When it comes to Kolkata, you can be sure that all your gastronomic desires will be catered to, and with class. And the city keeps on seeing new restaurants cropping up all over every day. Each of these restaurants have something unique to offer, be it quirky decor, offbeat food items, and there really isn’t any cuisine that you won’t find here. And food has become very much a lifestyle product now, and going to certain places automatically puts you in the ‘hip and cool’ category. This is a very evident behavioural pattern when it comes to the youngsters in the city.
‘Eating out’ has become an occasion now, and it is not just about the food anymore, but all the glitz and glamour that eating out entails nowadays.
Now, no one is saying that these new-age eateries aren’t worth their salt, and truly, there are quite a few places that will blow your mind away with their amazing food. And when it comes to food, various trends grip the city and then stay on, hooking us all along. Take for example, the huge number of momo places and Lebanese outlets that have sprung up around the city. And Kolkatans, being voracious foodies, have ensured that these places be taken note of by everyone else. But Kolkata is a city which is steeped in history, and if you look closely, you will see that there are quite a few eateries that are nothing like the restaurants and cafes that we are so used to going to nowadays. The colonial impact on Kolkata was profound, and one of the main trends that the Brits passed on to us were the notion of cabins and cafes, which are restaurants, but devoid of all the glitz and glamour of present day eateries, and serving quite a niche repertoire of dishes that you wouldn’t otherwise find in new-age restaurants. These cafes and cabins have been in the city since the colonial era, but sadly, majority of the Gen-Y know are ignorant of their existence.
The concept of ‘cafes & cabins’ was introduced in the restaurants of the olden times, because restaurant owners wanted to provide privacy to families from the otherwise single or young clientele, who would sit outside. This practice can be seen in Chung Wah restaurant in Chandni Chowk, or Dilkhusa Cabin in College Street. Back then, parents and their children would be made to sit in the cabins, and these cabins were blocked from view by the help of curtains, so that families could enjoy quality time together.
So here’s a look at some of these old-school cafes & cabins of Kolkata, and what they have to offer, and more importantly, what the blissfully ignorant are missing out on.
Every Kolkatan knows Hazra crossing, and it is one of the noisiest and busiest intersections in the city. And Hazra crossing is home to the much coveted Asutosh College, which is a highly esteemed institution and a hive of student activities. But if you look beneath all the crowd and traffic, right opposite to the college, there is a humble little restaurant called Cafe. Now, the image of a restaurant that almost crops up in our mind is that of a cosy, air-conditioned space, with lots of plush furniture and uniformed waiters running about. But the moment you step inside Cafe, you will see that there are just basic wooden chairs and tables, and the place is tiny, capable of seating not more than 20 people, and there is no air-conditioning or any other new-age restaurant ornament, but just regular old ceiling fans and neon lights all around. The setting is so old-school that it can actually remind you of a repurposed living room straight out of a Bangali bonedi bari from north Kolkata! The windows are all grilled up with thick iron rods, which was a typical style of the 1980s and before. Strangely enough, the moment we stepped inside the place, all the din from outside died down, and we felt at home in an instant. Apart from us, there was just another couple sitting at a table on the far corner, and at the end of the room, a tiny square had been walled off to make space for the kitchen, and a boarded up window, on which hung a board which had the menu on it. There were not more than 20 odd dishes on offer, and the prices seemed more than pocket-friendly to us.
There was just one waiter, and we soon got into a conversation with him. His name was Amal Shaw, and he has been working in this establishment from 1977. We placed our orders and while waiting for the food, got to know that the place had been gifted to Amarnath Banerjee back in 1939, and it has stayed in the family ever since, passing hands from one generation to the next. The current owner, Siddheswar Banerjee, was 62 years old, and his son lives in the US now. He was not in, but Shaw filled us in on the details.
There were many nuances in the way the menu had been fixed and the food had been served, which told us of the Englishness with which the place operated. For starters, Cafe opens at sharp 4pm in the evening, and they serve mostly snacks items, and just a couple of dinner dishes. The reason for this is the fact that, back in the colonial days, eating out wasn’t much of a lunch outing, but was more of dinner outside, and secondly, evening time meant tea, accompanied by items such as cutlets and fish fries, which aren’t really heavy, but can really satiate one’s hunger on their way home from work. Another thing which was very reminiscent of British food habits was the fact that, when the tea was served to us, it came in white cups and saucers, and a tiny tablespoon was provided along with it for stirring, which is inherently a very English aspect. These things might seem very insignificant and passé, but the fact that regardless of the city changing around it, time has stopped at Cafe since 1939, and it truly filled us with awe. Apart from the tea being creamy and perfect, the kabiraji or filleted fish in egg batter swept us off our feet, and we had also ordered the chicken stew, which came with fresh toasted bread, and was made to perfection. We rounded everything off with even more tea and some pudding, which was good enough to challenge any new-age bakery from the city, and left us feeling all content and happy.
As you move more towards north of the city, you will come across quite a few cabins and cafes, which have survived the decades since the British left. And one such place is Allen Kitchen. Situated just a few steps from Shovabazar Metro Station, this is a very small and blink-and-you-miss eatery that has been in the city for more than 130 years! And Allen’s is known solely for its chops, cutlets and devilled eggs.
