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Old Platter, New Course

From dosa and cona coffee to Big Boy burger and Hot Chocolate Fudge: at Delhi’s Nirula’s, there’s a 70-year-old legacy of comfort food, writes Namita Kohli.

india Updated: Jul 29, 2007 02:13 IST
Namita Kohli

Many moons ago in the early 20th century, Delhi wasn’t really a diner’s haven; options were few and far between, mostly in Old Delhi. It was then that bachelor-brothers Laxmi Chand and Madan Nirula, who were looking for a decent eating option, deftly turned their moments of crisis into opportunity. In this case, into a restaurant chain that started as a humble hotel in Connaught Place in 1934, but soon went on to become the byword for fast food for the average Delhiite. “People abroad would often refer to Nirula's as the ‘Mc Donald’s of India,’” says Satya Nirula, Madan Nirula’s widow.

But behind the Nirula’s of Hot Chocolate fudge and the Big Boy burger, lies a different legacy altogether. One of floor shows, of classy cona coffee, steaming espresso and elegant wines, as also the India coffee shop with the standard dosa-sambhar routine at Janpath. The 40s, were a particularly busy time for the Nirulas: the Nirula’s Corner House restaurant in Connaught Place came up, even as they were catering to the British, American, Canadian troops of the World War.

“Madan was a great foodie,” recalls Satya. “It was during one of his trips to Italy during that time, that brought home the famous espresso and ice creams.” In the next decade, the Nirulas experimented with different cuisines and concepts at Connaught Place –– a cafeteria, an Indian eatery called Gufa to the Continental joint La Boheme and a haute wine shop for the foreigners, besides, one of the city’s oldest Chinese restaurants: the Chinese Room. The menu diversified during this time. While the La Boheme soon turned into a haunt for the city’s glitterati and the intelligentsia, Gufa had exclusive murals done by Bollywood set designer M R Achrekar.

“I worked closely on the interiors of both Gufa and the Chinese room. We had murals inspired by the Ajanta Ellora caves at Gufa, while the Chinese room had classy oriental décor and one of the city’s first Chinese chefs. Back then, we were known for our cabaret performances, jam sessions and the two bands,” recalls the 85-year-old. “The Chinese room was a real challenge in those days,” she says, “Everyone warned Madan it wouldn’t work, but then he was confident.”

It was the 70s, however, that made Nirula’s the household name for the present generation. With its America Born Desi Platter, it started wooing a rising middle class, who wanted value-for-money dining. Enter the American university educated sons, Nalin, Lalit and Deepak Nirula. The city saw its first ice cream parlour with 21 flavours and the Hot Shoppe, complete with the Hot dogs, footlongs, pizzas and burgers. Glocalisation of food had begun, with the elders keeping a close watch. “I started the Hot Shoppe on a measly budget of 10-12,000,” recalls Deepak. “My father,” he continues, “was a through professional. In fact, my first job was washing dishes in the restaurant. We were there only because we were suited for the job.” From there the young turks expanded with outlets at Basant Lok and Chanakyapuri and Defence Colony. Even as the pizzas-footlongs, with thalis and chana bhatura thrown in good measure, seemed to be doing well, there were some, that the local palate didn’t take to kindly. “Hot dogs and iced tea. People were still not ready for them.”

With the 90s, the post license-raj era, competition started hotting up, and the brand started losing much of its sheen. The ‘Mc Donald’s of India’ had now to compete with, well, Mc Donald’s, Dominos and Pizza Hut and the likes. “Perhaps, the brand lost out a little, but our surveys showed that sales were going up as people had more disposable income,” insists Deepak.

Cut to 2007. Much has changed ever since the ‘two bachelors’ started the 70-year-old legacy. The home grown chain was taken over by Malaysian giant Navis Capital Partners, with Laxmi Chand’s grandson Samir Kuckreja, at the helm of affairs. Kuckreja also started with the “dishwashing” tradition at the Nirula’s, Basant Lok in the 80s, before leaving for the US. “We want to make Nirula’s into the largest quick service restaurant in the next few years,” he says, sitting in the newly revamped Nirula’s Potpourri, that holds the distinction of the city’s first salad bar. A new team, a new look, new pricing: the brand is now desperately clamouring for attention. “From a family-run business, Nirula’s is now an entirely corporate entity now. We have diversified into Express outlets and home delivery, and are concentrating on quality to regain lost ground. Besides that, not much has changed,” he insists.

His optimism and zeal sets a deep contrast with Nirulas detachment. “It doesn’t matter who runs it, as long as they don’t compromise on quality. The name is still the same,” says Satya, who maintained her routine with company affairs till the buyout. Does she miss it? “Oh, it was a very pragmatic decision. Besides, once you give up something, you have to learn to let go completely.” Even an occasional visit to the neighbourhood Nirula’s doesn’t figure in the process of ‘letting go’.