From being a common puri-bhaji stall, the 171-year-old Pancham Puriwala has emerged as a landmark restaurant. It is on the bucket list of almost every tourist today.
You often hear of the pancham thali being served on most tables here. It may sound like any other dish from the menu, but for 56-year-old Sandeep Sharma, the sixth generation of the Pancham Puriwala family, it is special. It is named after his ancestor — Pancham Sharma, the man who started the eatery in 1848. “The dish is a tribute to him,” says Sandeep.
Located opposite Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, formerly VT Station, it is a small, no-frills eatery with an unassuming entrance and a narrow staircase to a mezzanine floor. Yet, the place is brimming with diners. The nondescript eatery boasts some famous diners too — everyone from Mahatma Gandhi and Rajesh Khanna to the late George Fernandes have had a bite here.
A peek into the past
“Pancham came to Mumbai in 1848 from Agra on a bullock-cart and started this stall opposite the station with the aim of feeding hungry passengers and also earning a living,” says Sandeep.
Five puris , as pancham means five, with dry potato bhaji and a red pumpkin or bhopla sabji , was the only meal served initially. Passengers, traders and visitors devoured it hungrily, right from 6 am when the stall opened.
According to Sandeep, Gibbet’s Pond, which was used for public executions, was opposite their shop. “People would gather around this place, also called Phansi Talao, to watch executions.”
Slow and steady
Today, the eatery is open from 8.30 am to 11.30 pm every day. “Over 500 people eat here on a daily basis and we serve fresh food through the day. The puris are made in batches, as and when needed. I taste the food every morning before it is served,” Sandeep explains.
“The restaurant has also stuck to its tiny format for years. In 1962, my grandfather, Badriprashad, added a few more tables, as the place was filled with Mumbai Port Trust workers.”
For years, the menu comprised just five puris with two vegetables, including a sada and a masala puri , with salted and sweet lassi .
The recipes were crafted by Pancham, a foodie himself, and are meticulously followed even today. The interiors are simple with basic steel furniture and no air-conditioning. “The idea is to serve good food in a clean ambience. We do not wish to be fancy. My father once advised me never to change anything if it is doing well and I follow that. People come in here for this experience and enjoy the affordability too,” Sandeep reasons.
The only renovation has been the addition of a range of gas stoves in the 70s, replacing the old kerosene stoves.
In the 1980s, when Sandeep came on board, he introduced a few dishes in the menu for the sake of variety. “My father agreed and I added chole and kadhi chawal , as diners had been requesting a rice dish on the menu. A year ago, we introduced a thali with five different kind of puris — plain, beetroot, spinach, paneer and masala, to appeal to the younger generation.”
Sandeep, with his cousins, Anupam and Akshay, manage the business today. His uncle, Amarnath, comes once a week, “more out of habit”.
After completing his Management studies, Sandeep says that his father gave him a free hand. “I was not compelled to join the business, but was asked to come and help for a few hours. But the business is addictive — being here every day, interacting with customers, learning about food, all drew me in and I have been here for 35 years now,” he says with a smile. Sandeep now dreams of handing over the baton to his son Shivang.
The show must go on
A plate of masala puri-bhaji, which used to cost four annas in the 1860s, now costs ₹60, while the elaborate Pancham thali comes at ₹130.
The affordability and reputation of the eatery continue to draw in droves of diners, with peak hours seeing some of them patiently waiting around for a table to free up.
“Our aim is to feed as many people as we can. Be it a street-side vendor or a high-flying corporate executive, everyone should be able to eat here. That is what Pancham Sharma dreamt of and we want to keep that dream alive,” says Sandeep.
In this fortnightly column, we take a peek at some of the country’s most iconic restaurants