Park Street, Calcutta
When Mocambo opened in the 1950s, it was meant to be a stylish place to eat continental food—and it remains so, cocking a snook at pretentious decor and cliched kitsch. Thus the short, russet sofas and barrel chairs, or the soft pool of light the scarlet lampshades cast on each table. Mocambo is a bastion of old Calcutta food—an inspiring mix of continental, Anglo-Indian, Mughlai and Bengali. Their signature dishes—done in the old European butter-cream-sauce-cheese style, new-fangled fusion be damned, announce this: the famous chicken a la Kiev, Fish a la Diana (“beckty stuffed with prawn, cooked in cream sauce”), Chicken Tetrazzini, Devilled Crab (“crab meat in cheese and mustard sauce”), the generous sizzlers, chelo kebabs, prawn cocktail.... Like some great restaurants, Mocambo offers a sensual immersion. This it does with the intoxicating smell of fried butter, cooked gravy, air-conditioning and a whiff of cold beer. It goes particularly well with watching the slant of the sun on Free School Street, sitting by one of the bay windows.
Through the giant wooden frame doors, into the big foyer looking out at the surrounding hills, greeted by the heavenly smell of freshly baked goodies, and even bigger counters weighed down with a variety of cakes, pastries, cream filled buns, scones, tarts, breads, patties, and pies, Glenary’s is a scrumptious dream plucked out of an Enid Blyton book. There is no other place to have a dose of well brewed Darjeeling tea or freshly brewed coffee, while dipping into their endless bowls of cookies and chocolates (the mint ones are a must try). And if hunger calls while at tea, the pizzas, burgers, and sandwiches, all stuffed with the local Kalimpong cheese, are a great choice. The bakery and restaurant have changed hands a few times since its first, but little has changed otherwise. It was originally named Vado, after its Italian owner, and later Pliva. After independence, it was bought by a Patna-based family, only to be sold to the Late A.T. Edwards in 1959. He changed the name to Glenary’s, but retained the spirit of the place. In fact, they still display the list of the first day’s sale, amounting to a princely Rs 396!
This is actually a Calcutta chain (co-founded by filmmaker Gautam Ghose and Siddhartha Mukherjee, who played Topshe in Ray’s Feluda films), but then Puri can easily be a Bengali city which happens to be in Orissa. Most street conversation is in Bangla, many of the signboards are in Bengali and Calcutta is only six hours by Shatabdi. Ask anyone in the city for the best meal and they will point down the marine drive, at the edge where the beach curves. Inside the ally adjoining India Hotel lies the cool, dimly lit Bhojohari Manna, with its most attentive staff.
The shorshe hilsa is light as a zephyr, the bhetki fried just right in its crispiness and the luchi-aloor-dum completely greaseless. The vegetarian dishes are winners too—the shukto and ghonto are spot on. They have various types of thalis too; all well-proportioned.
Even in those balmy, pre-globalised days, Calcutta could host a smorgasbord of sundry itinerant tradespeople. There were the Bhotiya ladies at the Maidan in their striped skirts, standing and knitting sweaters. And Kabuliwalas in long kaftans, with their dry fruits and stories. Or Bihari hojmiwalas. Among them were the Tibetans, outfitted in bakus, come down those porous Sikkim borders. Over time, some settled down—and sprouted ‘house restaurants’, introducing Calcuttans to the discreet charms of momos and thukpa, wolfed down seated on moodas and little tables in a cramped living room. Those pork dumplings, dipped in salted chilli sauce, yin and yang, were so different from what you’d ever had before! And yet so inexplicably good. We hadn’t yet heard the word umami, but Elgin Road pretty much put a hex on you. The momo industry did very well under Left rule, thank you. This is among the most canonical.
Gandhi Maidan, Patna
Soda Fountain was started practically with the dawn of independence, in May 1947, by Satyanarayanji Jhunjhunwala. Though most ‘soda fountains’ in other Indian towns were a hub of a variety of ice-cream sodas, ice-creams and light snacks, this is one of Patna’s iconic South Indian restaurants, serving vegetarian delicacies to the city’s creme de la creme.
