It all began with rumbling stomachs one early (by our standards!) morning. We were done for the day at 9 am and craved nothing but a big breakfast. By some stroke of fate, we ended up at the Irani café, B.Merwan. Surrounded by mawa cake, eggs and coffee, while a discussion about the state of Irani cafés ensued, we decided our quirk of the day- touring five of the oldest joints in the city.
A quick Google search showed that all of them incidentally were Irani cafés and in fact, we were at one of them.
B. Merwan at Grant Road was established in 1914 and as we walked in, we felt we had stepped into history. This quaint little place has retained its character through the years; with the characteristic plastic chairs, mirrors (most Irani cafés used them to make the place look bigger) and marble table tops.
We had heard rumours that by afternoon much of the treasured mawa cakes get sold off. Thankfully, we were on time and the sweet smell of the day’s lot of baked goodies assured that we would warm our bellies soon.
B.Merwan has kept its menu the same since the past 97 years. Unlike a lot of other Irani joints, they have not succumbed to selling Chinese food alongside the regular bun maska and khari (that makes us think; have the Chinese not left any business or commodity untouched in India?).
After the first bite of the mawa cake (Rs. 10), we realized why they disappear by afternoon. The rest of the fare was a delicious double omlette fry (Rs. 15) and coffee (Rs. 14). This was the only day when we followed the advice of the doctor about starting the day with a heavy breakfast (We wish we could start our day at these cafés every day though!)
Next up on our list was Café Wellington, believed to be the oldest Irani café in the city, started in the late 1800’s. Although we had the address, finding this café was a Herculean task as we had to navigate through huge crowds in narrow streets of bazaars which looked straight out of the movies. However, we realized that Old Mumbai is beautiful Mumbai and took it all in.
Just as we had almost given up hope of finding it, there it was. Unfortunately, Wellington is no longer an Irani restaurant. Irani cafés in Mumbai have similar stories to tell. They have either closed down, or converted to Indian restaurants or are just simply dying out. There was a time, during the British rule, when they were found at every corner. It’s sad that the numbers are reducing.
Dejected and very hungry (it had been quite a walk!), we stopped to strategize our next move when fate interrupted again. Diagonally opposite from Café Wellington stood Kyani!
Established in 1904 by Farooq Shokri, Kyani is the oldest existing Irani café in the city. Featured in many Bollywood movies (recently in Dhobi Ghat) and believed to be a favourite of painter MF Hussain, Kyani is a symbol of everything an Irani café is. Checkered floor, tables covered with check or floral print table clothes, the same plastic chairs, an old but jolly looking proprietor seated at the entrance greeting you with a welcoming smile while he orders the ‘dikras’(Parsi for boy, meaning waiter) around, bakery and confectionary items stored in huge glass containers, yummy food and modest prices.
We begin with a portion of potato wedges (Rs.20) and staple Iranian diet, bun maska (Rs. 12). The bun maska is exactly what we had expected; fresh bread with oodles of butter and the wedges don’t disappoint (a little oily though but great for the price!) Next we order chicken cheese bhurjee with pav (Rs. 45) and eat to our heart’s content. We finish off with coffee (Rs. 9) and mawa cake (Rs. 10, and yes, we vowed to eat mawa cake at each of these joints seeing as it is one of the most popular desserts here. Also, it was comfort food as it reminded us of our childhood, tasting as it did like ‘Kismi’ bars).
There was another Irani opposite Kyani back in the olden days called Bastani but it has closed down now just like Brabourne.
We were thoroughly enjoying our tour but after walking throughout the better part of the morning, we wanted to give our legs some rest and catch a movie. And in keeping with the theme of the day, we went to Excelsior Cinema rather than the newer, Sterling.
After the movie, we dropped in next door to Excelsior Café, another Irani joint established in 1919. And here again we found the same checkered floor, the same jolly proprietor and yes, mirrors with menu items displayed.
However, we found Excelsior to be the least Irani looking of all the cafés we had visited and one look at the menu confirmed what we had been suspecting. As we had said earlier, many of these places, in order to sustain themselves have changed their appearance to more mainstream and now serve a menu to go with it. Excelsior is such a victim with Lebanese and Chinese cuisine weighing heavily on its menu.
