There was a time when you could do an Irani café crawl in the Dhobi Talao area.
You could start with chai at Edward Restaurant behind Our Lady of Dolours Church, hoof it to Sassanian Boulangerie for a chicken patty, then hop across to Kyani & Co. for some kheema pao, walk to Bastani opposite for a dessert of mava cake and wrap up at neighbouring Brabourne with another cup of milky tea. Today only three remain: Edward, Kyani and Sassanian, the last of which turned 100 years old this year and will, hopefully, soldier on for another century.
The doughty café, which was named after the Zoroastrian dynasty that ruled Persia between the second and seventh centuries, occupies the ground floor of a corner building near the Gol Masjid. It doesn’t seem to have changed all that much since it opened in 1913. That’s because the chairs and marble-topped tables made of Polish bentwood are as old as the café and the walls are adorned with old-fashioned painted mirrors. The only recent flourishes are framed pictures of ancient Sassanid sites in Iran and an old Sassanian advertisement that the co-owner, Meheraban Khodadad Kola, a stern figure in a felt Parsi topi who sits at the cash counter near the entrance, hung on the walls to celebrate the café’s centenary.
The café, Kola said, was started by his wife’s great grandfather, Rustam Kaikushru Yezdabadi, who had migrated to India from Yezd in Iran. Back then, the café offered a simple menu of chai, brun-maska, biscuits and sponge cake. “Every Irani was like a small department store,” Kola said. “We kept things like toothpaste. We even used to give the newspaper.” Kola remembers a time in the 1960s and ’70s when punters would fill the café early every morning before betting at horse races at the Mahalaxmi Racecourse. “We used to open at five so we were the only ones open so early,” Kola said. In 1947, Kola’s father who used to work at Kyani’s, joined Sassanian, eventually becoming a partner. Kola, who began his career as a schoolteacher, took over from his father in the late 1970s when the latter fell ill. He now runs it with his wife’s uncle and aunt, Adi K. Yezdabadi and Irandokh Behjat. The fourth partner, Shah Rukh Irani, who customers might remember as the jovial Uncle Sam, died last year.
It wasn’t until 1990 that Sassanian began to serve some of its popular snack items like chicken rolls and cream cakes. It took another ten years to start serving Parsi food, which Kola said they had to do in order to survive in an increasingly competitive restaurant industry. These days, Sassanian serves everything from dhansak and Chinese food to sizzlers. But long-time patrons are likely to pass over these modern offerings for the things Sassanian does best: dense plum cakes, fat chicken patties bursting with filling, sweet and sour mutton patties, buttery mava cakes and khari biscuits so flaky they vanish almost instantly on the tongue.