Soda Fountain also had a massive girth—a 10,000 sq ft area would seat 400 people in its heyday, to be served by 65 members of the staff. Later, it became one of the most popular eating joints close to the popular Elphinstone Cinema Hall next to the busy Gandhi Maidan circle. However, in August 1973, tragedy struck—the restaurant was burnt down by students over a payments dispute and closed down. It was restarted 23 years later, in June 1996, by Jhunjhunwala’s grandson Sameer on the same premises, though on a much smaller scale. And it still prides itself on its vegetarian south Indian food. With the passage of time, Chinese delicacies and snacks have been added to the menu. It is also popular among the youth for its milk shakes and has clearly demarcated areas for quick snacks and elaborate dining, with interiors and decor that have kept up with changing times. Surprisingly, it also regularly supplies rosogolla to many Calcutta shops. That’s no mean feat!
New Market, Calcutta
If you are a lover of Mughlai khana, whether it be kebabs or biriyani, you should add “a visit to Aminia” in your list of priorities. Even it if means making a trip to Calcutta. Dating back to 1929, when the first Aminia opened in a crowded lane in the busy New Market area, opposite the Nakhoda Masjid, it has come to be associated with the very culture of Calcutta’s cuisine. The tasty but affordable fare was so much in demand from its inception that it is said to have fed generations of Calcutta’s struggling artists, poets and intellectuals. Now the restaurant has become an all-India chain, with 12 outlets in Calcutta itself.
Park Street, Calcutta
As the name suggests, Flury’s is a legacy of the colonial era, and what was once considered the best English/Swiss bakery in Asia still retains its original flavour in more senses than one. If it was the most preferred locus of rendezvous in colonial times, during which India’s last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, was rumoured to have had endless cups of tea and tete-a-tete with visitors, it is still the favourite meeting place for discerning Calcuttans. Not simply because of Park Street’s proximity to the best book stores, art galleries and museums, but because Flury’s still produces some of the most delectable cakes, cookies and custards. Served with hot tea or coffee or perhaps a cold shake, they become central to any engaging conversation about everything from Marx to Mamata. And yet you have the occasional old-timers grumble about how the quality of its patties and pastries have deteriorated over the years. That, in itself, is a topic of heated debate. And its legendary breakfast spread! Opening their doors at the crack of dawn, many a Park Street night-reveller is known to have soothed their hungover nerves with fresh orange juice, sunny side ups and bacons from Flury’s.
BNR Guest House
It was originally the Bihar-Nagpur Railway guest house, built for the officers entrusted with the arduous task of completing this ambitious line. The hotel has rare photographs of railway in all its rooms, lobby and the restaurant, from where, long ago, one could see the waves lashing at the Puri beach. Now, tall buildings across the road hinder the view, but the sea breeze seeps through. The restaurant, Dining Car, oozes old-world charm, thickly carpeted with hushed waiters and an oak-paneled bar. It still has some of the dishes from the Raj era, like roast chicken and baked tomato fish. The fare is a mix of Continental, north Indian and seafood; all dishes are competently made, even if not stand-out brilliant.
Park Street, Calcutta
Right in the middle of Park Street, Olypub could have tried to be like Elaine’s in New York—a gathering of the creative and mighty. Instead, it positioned itself as a place of a rite of passage into (a sort of) adulthood for generations of young professionals, the ‘adventurous’ and Xaverians. A workaday ground floor (a neat jumble of chairs and small, square tables) and a shabby-genteel first floor (a carpeted area with snug sofas set against long tables) make up the establishment. But it’s a sense of the accumulated experience that makes the place unique—the sweet-stale smell of alcohol mixed with cigarette smoke as you push by the swinging door, the archly sheepish waiters, a bottle or two tucked under their tunicked arm, a metal ‘peg’ between their fingers, the tiny splash the stuff makes at the bottom of the glass, the hard clatter of plates and cutlery laid down on the old sunmica.... The food—fish fingers, fried sausages, curried liver, the tough-as-nails Chateaubriand, even the humble finger chips and boiled vegetables and mashed potatoes—is tasty in a rough sort of way. Olypub won’t cosset you with smooth, generic smiles, but it will give you a sense of seizing the grime-filled day.
