Bombay’s old Irani cafes are dying a slow death, and the only people doing anything about it are in London
Irani cafes — of which Mumbai has less than 20 original examples left — have recently been the subject of various books, websites and documentaries such as "Inheritance of Loss," all attempting to paint the fatalist portrait of a unique Bombay cafe culture in rapid decline.
No one thought to re-build a modern Irani cafe, "a micro environment that was classless and casteless," as K. E. Eduljee at the Zoroastrian Heritage Institute describes them.
Till three friends — Adarsh Radia, Amar Radia and Shamil Thakrar — recently opened Dishoom, a "Bombay Cafe" in London.
As India modernizes, nostalgia for the past grows
Dishoom, the Hindi action movie equivalent of Pow! or Bam!, opened in London’s West End this July, and pays homage to Bombay Cafe culture of the 1920s and 1930s when it was still thriving. The idea for the cafe was born out of a "deep nostalgia" for this fading Bombay institution says Shamil Thakrar, one of the three entrepreneurs behind the establishment.
Times of India, Bollywood posters from Chor Bazaar and "Rules of the Cafe," inspired by the now closed Bastani Cafe.
"At the moment, India is booming economically and it’s all about modernity and moving forward. There are a lot of interesting and innovative things going on in Bombay right now but we wanted to look backwards and ask — what’s part of our heritage?"
Thakrar, who was born in the United Kingdom but is of Indian origin, adds, "We’re all rushing ahead towards progress, but meanwhile a lot of the heritage is disappearing."
While the objective of Dishoom is not to recreate an Irani cafe, the owners have paid painstaking attention to detail and cultural referencing.
Nothing is overlooked. The marble-topped coffee tables, the mismatched wooden chairs, even the toilets are filled with retro pieces, including pictures of Parsi weightlifters and cabinets filled with long-gone toiletry products from India’s license raj era (license raj refers to a few decades post colonial rule, when elaborate bureaucracy was required to set up and run businesses in India).
Most of the faded family portraits up on the walls are of Thakrar’s own grandparents, and all of the art pieces were carefully sourced from places like Chor Bazaar in Mumbai.
That exact shade of Bombay cafe blue
"The curation process was quite challenging," says Thakrar. "We wanted to get all the details right, even down to that shade of blue paint they all have. That’s not something that you might immediately notice is missing but once you see it in place it completes the picture."
As part of the team’s research, they spent hours in all of Bombay’s Irani cafes. "My favorite one by far is Britannia," says Thakrar. "That place and Mr. Kohinoor encapsulate what Irani cafes are all about."
His most proud acquisition is a gola machine he picked up in Gujarat, which has "dishoom" written on it. "We got that in Junagarh, from a guy who makes them. It’s green and red, just like the one’s you’d find on Chowpatty beach!"
The cafe, which gets the Times of India newspaper air mailed in daily, also commissioned an exact reproduction of the clock that hangs in Victoria Terminus, another treasured decoration.
The visual result is, of course, more polished than your actual Irani cafe would ever be, but Thakrar stresses that, "We are an idealized version of an Irani cafe. We take the best of all of them and then pop them together. We’re not Iranis, and this is not the 1920s in Bombay. We’re paying homage to the cafes, not recreating them."
Given that up until now Londoners have not been exposed to Irani Cafes, unless of course they have traveled to Mumbai, the response has been positive.
"All the feedback has been great, but I think the ones I value the most are from Bombayites, particularly older ones in their 40s and 50s. They look at the space and say, ‘Wow! This takes me right back to my childhood!’"
Thakrar adds that he believes "people are hungry for this kind of thing that has heritage and tradition in it."
Dishoom, the Hindi action movie equivalent of Pow! or Bam!, opened in London’s West End this July.
The menu has classic Parsi dishes like mutton berry pulav, inspired by Britannia’s own rendering, and Mumbai street food like pav baji and kababs inspired by Bademiya behind the Taj. All of this can be washed down with a Thums Up (which they import) or creamy lassis.
Just out of curiosity, we asked Thakrar if he was considering opening up a branch in Mumbai. He laughs saying, "I am not quite sure about the irony of bringing an Irani cafe from England to Mumbai!"