The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: Once upon a time, eating out used to mean something

Affluence changes the way people eat. A new generation discovers more international flavours. Technology alters the dining experience. But some things are still the same, writes Vir Sanghvi.
Everyone had their own favourite bhelpuri-wallah, writes Vir Sanghvi.
Everyone had their own favourite bhelpuri-wallah, writes Vir Sanghvi.
Updated on Sep 05, 2018 02:29 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByVir Sanghvi, New Delhi

We live in an age of restaurants and delivery services.There are restaurants at all price points: from trendy Farzi Cafe/O Pedro type places to Burger King. And you don’t even have to leave home. Check out a restaurant menu on your phone and you can have whatever you like delivered to your doorstep.

It wasn’t always so.

My parents ate out (and ordered in) more often than the parents of anybody else I knew. But even then, eating out was regarded as a treat. It was something you did to celebrate or to cheer yourself up. Ordering in was less celebratory but there was still a sense of joy around the process, a sense that something out of the ordinary was happening.

Because I went to boarding school and ate institutional food for most of the year, I always pushed my parents to let me eat something more adventurous and exciting during the holidays. I spent the summer vacation each year in London and there my father was relatively uncompromising. We went to the restaurants he liked: long-forgotten places with names like Fu Tong, Terazza, Trattoo and London Steak House. There were other favourites that sounded more glamorous – Les Ambassadeurs, the Mirabelle, The Savoy Grill, etc. --- but I was not allowed in.

In Bombay, however, where I spent my other vacation, they let me choose. In those days, Bombay had few five star hotels. There was the Taj but the only restaurant I remember from my childhood was the Sea Lounge with its wonderful views of the Gateway of India, its toastie sandwiches (ham and cheese was my favourite), its bogus pizzas, its chaat (overpriced even then) and its coffee ice-cream (still on the menu).

There was the Natraj, of course, on Marine Drive (where the Intercontinental now stands) but it had only one restaurant worth going to: Kabab Corner. And the real biggie for me was not the Taj but the Sun n’ Sand in Juhu. It is hard to believe now but in those days, going to Juhu seemed like a real expedition (though, come to think of it, the journey was quicker in that traffic-less era), especially if you lived south of Worli. (The old Lotus cinema was the northern tip of what we then regarded as Bombay. Everything else was “the suburbs”.)

We only ever went to Sun n’ Sand as a special Sunday treat. We would leave at noon, get there for lunch, partake of the massive buffet, look out at the beach, listen to a band of enterprising Goan musicians who played terrible Jim Reeves and Engelbert Humperdinck songs and then make our way back home by 4pm.

In that era, Churchgate Street was the place to be. (Rather as Park Street was in Calcutta.) The restaurants were open all day, the menus were multi-cuisine, there was usually an open air seating area outside and the waiters were old-fashioned and charming.

As far as I remember, Gaylord (it is still around) was the king of the street. If you went for coffee between meals, you would find the music director Jaikrishan holding court at one of the tables. At lunch, people ate Grilled Cheese sandwiches with ‘finger chips’. At dinner such ‘Conti’ standbys as Chicken Kiev and Mutton Cutlet held sway. A band always played and the singers even featured in the ads the restaurant took in the evening papers. (“With sweet Lorraine at the mike!”)

There were other Churchgate Street institutions: Purohit for vegetarian Thalis and Napoli, which was one of the first places to serve Cappuccino --- though they called it Expresso on the menu, perpetuating a confusion that persists to this day.

Our family favourite was Bombellis, which as far as I can recall, was one of the few restaurants on the street that did not serve Indian food. Perhaps there were curries on the menu and I don’t remember because I only ever ate one of two dishes each time we went: mutton crumb chop, which was a keema cutlet into which they would stick a bone before frying it schnitzel-style and the hot dog, in which the bun was toasted, the frankfurter was sliced lengthwise and had a raw green chilli at its centre.

There was a Bombellis at Breach Candy too and this one had much the same menu, but a rock band played. Well, ‘rock’ may be pushing it. If nothing else, the band had a vast repertoire: as late as 1972, they would follow the then chart-topping Horse With No Name with a Cliff Richard song from Summer Holiday (Don’t believe all those old farts who tell you that Bombay was so hip in those days. Actually , everyone thought that Cliff was a bigger star and a greater singer than Elvis and the Carpenters were always preferred to the Rolling Stones. Till the late 1970s, Andrew Lloyd Webber was regarded, in Bombay, as the ultimate rock music composer! There were few rockers in that era and the city was packed out with wimps.)

Bombay’s restaurant scene began to change in 1973. The Taj opened the Golden Dragon and transformed Chinese food in India forever. The Oberoi Sheraton (today’s Trident, Nariman Point) brought world class restaurants to the city. Hotels suddenly became the cutting-edge eating places.

But, in many ways, the old Bombay experiences had a charm of their own even if you ate take-out. Because I would keep demanding the kind of food I did not get at boarding school, my parents had a ready list of places from which they could order in.

