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Some restaurants go down in history because of their influence or their popularity. Here is our lists of the legendary restaurants of Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkata. Be warned: many have now closed --- but their legend lives on.
The Mumbai Legends
Home of the legendary biryani, this unpretentious restaurant became one of India’s first restaurant brands even though the original branch was located not far from the red light area and therefore not ideal from a family outing perspective! It still exists in many different avatars and is to Mumbai what Moti Mahal is to Delhi.
For many decades this was India’s leading French restaurant. In the 40s, Chef Maski reigned in the kitchens and later, the maître’d hotel, known to all and sundry as Uncle Louis, became king of the restaurant, flambéing Crepes Suzette at the table. But it also attracted the world’s best chefs. Among those who cooked in its kitchens were Paul Bocuse and Albert Roux. It was closed in the 90s after the success of the Zodiac Grill.
Until Swati Snacks opened, Gujaratis were too scared to eat bhel puri on the streets because of health concerns. So this simple but spotlessly clean little place, run by a Gujarati lady, which mixed street food with Gujarati farsan and hand-churned ice-cream, became an instant hit. In the early days, they brought the food to your car but such was its success that it soon became a full-fledged restaurant.
This was the city’s most successful café with branches on Churchgate Street (then, the city’s restaurant street) and Warden Road. Famous for its pastries, it had a resident pianist (an Italian called Mario) and a fairly extensive non-patisserie menu including crumb-fried mutton cutlets and its famous hot dog, with the sausage sliced open and a green chilli placed in the centre. Both branches closed in the Seventies.
It is fashionable now to run down Trishna as a tourist trap but nobody can deny that it was the first Bombay restaurant to popularise coastal sea food. It has had many imitators and you can always tell where they got their inspiration from by looking for one particular dish: Crab Butter Garlic. This is as authentically coastal/Mangalorean/Malvani as Chairman Mao. In fact, it was originally on Trishna’s Chinese menu (yes it was the kind of place that offered Indian-Chinese!) before being adopted by foreign food writers and the city’s middle class, as a local delicacy.
The Delhi Legends
Karim’s is one of the first documented restaurants to have been set up in the city, around the same time as the Great Durbar (1911) when Haji Karimuddin had set up a stall near the gate of Jama Masjid to sell mutton curry with potatoes, dal and rotis. The rest is history.
Moti Mahal in Daryaganj was established around Partition. Today, it is virtually unchanged, from its rather plain courtyard to its Spartan interiors. Even the menu is largely unchanged since the last few decades. Now no more than nostalgia value, alas. (And the original owners no longer run it.)
United Coffee House started operations in the 1940s and has maintained the look of that era. It used to be famous for its high tea, desi-style – cheese balls, chicken chaat, paneer pakoras, Kona coffee – and after all this time, it is these that still do brisk business amid the ten page menu with Thai and Lebanese offerings.
Nirula’s provided sustenance for a whole generation of Delhiites and spawned several imitators too. Its version of the pizza may have given way to more authentic versions, but its Hot Chocolate Fudge will live on forever though the brand appears to be in the throes of rigor mortis.
Pandara Road Market
Naysayers keep grumbling about the falling standards, but the row of erstwhile dhabas, now morphed into respectable restaurants in central Delhi is a part of the city’s culinary history. There’s hardly a particle to choose between them – tandoori offerings and butter chicken-dal makhni-paneer makhni is the name of the game here.
The Kolkata Legends
This was set up by an Italian, Angelo Firpo, in the post-World War 1 era. For years this was where the city’s glitterati used to go and eat including, at one time, the governor general and his entourage. Its dance floor and the cabaret were the stuff of legends. A story which now lives on in history.
The Sky Room
For generations of Kolkatans, Sky Room was the place to go for a Continental meal. Its prawn cocktails and Chicken Tetragini were legendary. Today’s generation just has the stories of the now shut Sky Room to feed on though there are rumours that it might open again.
This was a place as famous for its steaks as it was for the performances of Louis Banks and Pam Crain in the 60s. The music is over at the Blue Fox too as it shut shop sometime back. But memories of the era when Park Street was the centre of the universe still linger!
One of the few places in Park Street to still hold on. Once famous because Usha Uthup used to perform here as well as for its vibrant cabarets and bands. It is now more a desultory drinking joint which has lost some of its sheen.
This is one restaurant, opened in the swinging 60s, which still sees a queue of people waiting to get in. Cocktails cheaper than food, waiters wearing turbans, dark interiors with cramped seating, menu cards shaped like a cat, distinguish the place. If there is one dish that has made the restaurant famous, it is its chelo kabab.
Vir Sanghvi is India's best-known food writer and TV host. His book, Rude Food won the Cointreau Award for Best Food Literature book in the world and his food and travel shows on channels such as TLC and NDTV Good Times have won numerous awards and continue to be watched by millions.