On a walk down the oldest parts of Mumbai, south central Mumbai to be precise, one cannot miss the streets populated by old restaurants. Located in Ballard Estate, Fort, Colaba and Churchgate, these Irani restaurants are reminders of a bygone era. They continue to do brisk business, but face stiff competition from newer, more popular joints that have mushroomed.
Run mostly by third-generation proprietors, the Irani restaurants are unlikely to hold out much longer. The restaurants are dwindling in number as owners choose to sell them or shut them down. One must remember that real estate rates in south Mumbai are among the highest in Asia.
The ambience in any of these establishments is typical — rounded rosewood chairs and tables, the ubiquitous antique wall clock, stained glass windows, and the proprietor shouting orders to his staff.
While several restaurants seem quite run-down, they certainly evoke memories of a different era — a far gentler era of probably a century ago when Mumbai was Bombay and textile mills were flourishing.
The Zoroastrian Iranians, named after the Iranian prophet and reformer, arrived in India in the late 19 and 20 centuries. Bombay was a logical port of call as it was an established trading centre. The Iranians chose to work in houses owned by the established Parsi community here and gradually opened up small restaurants to cater to the needs of the growing migrant population in Bombay.
The cuisine on offer was typically Parsi and Irani fare. Several of these bakeries still offer their famous Khari biscuits (multi-layered baked salted biscuits) and Brun maska (hard buttered croissants) to be had with Irani chai (sweet milky tea) and a host of other savouries.
The restaurant’s menu would typically feature Dhansak , a lentil-based spicy dish served with mutton, Berry pulao made of meat, berries and spices, and Akuri , which is spiced scrambled eggs eaten with bread.
Boman Kohinoor, the 89-year-old owner of Britannia Restaurant in Ballard Estate, recounts that his establishment was set up by his father when he was born in 1923. “I still enjoy coming to my restaurant and sitting here for a few hours to meet old customers.” The day-to-day affairs are managed by his children.
Zyros Zend, a 44-year old second-generation proprietor of Yazdani Bakery in Fort area, too enjoys running his establishment. “But I do not know if my daughters will have the same interest to do so after me.”
That, in essence, is the dilemma facing most of these establishments — the need to change, which they are reluctant to do anything about, and the lure of the lucre, a significant factor considering their premium location.