Park Circus, Calcutta
Like Aminia, Nizam’s is the other go-to place for the best Mughlai food in Calcutta. While the restaurant chain has branched out across Calcutta and beyond, its Park Circus outlet—at the opposite end of Trinca’s on Park Street—claims to be the original. The atmosphere in all the Nizam’s, especially this one, is that of a functional eating place. Don’t look for designer tapestry or dim lighting. The naked bulbs light up the frowns on the faces of unsmiling waiters, who want you to get down to business fast: place your orders, eat and leave, because long queues are usually buzzing outside. So don’t go there if you are looking to have a conversation over lunch or dinner. Go there because they make some of the best biriyanis and kebabs that you will ever taste.
Elgin Road, Calcutta
Bengalis who want to eat homey food but don’t feel like cooking are known to head for Kewpies, a family restaurant which was started in 1989 in a garage on Elgin Lane by Pratik Kumar Dasgupta. The seating capacity then was only 12. But the authentic traditional cuisine—from the bitter appetiser shukto, to the many fish dishes, down to the sweetest roshogolla—became so popular that Kewpies, named after Dasgupta’s wife, has now extended to include two-floors and seats over 50. It’s now run by Dasgupta’s daughters. Situated right behind the former, historic residence of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Kewpies has earned the reputation of being one of Calcutta’s best in Bengali cuisine. If you find the menu mind-boggling, it’s because it is in keeping with the Bengali household’s fetish for variety. The decor is no-fuss, reflective of a typical Bengali middle-class household and the service, but of course, is warm and friendly.
Chandni Chowk, Calcutta
Chung Wah is one restaurant-cum-bar which can lay a claim to having catered to the maximum number of journalists through the greater part of the twentieth century, compared to any other in Calcutta.
Situated just adjacent to the imposing white marble building—the headquarters of the ABP Group—it has fed, not to mention quenched the thirst of, generations of hungry reporters, writers and editors stepping out for a quick bite in between chasing deadlines. Originally strictly Chinese, serving the most delicious hakka chows and chilly pork, it has, after a change of management, let other cuisines into its menu. For instance, the fish fingers, which are one of the best in this city notoriously fickle about its fish fries. The biggest change witnessed by Chung Wah, however, came in the mid-2000s, when the resto-bar decided to introduce bar dancing. That move shut out women customers after sundown and the evening clientele became a gaggle of drunken men.
Golbari’s Kosha Mangsho
Literally meaning ‘round house’, Gol Bari is actually a proverbial hole-in-the-wall joint. But it serves the most delicious mutton curry, or ‘kosha mangsho’ in the city (which is saying a lot) and has fiercely held its own amidst the clamorous yelps of young pretenders. Dating back to the turn of the 20th century, it is situated in the middle of the North Calcutta’s famous five-point crossing, or ‘panch mathar more’ in Shyambazaar, once the locus of Calcutta’s best theatres, including the iconic Star. Gol Bari’s kosha mangsho has retained its popularity even after the gradual decline of north Calcutta’s predominance over the more modern south.
“We only serve roti and kosha mangsho,” snapped a manager, who refused to comment on the establishment’s changing hands many times over the past century and more. Though there is a tiny seating arrangement with a few small tables and chairs, most of the eating—or gobbling down, as it were—takes place standing outside, by the side of the road, with the chaotic traffic passing by and ceaseless honking of horns for atmosphere. However, one bite into a succulent piece of mutton wrapped up in a tiny bit of torn chapati, and you will forget the surrounding, when you are one with the food you are savouring.
Fraser Road, Patna
Rajasthan Restaurant in Patna is one of the city’s oldest standing eateries, that has held firm against the ravages of time and stiff competition from chaat and fast-food joints as well as multinational chains like McDonalds and KFC that have the youth so hopelessly wrapped around their homogenised burgers.
Housed as part of Hotel Rajasthan in one of Patna’s busiest and most well located spots—on Fraser Road—Rajasthan has been a permanent fixture for over four decades and is a rare vegetarian restaurant to have survived. The restaurant has minimalistic interiors, which have not changed much over the years, and provides a decent ambience for family dining with a distinctive old-world charm. Visited both by youngsters looking for a quick snack as well as families seeking a pure vegetarian meal, Rajasthan is known for quality food—that’s why it still draws a good crowd despite the veritable explosion of eating out options in Patna.
