Say the word "Koshy's" and be prepared to cut a path through an instant jungle of praise, dispraise, eulogising, myth-making or just plain indifference. It's only a restaurant, da — as a saner Bangalorean would say. But then it has a menu of 820 dishes, has been around for 55 years, looks like the very embodiment of the word 'nostalgia', can pass off institutionalised obstinacy as hipness...the jungle begins to advance towards you again. So one may as well start by acknowledging that there's something about Koshy's.
How has Koshy's stayed Koshy's for this miraculously long? The formula seems simple. You start a posh restaurant in Cantonment Bangalore in the early 1950s. You purloin recipes for plum pudding and glazed chicken from chatty Anglo-Indian ladies. You install, for the first time in a city restaurant, both a jazz band and air-conditioning. You let it be known that you've catered to Jawaharlal Nehru and the Queen of England. You quote from John Ruskin on the back of your menu. And then you let it all stay exactly as it is for the next five decades. Well, not exactly — there's no trace of bandleader Fred Hitchcock today, and more palak paneer and seekh kebab-type things on the menu than there used to be. Still, disdain for change seems to be the key. Koshy's has passed from being a fancy restaurant to, in the 1970s, a regular place that almost closed down because of 'union troubles', to, in the new Bangalore, a raging cult with groupies, legends and denouncers.
Prem Koshy, the third-generation Koshy who runs the place with his brother Mathew, doesn't immediately strike you as a cult leader. But the restaurant has prospered since he took it over 20 years ago. Like Koshy's, Prem is all personality. He is a theatre actor, snake-catcher and psychic healer when he's not striding around the always-packed restaurant and making hearty conversation with patrons old and new. As per the Prem Koshy myth, he wrestles with a pet python for entertainment and presides over a group called Ladies and Knights of the Square Table who meet at Koshy's.
But you don't necessarily need to bother with all that to love the place. You just have to step inside, catch the eye of your favourite waiter, sit back to survey the chattering hordes, and something begins to melt inside. As for the long-running discussions on ambience versus food, the fact is that it's hard to separate the two at Koshy's. The fraying rexine seats, the tube lights and clunky fans, the chin-up portraits of the preceding Koshys, the waiters who stand huddled by an aquarium — all add up to a wistful feeling that only a handful of spaces in Bangalore can still evoke. And if you're old-time, you've every right to be eccentric. There are vague photos of historical-looking architecture on the walls, the oddest book with a 'For Sale' sign stuck in the window of the cashier's cubicle and, my favourite, the 'Extra Menu'. This long list reads like the random fantasies of a starving man who is likely to think of Veg Noodle Soup, Lime Soda, Mutton Curry and Peanut Masala in sequence.
As for the food, it's exactly like the place — unpretentious, dependable and essentially traditional, notwithstanding the stray Korean dish or the few that Prem Koshy has affixed his initials to and added to the menu — like Mr K's Coriander Kidney and Liver Curry. One can order the staples at Koshy's — the Kerala-style fish or chicken curry with rice, the prawn biryani, the roast chicken—knowing that they will taste like they always do. All those restaurant owners who, beaming, hand you revamped menus every year miss the point: most of us don't want most things to change in our madly changing cities. We want them to stay the same.
Of course, however much they swear by the Sunday morning special of appams and stew or by the coffee-and-chicken-pattie combo, no one in their right mind treats Koshy's simply as a restaurant. Many customers virtually live there; others have a long-term relationship with the place. And that's exactly what makes Koshy's priceless: against its distinguished past stand out all our own separate little pasts, and each time we return we remember how places cultivate people at least as much as the other way round.
Koshy's, 39 St Mark's Road, Bangalore; 080-2213793/2215030; open 9am-11.30pm