Shivaji Park has been the bulwark of middle-class Maharashtrian values since it was built in 1925. Whilst still in college, I’d take bus no 84 (ltd), from Opera House to Shivaji Park, three times a week to visit my French tutor. It was a long 20-minute ride, outside my comfort zone (which ended at Cadbury House). My tutor lived in one of the shaded, tree-lined lanes in a three-storeyed building without an elevator. The short trek from the main road to the building was soothing, like a walk in a park. The house had a small balcony that hung right over the park, and between the “Je suis, tu es, Il est, and elle est”, I’d watch walkers, cricketers, kids, grandparents, and lovers make that space their own. Even in those days, the area has a certain urbane-ness and elegance; it was a picture of a well-bred life. And till today, that picture remains unchanged.
Shivaji Park has always been all-embracing. You can see it in the ‘katta’ culture of the park. It’s one of the only parks in Mumbai that is not fenced off with a barrier or a wall. And it’s with this sentiment that Shivaji Park allowed two restaurants to unexpectedly come up, behind the park, and shake up its pastoral life.
Till the early ’80s, the residents were content with chai, omelette, and bun from the small Irani café opposite Sena Bhavan, or the poha and sabudana khichdi from Prakash and Madhura. Then, as if from nowhere, Nebula started with a bang. It was an upmarket Indian restaurant on middle-class Keluskar Road. And right next door opened Gypsy Chinese. Generation next of the middle-class Shivaji Park residents embraced both restaurants with open arms. Suddenly, middle-aged ladies with Maharashtrian accents were discussing Hakka noodles, and retired professors wanted to lecture about hara bhara kabab, a far cry from misal, batata wada and thalipeeth.
When I first moved to Prabhadevi 15 years ago, I took solace in the fact that Shivaji Park was a hop away. There was Tamnak Thai, an expensive upmarket restaurant, Amigo Hotel, which now has Masala Zone, as well as a cheap Chinese Garden Restaurant right across that, Oven Fresh at Ranade Road (which, for some reason, turned vegetarian) and a couple more.
But in the last two years, Shivaji Park has had a lot of vigour and spunk. I walked into Terttulia, a bright and airy café, a stone’s throw from the beach. Run by Gogi Singh of Pritam da Dhaba, I was surprised to see Spanish tapas, French hors d’oeuvres and wafer-thin pizzas being snapped up. Conservative palates opening up to citrus salads, aglio olio, smoked salmon, chorizo and bacon. Shivaji Park is becoming hip.
Then there’s Café Trofima. It has windows on all sides with light streaming in at lunchtime. The menu is an unending variety of paos, baos, baguettes, chilli dogs, burgers, waffles, eggs, pancakes, and what are called Freakshakes — an overindulgent monstrous mash-up of a milkshake and a dessert.
The way restaurateur Rahul Limaye revolutionised Shivaji Park with his Nebula and Gypsy Corner, it’s happening all over again. And this time, his daughter is a big part of it. Aditi Limaye Kamat first started Home Chef at Shivaji Park with cakes, chocolates, cookies, biscuits and the like. Today, Home Chef is a cool hangout that serves American fast food: milkshakes and desserts alongside local favourites like omelette and bhurji.
She’s topped that up with Open House, a drinking hole where even the erstwhile conservative ladies of Dadar have no problem quaffing a glass of wine. Down the road at Mahim, she’s got Quarter House, a bar which embraces the tradition of Mumbai’s system of serving booze in quarter bottles, along with chakna-like boiled peanuts, papad and boiled eggs. But her latest is Sizzle House, a café that does sizzlers and pan meals with heartwarming twists. I ate the Mahim Junction, a dish after my own heart. A mixed grill of flame-roasted chicken liver, seekh, tawa kheema and buttered pav. It was spicy, sharp and familiar. The akuri eggs served on a bed of potato straws was exceptional. And the English ghee roast chicken was very Indian, red and bursting with flavour.
I never drive past Shivaji Park any more thanks to the Sea Link. But this may force me to change my route.
Author and TV show host Vijayakar is “always hungry”. He tweets as @kunalvijayakar