makes the batter fresh and in limited portions. The kitchen was revamped to include stainless steel equipment, though the coffee filter and coffee maker stayed on. Today, chefs who are from two generations, run the kitchen, which has put together 640 recipes (including additives, sauces, butter, etc, it comes to 850).
The Koshy’s family has always had a close rapport with its guests and some have even shared their home recipes with the restaurant. That’s how the restaurant dishes up a breakfast with a Louisiana aroma. Diners chomp their way through toasts, baked beans, fried eggs, sausage, sliced vegetables and French fries. And then there are other popular dishes like mulligatawny soup, fish and chips, which were initially the Brits choice.
Come December and the restaurant unfolds its Christmas menu. Year after year, guests come for the turkey, cakes and a decadent plum pudding richly embellished with nuts.
No doubt Koshy’s is open to introducing a dish or two in its menu, but it has always tried to retain the old cooking techniques. This has worked in its favour. “We had a fully automated bakery way back in 1952, yet we retained the old method of sponge and dough baking,” he reveals. This explains why people drop by for something as basic as two slices of bread with evenly spread butter on top. It’s a great combo with a cup of pure filter coffee brewed without chicory. Koshy’s is a way of life. Prem Koshy and his brother’s sons are preparing to join the family business. That would be the fourth generation in the fray.
Dolly’s The Tea Shop, Kolkata
When Dolly Roy did her schooling in Darjeeling, little did she know that the manicured tea estates around the hill station would inspire her to become a tea professional. “Most of my classmates were daughters of tea producers and managers who used to tell me fascinating stories of tea, and my passion for tea developed,” says Roy.
Her work in The Tea Board of India led to postings in Belgium and the US, where, as a tea ambassador, she promoted Indian tea worldwide. Back at home, she joined the broking house Contemporary Target Pvt Ltd, and worked her way to become India’s first woman tea taster and world’s first woman to become a tea auctioneer.
“The tea taster in the tea trinity is a middleman between the producers and the buyers. The quality of a tea invoice is assessed by a tea taster and accordingly valuations are fixed with advice to the tea gardens and head offices. The buyers largely depend on the assessment of a competent tea taster,” she shares. Her unique positioning was a turning point. “Little more than 25 years ago, being inspired by a French Lady running a cozy tea boutique in Nantes, France, on February 3, 1988, I established my exclusive tea boutique and called it Dolly’s The Tea Shop, which was the first-of-its kind in Kolkata,” she adds.
The tea boutique got support from Bengali filmmaker Aparna Sen and actor Moon Moon Sen. Luckily, the Kolkatans responded warmly to a shop which offered quality tea. “As an entrepreneur and a tea professional, I have put all my knowledge and experience to sell and serve the best quality tea and food products. These have been well accepted, as proved by the longevity of the shop,” says Roy.
The boutique has brewed up surprises such as Ice Tea, a new concept for the Kolkatan. Along with a cup of tea, guests are also treated to Pasta, Fish Finger, Prawn Cutlets and Kebabs. An average meal for two costs Rs 200. Dolly’s veg and non-veg sandwiches are also fast sellers. Other innovations included gift tea packs marketed for special occasions.
The place sports a cozy, comfortable and homely atmosphere, which has drawn innumerable tea lovers and celebrities. “In 25 years I have seen school children mature into university students and become parents. Also, my teashop draws a cross section of clientele from the ordinary to a celebrity, an author, an actor, executives from the corporate world and the consulates. A huge number of my patrons are foreigners as the teashop is on the Lonely Planet and other guidebooks,” informs Roy. “With my knowledge and experience I am able to advise my clients in the selection of teas.”
Leopold Café & Bar, Mumbai
Leopold Café & Bar in Mumbai is on every beer lover’s and traveller’s itinerary as it is one of the best places to hang out for a mug of chilled beer. The cafe’s USP is the 3-ft tall beer tower. This cylindrical pipe-shaped object placed on the table allows guests to fill the pints at leisure. People throng the place in the evenings and weekends for this unique experience.
The French style café has a quaint charm of its own with its old style ceiling fans and bright awnings. Though it serves 333 items including Indian, Chinese and Continental food and sandwiches, beer tops the list. Notwithstanding that, Leopold or Leo as it’s fondly called is one of Mumbai’s oldest Irani restaurants. The Jehani brothers Farhang and Farzad run the place. With time, it has evolved into an ‘institution’ in the city’s central business district of Colaba. A no-frills place, it is a hot spot for tourists, backpackers and students. Much of its history and memories have been preserved in Gregory David Roberts’ famous novel Shantaram.
With an indicative tagline ‘Getting Better with Age’, Leo has an ever growing community of patrons who are known as Leo Poldians. There’s also Leo merchandise like mugs and T- shirts retailed off the shelf. History indicates that Leopold is named after a Belgium king and was founded in 1871 by an Irani family. It began as a wholesale oil store, later transformed into a store and pharmacy, before assuming its present avatar in 1987. At that time, it was Mumbai’s biggest pub, and continues to be the city’s landmark cafe and bar.
Vidyarthi Bhavan, Bangalore
It’s not always that we find a restaurant whose signature dish is masala dosa. This south Indian staple occupies a pride of place at Vidyarthi Bhavan, an eatery in south Bangalore. The restaurant sells around 1,000 dosas daily, which almost double on weekends.
At any time, you can see waiters skillfully balancing 20 plates of golden brown masala dosas in one hand. The dish is a strong draw for anyone wanting to visit the place. The potato filling is nicely cooked with a fine balance of coconut and other ingredients such as fried gram that gives it a characteristic texture. Though there are other south Indian items like puris and kesari bhat (similar to suji ka halwa), dosas top the list. An average meal for two is Rs150 to Rs 200.
Ever since it started in 1943 as a small students’ eatery (from where it gets its name), Vidyarthi Bhavan has become a part of Bangalore’s culinary history. Housed in an old tile roofed shack, and sandwiched between multi-storied buildings, the place still retains an old-world charm. People queue up outside waiting their turn. The food is cooked home style, and without much fuss. “Our dishes are always made and eaten fresh if the real flavour has to be experienced. Ready to eat/cook products are relevant in places/countries where availability of freshly made South Indian dishes are not available,” says Arun Kumar Adiga, partner, Vidyarthi Bhavan.
History has it that Venkataramana Ural, a resident of the coastal region of Karnataka, near Kundapur, Udupi, started Vidyarthi Bhavan as a small canteen to cater to the needs of the students of National High School and Acharya Patashala. Later, his brother, Parameshwara Ural joined him. “In 1970, Ural sold it to my father S. Ramakrishna Adiga and I partnered with my father in 2005. Though the management changed hands in 1970, the name, tradition and recipes have remained unchanged. Our employees stayed on under the new management,” he affirms.
In the last four decades, nothing much has changed except for some cosmetic upgradation about five years ago. When father and son began to renovate the place, they decided to retain the vintage look while incorporating a computerised billing system and automatic dishwashing machines. Probably the only difference is that the firewood used for cooking was replaced with gas burners to make the cooking process faster. “Vidyarthi Bhavan was also a meeting place or an ‘adda’ for writers, eminent thinkers and intellectuals,” smiles Adiga, and adds, “Currently, I am exploring various options and trying out newer tech services in our operations.”