The place is just two rooms, and when you walk into the shop, you go through the kitchen in order to reach the seating room. The kitchen is worked by people who are all well over fifty years of age, and the kitchen is a testament to time, covered with decades-old oil and grimy walls. Even if the kitchen seems turning off and unkempt, the food is truly food from the heavens. The restaurant has tried to keep up with the times, so the seating area has been tiled up with designer tiles, but the furniture is still old, and the tables are made of heavy marble, which reminds us that it is indeed a very old place. Not more than 16 people can be fit into at a time, and it is quite cramped, unlike the open and spread-out restaurants that we are so used to today. We ordered devilled eggs, fish fries and a chicken steak, and here again, there was just one waiter who was very good-natured and answered some of our questions regarding the history of the place. Started by Sir Allen, of Scottish origins, this eatery was located in Allen market before shifting base to Shovabazar for the rest of its journey. Present owners are Dipak and Gautam Saha, and they in turn have inherited the place from their father Jiban Krishna Saha.
The food came, and truly, it was exquisite! The steak was cooked brilliantly well, and doused with liberal quantities of butter and ghee. This is the advantage of old cooks; they do not care much for health and they never hold back! The fish fry was the best that we had ever eaten, and the cutlet was outstanding. One good thing that we noticed here was the fact that, since this was in north Kolkata, and this is where all things old and gold reside, Allen’s had a steady clientele coming in continuously, and can endure another century without a hassle! Enough people know about this place, and it is here to stay.
Right across the street to Allen Kitchen, towards Shyambazar, is another great Cafe that has survived the tests of time. This is Mitra Cafe, and has been in business since 1920. Sushil Roy started this place, keeping in mind that the customers are friends, hence the name Mitra, which translates to ‘friend’ in Bengali. The ownership of this place is right now in the hands of Tapas Roy, grandson of Sushil Roy, and when we stepped in, it became very evident that Tapas Roy, being a man of a more recent generation, has tried to blend in some new-age trends while still keeping the old flavour of the restaurant alive.
There are two seating areas inside Mitra Cafe, and the outer one has very basic wooden chairs and tables, and the food is still served in typical porcelain plates and bowls. But the inner seating space is actually a small cabin, which is fully air-conditioned, and provides some privacy that is absent in the outer seating area. There was also a plasma screen television mounted on the wall, so yes, the place was up-to-date with present day trends.
For decades, Mitra Cafe’s most revered item on the menu has been Brain Chop, which are chops made out of goat brains. Now, this item might just make you feel queasy and ruin your appetite, but the entire city of Kolkata knows just how good these chops are, and every day, even before the restaurant opens at 4:30pm, there are long queues of people waiting eagerly to get their order of brain chops. And it is such as craze that within just an hour, the chops are gone! Unfortunately, we did not know about this, and by the time we reached the Cafe, the brain chops of that day were history, and the waiter asked us to come again next day, albeit a bit early! so we settled into the cabin and ordered mutton stew, chicken pakoras and chocolate puddings, while we chatted up the waiter.
When the food came, we were blown away by the pudding, and ordered even more. The mutton stew on the other hand proved to be a full course meal on its own, and the quantities were way too much for the meagre price that were paying for them. The menu here is a mixture of the typical chops and cutlets and stew, along with present day popular items such as pakoras and biryani. The menu, and the fact that Mitra Cafe has opened up outlets in other parts of the city made it clear that the present owner was a very clever businessman, and knows exactly what the customer wants and how to not go down without a fight, using both old-school and new-age traits.
INDIAN COFFEE HOUSE, College Street
If we are talking about old eateries in the city, then Indian Coffee House warrants a mention, always. Started off in the 1930s, Indian Coffee House always comes with fond memories of hanging out with friends over delicious food, and this is true for almost every Bengali staying in Kolkata. This is a place which has people of all ages going in and staying on, discussing various issues or just plain old gossip or the famous Bengali adda, over cups and cups of steaming tea or coffee.
But what really puts this place stand apart from the rest is the fact that, there’s a vast menu which has an almost endless array of dishes to order from, and the prices are so cheap, that it seems they were set keeping in mind the pocket conditions of a perpetually broke college student! The Coffee House has two floors, rather one floor and a balcony when it comes to seating, and the entire restaurant is devoid of any air-conditioning. But one of the biggest attractions that lure hundreds of people here every day is the fact that, this establishment allows customers to smoke inside, and is probably the only place in the city which has this facility. So endless smokes, tea and conversations- the perfect Bengali idea of spending the evening after a long day at work, or after arduous and boring classes at Presidency University right across the street.
The waiters here are dressed in old-school white attires complete with white turbans, and are very quick to take orders, even though the orders might take some time to come. The fish fry and chicken cutlet are the biggest draws here, and even the mixed noodles stands out, especially because they even add mutton to the typical chicken and egg combo when it comes to noodles. Even though there are scores of tables, we had to wait a significant amount of time before we could find seats, as most of the people who come here keep on ordering and while away time endlessly, discussing a myriad of topics.
Having said all this, it becomes clear that, these old-timer restaurants cater to the basic demand of quality food, and just food. They do not worry about gaudy decorations or expensive furniture, nor do they need themes to jazz up their looks. You go to a restaurant for good food and quality time, and these places all promise just that, and not just good food, but great food. Some of them have been witness to historic meetings between people who mattered in their time, many of these old eateries have seen Naxalite meetings being held inside their cabins in hushed tones, intellectual discussions being held heatedly over strong cups of coffee without any decided conclusions arrived at in the end, and of course, couples and their boundless romances. They all came into being when the British still ruled over us, and they still hang onto many of those English practices, in some small way or the other and people who still go to these places do not feel the urge to ‘check-in’ or blabber about how good their experience was on social networks, and they just go for some peace and tranquil, accompanied by plain old good food.
Kolkata is a city which has endured, and these cafes and cabins have endured along with this old city, and even though they are devoid of any glitz or glamour, they have withstood time for centuries, and maybe, hopefully, if not all, most will still be around for another couple of centuries.
As experienced by Pradyumna Dutta & Mainak Saha