To paraphrase Stanley Kubrick, the truth of a place is in its feel, not in its think. Dad began to take me to Koshy’s for occasional Sunday dinners in the early 90s. He would order a ginger punch and a hot dog without looking at the menu. Looking at the menu was the dead giveaway of a non-regular, I learnt over the years. Additional brownie points were earned when one ordered off-menu items — like the Kerala fried chicken or organic mushrooms. Better still, when the waiter intuitively ordered for you and got it right. I usually have the look that says, ‘I’d like a glass tea, medium strong.’
The iconic restaurant downed shutters for a couple of months at the height of the pandemic but has opened again, much to the relief of its loyal patrons. Considering white bread, white sugar and fried food are now passé, one still hasn’t given up Koshy’s. Its teapots, tablecloths and teak pillars transport you to a time when food and company were to be savoured, as the world paused a while. Speaking of tablecloths, they are not routinely offered and one must earn their stripes. (Or checks — they are gingham after all.) I was once wearing a reddish gingham shirt, and was brought a tablecloth to match. I should have sent it back, but resisted. To my chagrin, a popular illustrator was seated close by. The next morning, I found myself on her Instagram page wearing a Koshy’s tablecloth.
When some of us are to meet, we only agree on day and time; the venue is implied. Our generation tends to call it Koshy’s, though technically Koshy’s is two restaurants — Parade Café on the left and Jewel Box on the right. Most of us only steer left, to the non-AC, noisy, all-day bistro with its askew sepia picture frames and fuzzy radio in the background. You know the non-regulars from how they turn towards Jewel Box during tea-time, ignorant that it reopens only for dinner (in the pre-pandemic era). Or how they stare at the high ceiling on stepping in. Then there are those who come only to use the loo. And those who simply sit and stare — whom the French call seigneurs-terrasse .
The patrons have their favourite tables. The brooding professor, the animated lawyers, the writer, the art collector, the skateboarder and the journalist all stick to their turf. I once requested a gentleman at the next table to turn down the volume on his WhatsApp video. He admonished me with a laugh, “ Iddu sante saar !” (This is a bazaar, sir!) He was right. We acknowledge each other with a smile now, in unspoken camaraderie.
I miss the ambient din these days. At busier times, you strained to hear yourself at lunch, or when the Pride parade moved to Parade’s. Or at late breakfast on Sundays when the congregation usually descends after service at St. Mark’s Cathedral next door. Only on those mornings are appams served with stew. The rush requires you to queue up outside, à la The Breakfast Club in London. You may end up sharing tables too, as you would at Vidyarthi Bhavan.
Christmas decorations come up for a month on December 15 with a special menu that leaves you craving for the rest of the year. Consider yourself worthy if you’ve received hot cross buns for Easter with the compliments of the boss. Good Friday and Christmas are the only two days that Koshy’s shuts in the year. You’ll find us drifting aimlessly then, towards Airlines or MTR perhaps.
We’ve reunited with friends, and separated with some; ruminated alone or celebrated with groups over cups of coffee (and stronger stuff). I was there when a partners’ tiff got almost violent and when a customer brought her violin and played it impromptu. When a regular fell out with his clique, and when another was spotted for the last time after borrowing moneys that remain unpaid to this day. When a waiter scolded a customer for asking him to hurry up, and when another kicked his manager. When the ceiling cracked and the café went into months of renovation. We would then eke out our visits to what looked like a pandal. Prem Koshy, the third-gen owner, was always gracious in acknowledging our solidarity, but actually we knew no other way.
As is deserving of a city’s legend, Koshy’s has sketches, photographs, articles and puzzles constructed around it. Paul Fernandes, Aliyeh Rizvi, Nirlek Dhulla, Nafisa Crishna, Shikha Nambiar and Archana Pereira have all had a stab at it. The late Raghav Shreyas, in his delectable photobook Table by the Window , shot Girish Karnad, Prakash Belawadi, Anjum Hasan and cigarette-totting Preetam Koilpillai sitting by the Venetian blinds (which have since been removed). I’m hopeful of a similar tribute to the waiters of Koshy’s someday.
Cities are often defined by their cafés. As Les Deux Magots does Paris and German Bakery, Pune. If Cubbon Park is the buffer separating the cantonment and the pété (old market area), Koshy’s is the converse. A melting pot for the constituents of the city to come together in a space that is multilingual, conversational and sans moral police. Adda in Kolkata comes close to defining what hanging out at Koshy’s is, but we’re not quite as argumentative. Koshy’s is not OlyPub nor Indian Coffee House, but is yet a bit of both. Its European vibe blends with an Irani Cafe’s fare. And vice versa. That’s the thing with Koshy’s — you can never really put your finger on its pulse and the intrigue keeps you hooked.
As the protagonist in Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar says, ‘The truth is I have no real reason to come to Coffee House.’ The place is, after all, to be felt and not thought.
The Bengaluru-based lawyer is a Koshy’s regular.