The character of each of Dishoom’s three restaurants evokes the spirit of the old Irani cafés of Bombay, set up by Zoroastrian immigrants who resettled there in the mid 1900s. Few realise that the stained mirrors, blackboard noticeboards and mismatched furnishings of these London hotspots actually reflect a part of Bombay that still resides strongly in the hearts of Bombayites. Hundreds of these distinctive cafés once existed in Bombay’s bustling metropolis; however, only twenty-five remain. What Shamil Thakrar, the creative talent behind Dishoom, has done is to recreate a piece of Indian sociological history and place it in a city across the world, in order to keep the spirit of these fading memories alive and tell the story over and over again.
In the south of Mumbai (still referred to as Bombay by just about anyone that you will meet there), one of these intriguing cafés still exists. Britannia and Co. is a time capsule-dining experience housed in a grand, Renaissance-style building designed by Scottish architect George Wittet — famous for the city’s Gateway To India monument. Boman Kohinoor, the restaurant’s original proprietor, is now in his nineties, but his cheeky personality doesn’t match his age at all. British visitors to Britannia will be given impeccable service, as he implores them to take home his love to the Queen and produces a collection of historical documents that he has compiled over the years to illustrate the story of his beloved café and its famous chicken berry pulao recipe, brought over from Iran by his wife.
Historically, the people who visited these cafés ranged from the young and ambitious students, arriving at lunchtime in order to debate and discuss politics, to the old and wise dwellers of the city. These people came daily and took their same spot, where they would sip on multiple chais brought to them by the Parsi waiter, devoted to his job. The importance of these cultural institutions is best described by Bombayites themselves, who can recount the stories of the old Irani cafés in their prime without dwelling on their now faded elegance.
Perhaps the greatest importance of the cafés was their willingness to serve anybody who wanted to eat or drink there without paying attention to their age, occupation or faith. Bombay was suffering a period of time when society focused intently on harsh social judgments. In these places, tolerance was given to all, making them the perfect escape. In order to pay homage to the stories of these folks, Dishoom created a way of documenting their memories. After gathering the tales of the owners of the remaining cafés and their guests, they had their anecdotes baked onto the plates that are used in the restaurants. Each diner can then dwell for a second on the echoes of voices past in these exceptional establishments born on the Subcontinent.
By Alice Burns