The mutton curry always came from a decidedly unfancy establishment called “Wilson Restaurant”, perhaps because it was located behind Wilson College in Chowpatty. The curry was oily, did not have much meat and they added boiled eggs to make up for the minimal meat content. But, God, did I love it!

I was partial to the keema-muttar from the Kwality’s on Kemp’s Corner, which was eaten with slices of Britannia bread and those vinegared onions that restaurants like Kwality’s always provide. My parents, who knew much more about food than I did, thought it was revolting. But I was unswerving in my loyalty.

People look startled when I say this but till 1972, something like 60 per cent of the boys in my North Indian boarding school did not know what a masala dosa was. I had always been crazy about idlis and dosas so I would demand them at home on a regular basis.

When he was in his 20s, my father had lived in a tiny tenement off Grant Road. He had been sustained during that period by an inexpensive South Indian restaurant on the ground floor of the same building.

So, even after he made something of himself and moved to Carmichael Road, he insisted that all our South Indian food came from there. By then, the owner of the restaurant had made a fortune in the auto spare parts business. But he continued to sit in the restaurant for part of the day because looking after people was his first love.

And so, nearly every week I would be sent with the driver to Grant Road to pick up dosas by my father who knew that there were equally good dosas available nearer our home but believed in the value of keeping the connection to his roots alive. We would be greeted warmly by the owner, who no longer had any reason to sit in the restaurant but did it anyway because he never wanted to forget who he really was.

At the time I thought it was all quite mystifying. But now, I think it was actually quite wonderful.

Apart from dosas, the other food I would crave was Bombay chaat. Nobody in North India knew how to make bhelpuri. (Some would argue that they still don’t.) At the time, bhelpuri was mainly associated with the stalls on Chowpatty Beach. All of them were run by large sweaty men who had come to the city from Uttar Pradesh.

These guys made reasonable dahi-batata puri or pani puri, but they never quite cut it when it came to bhel. (Plus I was always being distracted by the name boards on their stalls. Were they all really called Sharma? What would happen if I went to the edge of sea and shouted “Hey Sharmaji”? Would they all abandon their stalls and run to the ocean as one to see who was calling them? Silly, I know. But forgive me: I was young.)

Bombay locals didn’t really go to Chowpatty. Everyone had their own favourite bhelpuri-wallah. (Ours set up his stall in Babulnath, a little distance away from Chowpatty.) And then there was the restaurant version of bhelpuri. Kailash Parbat in Colaba served a Sindhi take on the dish. (Nice, but not for me.) Shetty’s was famous for its bhelpuri but I found it too khatta (too much nimbu).

Vithal Bhelwala behind New Empire Cinema, Fort (established in 1875), is famous for his Bhel Puri.
Vithal Bhelwala behind New Empire Cinema, Fort (established in 1875), is famous for his Bhel Puri.

Gujaratis liked home-made bhelpuri. We believe we invented the dish, which was why the assorted Sharmajis of Chowpatty beach could never get it right. At one time, Vithal near Excelsior Cinema (which claimed to have been the place where bhel was first served) used to be good but standards dropped in the Seventies.

By then, the Gujaratis had found Swati in Tardeo. This was a tiny restaurant near Bhatia Hospital which served bhel, ragda-pattice, home-made ice-cream and other snacks beloved of my people. There were very few tables so usually, you sat inside your car and the staff brought the food to you. Gujaratis loved Swati because it made our kind of bhel and was hygienic. (“Ketlu saaf chhe!” my mother would exclaim delightedly, each time we went.)

Eventually, Swati’s fame spread and it is now a huge restaurant and forms the first stop on every touristy foodie pilgrimage to Mumbai. There is even a branch at Nariman Point. (Gujaratis now go to Soam in Babulnath opposite the place where our bhelpuriwallah used to set up his stall.)

Of course everything has now changed --- and probably for the better. Any idiot with a mobile phone can have great food delivered to him within half an hour. Such places as Delhi Durbar which we never went to because it was in a ‘bad area’ (ie: the red light district) now have several gentrified branches and many delivery-friendly off-shoots. The old restaurants—Bombellis, Napoli, Wilson etc --- have closed or vanished. This generation does not seem quite as obsessed with bhel as we were ---- they have pizzas, nachos, veg burgers and cupcakes to enjoy. It is getting harder and harder to find a Frankie and nobody makes ice-cream in a hand-rolled sancha as Swati used to do.

I guess that is inevitable. Affluence changes the way people eat. A new generation discovers more international flavours. Technology alters the dining experience.

But some things are still the same. Gaylord is still around. The Sea Lounge still sells the world’s most overpriced chaat. Sun n’ Sand still does that Sunday lunch though the notion that a trip to Juhu was an expedition now seems laughable.

Bombay, the city, has changed forever. And it is much more than just the name that we have lost.

Time it was. And what a time it was ...

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