Walk into Embassy or United Coffee House – both in Connaught Place – at 4 pm and try and seat yourself at one of the empty tables. A brood of waiters, most of them senior citizens, will come rushing up to admonish you: “This table is not free.” The only problem is that almost every table is “not free” even though the restaurant is almost empty. You are taken to a table in a gloomy corner. In a few minutes, the picture begins to become clear: every last table in these heritage restaurants of Central Delhi is occupied by old-timers, each of whom has a favourite table. Groups are formed, of two, three and four people. Some are businessmen with shops in Connaught Place, while others come from further afield. It is obvious from the air of jollity or relaxed familiarity that these tea-time outings are a regular feature in the restaurants.
For those who have businesses in Connaught Place it could be a daily occurrence; for others it is a bi- or tri-weekly meeting with friends and business associates. You can spot the occasional political party worker holding forth. It is like a cosmos within the restaurant world. Each has his own table, coterie and time. Tea and coffee – Kona coffee is still a favourite even in this day and age – means cheese balls, paneer pakodas, chicken chaat, mince samosas and kidney on toast.
At one time, there was Volga, Standard and Gaylord besides United Coffee House and Embassy. Volga struggled on valiantly and became a Levi’s store five years ago; Standard was sold at a vast sum to a banquet owner but nothing new seems to have sprung up on the premises; Gaylord, the favourite of the senior citizens, folded up. Kwality was never very high in the off-mealtime sweepstakes, perhaps because of the location off the Inner Circle, so the newly renovated Embassy and 70 year old United Coffee House struggle valiantly on with the baton.
Each has approximately 100 tea-timers before lunch and dinner. More than the tourists who are led by Trip Advisor ratings, it is the vintage brigade who come for the personalized service in familiar surroundings that make the two dowagers what they are. Take that Starbucks and Barista!