Isn’t it strange how one goes through life thinking that things will always be the same , that they will never change ? Who would think that Irani restaurants , once so plentiful in Bombay , would become an endangered species ? In their heyday in the fifties, there were three hundred and fifty of them ; today there are twenty five or less.
The reasons for their disappearance are many.
The main reason is that the children and grandchildren of the original propreitors do not want follow in their footsteps. Running an Irani restaurant is a labor of love ; it involves very long hours , a lot of hard work and the profits are hard earned. The youngsters , unlike their ancestors, have acquired an education and have many other career choices. Many of them hanker to go abroad. Not for them the drudgery of running a restaurant ,and who can blame them?
Secondly , the changing tastes of the public and increased competition from other types of restaurants have made the Irani restaurant an anachronism these days. In earlier times,during British times and even shortly after Independence, the public’s taste ran to blander foods ; the khari biscuits and other snacks that made up the bulk of the Irani menu were fine . Even the lunch dishes like fish and chips reflected British tastes.Nowadays, the public prefers spicier food and is willing to pay more for it. The main competition for the Irani restaurants comes from Udipi restarants which feature hearty, spicier fare such as idli sambar, medu vadas, Mysore Bondas, dosas, uthappams, upma and the like. Udupis also offer a full vegetarian plate meal with rice puris / chappatis, sambar, rasam , two vegetable curries , pickle , papadums amd yoghurt which makes for a very affordable lunch. Thus they attract customers for breakfast and lunch as well as for snacks. The Irani restaurant relies mainly on dispensing snacks and tea. Even when it comes to tea, it faces stiff competition from tea stalls like Shankar Vilas which offer many varieties of tea in a roadside setting.
Rising affluence and changing social trends also seem to have worked against the Irani restaurant. Fifty years ago, students had little pocket money and, besides, boys and girls did not hang out together. Today the young are much more affluent and the two sexes mix more freely. The corner Irani restaurant has no charm for them and they prefer something not so down- market. Thus they hang out in more trendy places like Barista or McDonalds which cost ten times as much but which they can now afford.
Increasing rents, the higher cost of labor and shortened hours have also taken their toll of Irani restaurants. Some have tried to survive by serving beer and Chinese food and others have morphed into liquor bars but many have given up the struggle and closed down.
Surprisingly, Irani restaurants seem to have flourished in other cities , particularly in Hyderabad which now has about a hundred such establishments.Of course, these Hyderabadi outposts differ significantly from their Bombay cousins though they still have the old-time bentwood chairs , fondly known as ” Welcome chairs”. (Why ? I have no idea). One difference is that you can have sweet-salty Osmania biscuits with your chai. Another is that, in some establishments, a corner of the restaurant is given over to a paan shop. Many of them feature the famous Hyderabadi biryani and an extensive menu of Hyderabadi dishes. For instance , the upscale Irani Chai in Jubilee Hills has a full menu of Hyderabadi specialties including various types of kebabs, mutton chops, fried mutton and Bhuna Gosht ( roast mutton), Dum ka Murgh, Achari Murgh, , Baghare Baingan etc. Another unique feature is that it has an outdoor section where customers can try a hookah with a choice of various aromatic mixtures. Poona ( Pune) has it’s share of Irani restaurants though they too are a dwindling breed. Cafe Good Luck used to be famous for it’s Muttton Kheema but I believe it recently closed down.
The powerful hold that Irani restaurants have on the Bombayite’s imagination is reflected in the number of sites about them . The most extensive is definitely www.iranichaimumbai.com which gives the individual histories of several establishments, replete with photographs and interviews with the owners. Another , by Homi and Diane Limbuwala is www.homilimbu.com and features a Google map of Bombay showing the location of the Irani restaurants that are still in business. I was thrilled to note that Koolar and Co and ‘my’ Cafe Gulshan are still around.
I will always remember Koolar and Co. in the Kings Circle area , round the corner from the old Aurora Cinema, because of what happened when I went there a long, long time ago with my friend Jaidev. We had ordered a plate of mutton samosas along with our chai and they came to the table accompanied by the usual bottle of vegetable ketchup. Though red in color,vegetable ketchup contains no tomatoes , having been made with bananas / pumpkins which are cheaper. (A Filipino version known as Fruit ketchup is available in Asian stores ). The ketchup was diluted beyond belief and we used it liberally. Imagine our shock when we were told we had to pay extra for the ketchup and wound up forking out twice as much for it as we did for the samosas. Can’t be too upset about it; we did use a lot of it .
I have fond memories of Cafe Gulshan and the next time I go to Bombay, I must pay it a visit. It was located down the road from where we used to live and I must have gone there hundreds of times. As a very young boy, I went there for the cakes, splittiing them in two horizontally to make them last longer and saving the cream topping for the last. In my college days , I went there for chai and bun maska , occasionally for an aamlate , along with my buddies Jairam, Ramu and Vasu. It was there that I had my first cigarette, having a cuppa chai afterwards to mask the odor. One advantage of buying a cigarette there was that I could buy a single cigarette each time so that there was no telltale cigarette packet to give me away to my parents.
Of course there will be some changes at Gulshan , perhaps a lot of them. The two brothers who ran the place were old even then, more than fifty years ago, and have long since gone to their reward. Even Ali, the son of one of them , who occasionally manned the counter, must be in his mid to late seventies. My own ‘ posse’ has also scattered. Vasu is still in Bombay but Jairam makes his home in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Ramu lives in Chennai. When I sit there , in Cafe Gulshan , eating my aamlate and drinking my chai I will look around and remember the good old days . Jairam, Vasu and Ramu won’t be there but perhaps , in some dim corner, I will see a group of youths who will remind me of us ,the way we used to be .