People will remember visiting this restaurant with friends during their school days for their famous cheese pakodas, which were all the rage in the early 1980s. With changing times, it has added Chinese items to its menu, but its trademark cheese (paneer) pakodas and paneer on toast continue to be popular, as are its main courses. It continues to be one of the few places in the city for good quality, traditional vegetarian dining.
R. Chatterjee St, Calcutta
The kathi roll originated in central Calcutta, but for the last 40 years, Campari, in the south, has mastered the art of wrapping succulent, perfectly done, smokily tasty chunks of meat into dry, yet softly yielding parathas. They operate efficiently out of a mid-sized garage space, with a spacious standing area set with tables. Seeing your order—fat, somewhat squat rolls, ‘chops’ and chicken/mutton cutlets—slipped into crisp brown envelopes and stapled shut is particularly satisfying. We know about galautis; ever heard of melt-in-the-mouth kathi rolls? Campari’s fish tandoori roll may yet change your views on food.
From an imaginary standpoint somewhere on the Indian ‘mainland’, perhaps next to one of those fauji dhabas, the cuisine of Assam will seem marked by a jungle of dotted McMahon lines, connoting various kinds of cultural frontiers. For the local, on the other hand, it’s the centre of the universe, a joyous thing in itself, a secure habitus—the place that may well have invented rice—as well as a gateway to a shared topography across an astonishing variety of Northeastern cultures. This old favourite in Silpukhuri is the perfect meeting point for the two—the local and the new initiate into everything Ahomiya. As you go through the courses, the khar and the tenga and the rest, the second-order family resemblances may flash across the mind. Its more feted riverine cousins south and west, and the other sorority with their shared interest in ghost chilli, pork and fermented food.
Park Street, Calcutta
Known as the original crooners’ bar of Calcutta, not many know that this was a popular tea-room before the Puri family took over its ownership in 1959 and turned it into what it is now: the haunt of wee tipplers with a penchant for live music. Located at one of the best spots in Calcutta—at the junction of two of the city’s most famous streets, Park Street and Russell Street—Trinca’s has managed to withstand the onslaught of time and retained its original focus: good music, good alcohol and good food, in that order. Serving a host of world cuisine—from the continental chicken sandwich to the Mughal sheek kebab to the Lebanese chello—buttered rice and kebabs—Trinca’s, like most resto-bars on Park Street, has an air of being less concerned about decor and more about the quality of food, drinks and in this case, the music.
Breakfast in Darjeeling is synonymous with a big platter of fresh sausages, bacon and eggs at Keventer’s. The older-than-100 British building, with its circular exterior, and narrow windy staircase leading to the small, outdoor dining area is quaintly inviting. And its scenic view of the Capital Clock Tower on one side, and the Kanchenjunga on the other, served alongside their special juicy meat loaf, giant chicken cutlets, and pork and cheese filled sandwiches, is nothing short of perfect. Add to that a cup of hot Darjeeling tea, served in their signature brown ceramic cups chipped at many places, and there is little else anyone can ask for. Except, perhaps a little drizzle. One little drop, and out comes waiter Dawa Lama with his rickety umbrellas and warm butter-toast. You might get to watch, if you’re lucky, an artist at work in a corner, along with its signature ‘spilt all-over-the-sides’ coffee.
Overlooking the busy Don Bosco square, and its jostling traffic, Cafe Shillong is one of the city’s best cafes. And perhaps the busiest. Located in the crowded Laitumkhrah area, convenience may seem like a best seller for the cafe, but go inside, and the quaint decor, attentive staff, and excellent continental menu selection will tell you differently. Morning, noon, and night, the cafe has a fix for all times. You could sip at a big cup of Irish coffee out on the terrace with its gas heaters, dip into their gigantic wooden tray of khao suey with its side of boiled eggs, dried prawns, soya and chilli, spring onions and lemon, their Shillong noodles or thukpa. And if noodles are not your thing, the medium-rare steaks, and juicy pork ribs at the cafe are to die for. Or, if nothing else, their weekend music scene with its excellent showcase of local bands sure is a reason to drop by.
Video by Sandipan Chatterjee; Edited by Rupesh Malviya