It is also more expensive than the others with bun maska at Rs.20 and coffee at Rs. 25. However, Excelsior has something the others don’t. Its Bombil fry (Duck) is to die for and at Rs. 130 is a steal! Having stuffed ourselves earlier in the day, none of us had the stomach for it but people at nearby tables said they swore by it.
Since we had sort of taken a step back in time, we decided to walk around and had a great afternoon admiring the architecture of CST station, the Courts, Mumbai University and Deustche Bank while discussing how our city must have looked over 100 years ago.
And in no time, we were hungry again. You know how good food fuels more good food right? (Well, not really, we just needed an excuse to eat :D). Next stop, Sassanian.
Sassanian was started in 1913 by Rustom K. Yazdabadi. What is interesting to note is that Rustom Yazdabadi’s elder brother had started Kyani. And in 1947, Sassanian was taken over by an Iranian who had previously worked as a waiter, cashier and baker at Kyani!
Originally a place serving only bun maska, Iranian chai and omelette (along with other necessities like toothpaste, hair oil, soaps, etc!), Sassanian now serves Parsi, Chinese and Continental food. Wait there’s more. Salads and sizzlers and pizzas too. We call for the famous bun maska (Rs. 12). as we can’t get enough of it. Ummm… delicious would be an understatement. The tea and coffee here is available for Rs. 8 and Rs. 13 respectively. We enjoyed the bun maska with the Irani chai. A must have at one of these places.
The Dhansaak (Veg. Rs. 80 and Non-Veg Rs. 100) is considered the most popular dish on their menu and the Kheema Pav (Rs.30) has also always been a favourite among the customers.
If you’re in a hurry and want to grab a quick bite, Sassanian Mutton and Chicken puff (Rs. 8 and 12 respectively) would be ideal. And if you have some time, then you might want to try the egg items, all between Rs. 15 to Rs. 25, scoring high on our taste-o-meter.
Having nothing to do till dinner, we decided to go shopping to Colaba Causeway. Two hours and a million carry bags later, it was time for a drink. No place better than Café Leopold.
Yes, we know that many of you know Leopolds. But did you know that it is Irani-run? Named after an Australian King, Leo’s opened as an oil store in 1871. It was converted into a restaurant in 1987 and the pub followed in 1991. Although it looks more like an international café now, it does have some remnants of the old: the flooring, the furniture and of course, the ownership.
An hour later, we were excited to visit our last stop, Brittania Restaurant, circa 1923. Though the name was meant to please the British in the first place, little did they know that loyal customers from the Far East would come demanding the Berry Pulao here, every year!
Our journey had to end with the Berry Pulao (made with a secret recipe by Bachan Kohinoor; the owner Boman Kohinoor’s late wife) and a glass of Fresh Lime juice. A warning though, it is a task finishing the pulao on your own! What one gets served is chicken flavoured and cooked to the core topped with flavoured basmati rice dosed with little berries imported specially from Iran. A glass of Lemon juice and you are done for the day.
However, while there, we received unpleasant news. Kohinoor says the place will stay only till he’s alive as his sons don’t want the family business.
Through our day long journey, we had all realized something. Our city, in a way, was built by the Iranis. The roots of Mumbai lie in their heritage. And if we don’t do something about it now, we’ll lose this heritage, this character, this uniqueness and that would be a shame.
We hope our journey will be a little step in preserving that legacy.
B. Merwan- Opposite Grant Road Station East, Mumbai, 400007
Kyani & Co.- J Shankar Sheth Rd, Marine Lines, Mumbai- 400001
Café Excelsior- 23/A, K Nayak Marg, Opposite New Excelsior Cinema, Fort, Mumbai, Maharashtra 400001
Sassanian Boulangerie- 98, Anandilal Podar Marg, Near Gol Masjid, Marine Lines, Marine Lines, Mumbai- 400001
Leopold Café- Shahid Bhagat Singh Road, Apollo Bandar, Mumbai-400039
Britannia & Co.- Wakefield House,Sprott Road, Mumbai-400038
-Master Blincca, Master Dhoro Zoro and Master Gayu Panda
(Pics courtesy Master Dhoro Zoro and Master Blincca)