In the 1890s, while escaping the great famine of Persia in which millions starved to death and hundreds fled their homeland, a long caravan of people began a desperate walk. Some of those made a treacherous 8-month long journey to reach what was then called Bombay. Desperate for survival, some of the migrants took to selling their Iranian tea and bun with butter. And thus was born the Irani cafe.
Earlier, these cafes used to be places for dock immigrants, students, revolutionists, and even sex workers – all united by a cup of tea, khari biscuits and maska buns. Today only a handful of these cafes remain, but they form an integral part of Mumbai’s cultural fabric and it’s Parsi and Irani history.
Fortunately, most of the cafes are still housed in the ancient buildings where they started, thus allowing visitors to teleport themselves into history. These structures, that have stood the ravages of time, war and modernization, are as key to the experience as the food served in them. Entering these cafes is akin to stepping into a time machine that transports you to a different era. The chipping paint, old furniture, traditional foods, the smiling faces, all have a story to tell.
This article looks at 6 such Irani cafes in the Fort area of Mumbai with a food lens.
1. This crawl starts at Jimmy Boy close to Hornimann circle. Take the lane between State bank and the garden. Walk a little further, then take the first right and up ahead to the left beside ‘Bademiya’, is Jimmy Boy. Among the fancier Irani cafes, the red signboard and newly done decor is sure to catch attention. An assortment of cakes and pastries greets visitors right at the entrance, along with a neon menu and small chandelier suspended from the ceiling. With a history that goes back 91 years, Jimmy Boy has a loyal clientele. The phone keeps ringing with orders and the crowd is a mix of business folk and younger patrons.
The food is a mix of savoury and sweet, and main course and snacks. The Parsi food menu boasts of delicacies like Patra fish- Pomfret steamed in a banana leaf, and Salli boti, a minced meat ground with spices in gravy. Farcha, a dry piece of chicken (breast and thigh) dipped in egg and fried, is especially popular. They have introduced some western items but the Parsi food is what draws in the crowd. Weekends are usually busier than weekdays.
Desserts include the traditional lagano custard; baked custard made from Basundi (a rabri like sweet, made of condensed milk and dry fruits).
Best For: Patra, Salli Boti. Also try: Puffs, blueberry pie, pastries, mawa cake, bun maska.
2. The next stop is Cafe Military. Head to Ali Chamber, Tamarind lane (lane next to Rhythm House). Follow the narrow lanes till you reach a signboard announcing Cafe Military. Established in 1938, the decor is simple, understated and as old as the place itself. The wooden cabinets, furniture, ceiling, lights, all go back decades adding to the historic charm. The patrons primarily constitute business people and the joint is exceptionally crowded on Fridays from morning till evening.
Cafe Military is known for its Dhansak – a masala dal, and caramelized rice. The most ordered dish is Kheema (minced meat) which is both sweet and savoury. Their salli boti (minced meat in gravy) is made in a sweet tomato gravy. With spices that are ground fresh every day, the food is full of flavour in each mouthful. There aren’t too many vegetarian options apart from the dal and rice.
3. Take the lane next to Cafe Military and keep walking. A 2-3 minute walk lead to Cawasji Patel Road and to Yazdani Bakery and Restaurant, a small blue and red cottage that has been standing for 100 years. Established in 1955, the owner’s father built it with only one intention. “This is a poor man’s bakery. We think of the downtrodden. We do not increase prices as we don’t want poor people to feel the pinch.” A benevolent thought that drives the generations that handle the bakery to this day. Awards and accolades adorn the walls and the inviting, homely smell of freshly baked bread overpowers any other thought as one enters this simple eatery.
This joint is famous for its ladi bread and broon – different types of crusty bread, which pair perfectly with a hot cup of chai. Not too crowded and relatively simple, this is a good stop to sip chai and reflect on life.
4. Britannia & Co. was established in 1923 in the business district of Ballard Estate. A board at Britannia correctly states “There is no love greater than the love of eating”, and the crowds at the cafe stand testament to this. The peeling paint and old furniture only add to the appeal of this old eatery. The restaurant’s most famous dish is its berry pulao – a rice dish made with an assortment of tangy berries. Other dishes include Dhansak rice and salli boti. The salli boti is made in sweet gravy and is garnished with potato chips before serving. (Do note that they accept only cash.)
5. Situated at A.K.Nayak Marg near CST station, Cafe Excelsior opened in 1919. Three generations on and still going strong, it has a very old-school vibe what with the hand-written menu on sheets stuck on the walls, the historic furniture and the elderly gentleman at the counter.
They grind their own spices and even make their own mayonnaise, customs that have ensured that the taste of the dishes they serve is consistently brilliant. It is a matter of pride that patrons often comment, “Same taste lageche” (the taste hasn’t changed). Some regular customers come all the way from Thane and food often runs out in the evening! Their caramel custard is totally worth a try.
Their famous dishes include the salli boti, kheema pav, mutton/chicken cutlet and Farcha. Their meat gravy is a little on the spicier side, to suit the Indian palate.
6. Kyani & Co. is located on JSS Road, Tak Wadi, opposite Metro Big Cinema. Established in 1904, this place has seen four generations and more than 100 years of being present in this heritage part of Mumbai. An aberration among all the other Irani cafes, Kayani served only vegetarian fare till 4 years ago. Their popularity is evident when you hear that most of their food gets over by 5 PM every evening. The reasonable prices are explained when the owner Mr. Farokh Shokri mentions how serving the middle class is something the cafe has been proud about. Wednesdays and weekends are the busiest days when bikers and cyclists make a beeline for the eatery.
Kayani & Co are famous for their bakery items – puddings, cherry custard and lagano custard, biscuits and cream puffs. Their royal falooda also gets a fair bit of love. The younger customers like their special chicken burger and fries. Other popular menu items include sunny-side-up eggs with beans, chicken cheese omelette and chicken cheese burger. The typical Parsi delicacies such as salli boti, farcha and berry pulao are also sought after. They serve tandoori dishes on weekends and experiment with items like frankie and biryani.
All these eateries have stayed true to their tradition, history and their culture despite being decades old. It is this culture that you get to taste in every bite. Not much has changed over the years and there is a story behind every piece of furniture, behind every brick under the layers of peeling paint.