After coming into existence in 1931, New Delhi did not become a happening place overnight. There was a period of lull in the beginning when very few people used to go to Connaught Place in the evenings. The place just did not have enough charm to attract the crowds in 1933, when CP was thrown open.
However, two things happened within a few years of each other and changed the fate of CP forever. First was the shifting of Spencer’s, a confectionery in Kashmere Gate, to a two-storey property in A-Block in CP as a posh restaurant. In its new avatar, they called it Wenger’s. Owned by a Swiss couple by the same name, Wenger’s was the largest restaurant in New Delhi. It dished out delicacies favoured by the elite in an ambience that was so grand that it became a statement for patrons just to be seen here. “The Wenger’s ballroom, as it was called then, had imported chandeliers, a live band. The décor was elegant, nothing short of a fancy restaurant in London,” says Charanjeet Singh, the present manager of the Wenger’s pastry shop, who joined the company in 1965 and has seen the last of the heydays.
The ballroom was where the neo-aristocracy of New Delhi liked to shake a leg to live jazz and the food served was an eclectic spread of the continent. The pastries, tarts, mousses and homemade Swiss chocolates made for exotic desserts. There was also a “green room”, which hosted boisterous men debating matters of great intellect.
“The patrons would come in buggies right in front of the gate and be ushered to their tables upstairs. It was all done in style,” he says.
The second incident that caught the attention of the working class was the opening of Hotel India in L-Block by a local family called the Nirulas in 1934.
Establishments that managed to prevail in CP over the years did so without tampering with the old flavours that made them what they were.
The United Coffee House (UCH) in B Block, for instance, not only survived but flourished by integrating the old CP-style of fine dining in its new-age branding.
Started in 1942 by the Kalras, it served snacks like goli bhaje, samosas, pakodas, sandwiches and, of course, coffee. But soon it started offering Continental favourites which became its hallmark in a few years. “We still maintain many of the old items in our menu. We call them our signature dishes,” says Akash Kalra, the third-generation owner of the restaurant. Tomato Fish and Chicken a la Kiev are some of the oldest items in the “Signatures” section of the menu.
Owners of other famous restaurants of the yore agree. “Most establishments still carry their old favourites because the fine dining trend of those days was timeless; it demanded international quality,” says Sunil Malhotra, owner of the Embassy restaurant, started in 1948.
Kwality, the quintessential Indian joint owned by the Lambas at the Regal building, still takes pride in its chole bhature and malai kofta. “We have also retained our mutton chops, chicken mussallam etc,” he says.
“These were also great places for the elite to formally court women and for families to meet over marriage proposals,” says Sydney Rebeiro, first and former dean (Culture), DU.
But many of the other joints that made CP rock in its early years are no more. York restaurant — established in 1948 and a magnet to the Anglo-Indian community for its sausages, baked beans, mash potatoes and kebabs — is more known for its hotel with the same name now. Volga, the other classy restaurant in the same row, shut down last year after being reduced to what old patrons called “just a place for cheap booze”.
Gaylord, the ice-cream joint and eatery owned by the owners of Kwality at the Regal building shut down recently. Davicos, placed at the first floor of Regal cinema and famous for its sizzlers, fizzled out years ago.
It had 12 rooms and a café-cum-restaurant, which served items in an assembly-line style, like many diners in America. “This was not an elite-only place like Wenger’s. People from all classes came here. One would take the plate from one item to another in an assembly line and be billed at the end of the line based on the selections. It was a superhit in the 1930s,” says Sydney Rebeiro, first and former dean (Culture) of Delhi University. His family moved to Delhi in 1909 and his father worked in the Delhi Improvement Trust, the organisation responsible for developing the new city in the 1930s and 40s.
“Wenger’s, the Nirula’s cafe and Hotel Palace Heights, which had a cabaret, were influential in shaping the eating- out scene in the first couple of decades. The old American bar-style swinging doors at Palace Heights added to its glory.”
The Wenger’s ballroom gave way to a bank in the 1980s, while the Nirula’s hotel changed hands and eventually moved out of its age-old property a couple of years ago.
Apart from fine dining, CP was also known for its wide range of tidbits. The United Coffee House, Wenger’s and a host of other places served tea imported by British companies. “Wenger’s used to import tea from Brooke Bond in Britain and serve it with cakes and cookies. Everywhere in CP you would get Chamomile tea, Earl Grey, English Breakfast tea that catered to the finer taste,” says Singh.
Other hugely popular place, the Empire Store in the Inner Circle offered smooth, buttery popcorn, while Keventers, the seller of dairy products from Kashmere Gate, which moved to an outlet in CP next to Wenger’s in the early years, sold (and still sells) delicious milkshakes.