Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Inside House of Daaruwala, the café inspired by a Mumbai institution

The all-day café in Andheri pays homage to the legacy of Irani cafés that once dotted every prominent corner of the city

Article by Kermin Bhot | Architectural Digest

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Mumbai’s House of Daaruwala is a new-age adaptation of the old: The classic Irani café bentwood chairs here are made of wood for sturdiness, rather than cane or bamboo, and have comfortable padded seats in olive green and walnut brown.

A staple of Mumbai life from the early 20th century, Irani cafés have been on the verge of extinction for a while now. Set up by migrant Iranis, the cafés quickly became a place where people from all walks of life, irrespective of class, religion, or caste could catch up over a cup of Irani chai and bun maska. The relaxed environs provided solace to and hosted everyone from writers to dock workers, body builders, gangsters, actors, labourers, artists, revolutionaries, sex workers, and cricketers. Minimal prices and the lack of socio-economic boundaries made it easy for Irani cafés to flourish. With their high ceilings and simple but elegant European-style décor mixed in with Zoroastrian artefacts and motifs, the cafés were, as someone once called them, “the poor man’s parlours”.

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Popping Up In Inauspicious Corners

Irani cafés were often set up on the corners of buildings left vacant by superstitious Hindu traders who avoided these spots, considering them inauspicious for business. The prime location made the cafés accessible from two streets, helping drum up business and ensure their longevity. But their luck seems to be running out. Only a handful of Irani cafés are now left in Mumbai. Over time the spread of Udipi restaurants, new-age coffee shops, fast food joints, lack of interest from the new generation of owners, and disagreements between partners have resulted in many Irani café’s downing their shutters.

It is this part of the city’s heritage that the House of Daaruwala taps into and introduces to a new generation in a way they can relate to. Iranis and Parsis are known for their wisecracks, jovial nature and immense love for food, drink, and all things vintage—elements Red Brick Restaurants, the group behind House of Daaruwala, decided to capitalise on to entertain diners and get them to join in the fun. It all starts with the Daaruwala family, a set of characters specially created for the brand to engage with patrons. They range from the family Casanova, the Bairi Master, to the carrom-loving Kaivan Uncle, and the beautiful daughter of the house, the Hoosna Pari. The characters are visible everywhere—on almost every page of the menu, the dinnerware, and on the big hand painted mirrors.

Subtle Colonial Motifs

For Minnie Bhatt, the creative design mind weaving this rich tapestry, the key lies in retaining the subtle colonial atmosphere of an Irani café, with its vintage saloon-style doors, glass-topped tables, bentwood chairs, checkered tablecloths, and padded booths, and elevating it by adding elements from a quaint, old Parsi home. These come in the form of a grandfather clock, antique sideboards with colourful tiles, black and white family photos, shelves packed with curios collected from around the world, along with books, old bone china crockery, and vintage glassware.

“Our central thought while doing the interiors of House of Daaruwala was to re-establish the dying culture of Iranian Parsi cafes. Every element at House of Daaruwala is a trip down memory lane. From engaging accessories of a Parsi family collected over the years…lights that have existed for 50 years to booth spaces that offer a little privacy,” says Minnie, the Design Director at Minnie Bhatt Designs, whose portfolio includes other eclectic spaces like Mirchi and Mime, Burma Burma, and Fable.

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Quirky Catchphrases of the Daaruwalas

But remember, the House of Daaruwala is a new-age adaptation of the old. So the classic Irani café bentwood chairs here are made of wood for sturdiness, rather than cane or bamboo, and have comfortable padded seats in olive green and walnut brown. The four-seater tables have carrom board tabletops with quirky Parsi phrases painted on the rim. The Daaruwala family characters and their catchphrases appear on dinnerware as well as on four large mirrors placed on a statement wall with wood panelling.

The dark green pillars and beam running through the centre add a pop of colour to a space that’s otherwise anchored in woody browns. The floral wallpaper behind the booths and blue and white neo-classic tiles, reminiscent of the cement tiles of old, bring a light-hearted vibe to the space. Colour is also added with smaller accents like colourful miniature cars (because which Parsi doesn’t love his car?), Delft Blue collectibles, porcelain figurines, teapots, and other curios on display. The vintage umbrella-shaped glass light fixtures sourced from Chor Bazaar in Mumbai add a touch of whimsy, and lighten the solid lines, while the low-hanging lampshades will remind you of carrom rooms in the gymkhanas of your childhood. The end result is a cosy, cheerful, well-lit space that makes dining a treat.

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Antique Style Bar

The walk down memory lane continues at the antique-style bar. The front bar wall is decorated with vintage advertising posters on one end and old glass barnis (jars) filled with biscuits favoured by Parsis/Iranis, like khari, Nankhatai (shortbreak biscuits), and Shrewsbury, reminiscent of the display counter at Irani cafés and bakeries. The backbar serves as another showcase with etched glass and crystal decanters and sparkling glassware taking pride of place. The bar menu, which includes drinks by the quarter, is heavy on cocktails, wines, and whiskies, with a few shooters and liqueurs thrown in for good measure.

Continuing with the theme, the menu at House of Daaruwala features a healthy mix of Parsi/Irani classics that have been adapted to appeal to a broader palate. There is also regular modern cafe fare like pizzas, pastas, grilled dishes and even fried rice. The idea is to cater to a wider audience who might not want to experiment too much with Parsi cuisine. Unlike traditional Irani cafés, there’s quite a lot on the menu for vegetarians (Jains included) and the growing tribe of vegans.

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From Salli Boti to Jain Poppers

The menu is the brainchild of Chef Sameer Bhalekar, of Mirchi and Mime fame, and Parsi food lovers will be delightfully surprised by how he reinvents traditional dishes while retaining their flavours. There’s a sizeable breakfast menu with a variety of egg dishes like any self-respecting Irani café (available from 9 am to 7 pm). Since we’re there for dinner, we started with the Chicken and Prawn Farcha, both of which were wonderfully crisp. The Spicy Paneer sliders were sure-shot winners, with their melt-in-your-mouth paneer and flinger-licking chutney. The Mutton Chops fared better than the Chicken Kebab and Bombil Fry, which was a bit heavy on the batter. For the main course, we started with the Salli Boti with tender mutton ramakras (pieces) as the Parsis say. Then came the tad bland Prawn Curry and the Saus Nu Chicken. The Berry Pulav was another hit with its chicken pieces marinated in a rich, flavourful masala. We wrapped up our meal with the creamy, classic Caramel Custard (available in an eggless option) that made for the perfect ending.

Address: 1, Green Fields Society, Lokhandwala Complex, Andheri (W), Mumbai | Timings: 9 am to 1.30 am | Tel: +91 9136279904 / +91 9136279905