Wander around Mumbai and you might be lucky enough to stumble across one of these traditional cafés, nostalgic reminders of the way the city used to be. With crumbling exteriors, mirrored surfaces, wood panelling and chequerboard floors, these cafés are a slice of old Bombay. Set up by Zoroastrian immigrants, they were once part of the fabric of life in the city – the first places in Bombay where people of any culture, class or religion could take refuge, break bread and rub shoulders, breaking down barriers and bringing people together over food and drink. At their peak in the 1960s, there were around 400 such cafés in the city. Today, fewer than 30 are still open. But they remain lovely places of refuge within the hustle and bustle of Mumbai. Here’s my pick of the best.
Kyani & Co
My favourite place to start the day in Mumbai is the charming Kyani & Co. Mumbaiites have been breakfasting here since 1904. You can go here for any meal, but I must say, I’ve been inspired by the breakfast staples for which Kyani is loved – akuri (a spicy version of scrambled eggs), omelettes and pillowy bun maska (like a sweet hamburger bap), all of which are best enjoyed with an abundance of chai and the morning papers. A walk around the surrounding neighbourhood of Dhobi Talao to work off your breakfast is much recommended.
Jermahal Estate, 657, Jss Rd, Marine Lines East; +91 22 2201 1492
Yazdani Restaurant & Bakery
Housed in a former Japanese bank, Yazdani is an excellent place to stop for a mid-morning snack. The bakery’s wood-fired ovens churn out fresh breads and sweet treats. Their signature is the brun maska – fluffy white bread with a crunchy, slightly crumbly crust, which is halved, filled with Amul butter and sliced into fingers. Dipped in sweet chai, it’s a real delight. I especially enjoy the café’s eclectic signage and artwork, which sees a mishmash of statements such as “toast is ready” adorn the walls alongside faded photos of Parsi bodybuilders.
11, 1, Horniman Circle, 11A, Cawasji Patel Rd, Fort; +91 22 2287 0739
Olympia Coffee House
Olympia is a welcome refuge from the tourist trap of Colaba Causeway, and also one of my favourite places for keema pau. This is a delicious, moreish dish of spiced lamb mince mopped up with lots of fresh white bread. It’s even better with a fried egg or two. Olympia is always packed. There is a comforting familiarity to the mirrored walls, well-worn floor tiles and elegant dark-wood dividers, all of which have provided inspiration for the design of the Dishoom cafés.
Rahim Mansion, No 1, Shahid Bhagat Singh Marg, Scindia Society; +91 22 2202 1043
Britannia & Co
I’m deeply indebted to Britannia & Co for our Chicken Berry Britannia at Dishoom. This biryani is my homage to the café’s chicken berry pulao, which is made to the owner’s wife’s much-prized (and top-secret) recipe. Beyond the food, it’s the owner, Mr Kohinoor, who has most inspired me. He is legendary and the utter embodiment of kindness, generosity and hospitality. He is the same age as the café (which his father opened in 1923) and still enjoys serving guests, peering at them through his bottle-bottom-thick glasses as they savour their first bites, keen to ensure each and every guest leaves fully satisfied.
Wakefield House, 11, Sport Rd, 16 Ballard Estate, Opp New Custom House; +91 22 2261 5264
It’s not technically an old Bombay café, but I love Radio Restaurant for the keema pau and seekh kebabs. Rumour has it that Radio Restaurant is a favourite with the local gangsters. Tucked away in an unusual building on a crowded street behind Crawford Market, its crumbling interiors and high ceilings are something that have become a familiar sight in hip London hangouts – but here it’s the real deal. A set of hand-painted rules adorn the walls: “No combing”, “No talking loudly” and “Please do not seat long time”. It gives the place its own charm – just don’t step out of line.
10, SS Musafir Khana Rd, Crawford, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus Area; +91 22 2261 7171
Naved Nasir is Executive Chef of Dishoom restaurants