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Eating out: Islamabad wakes up to coffee

June 23, 2013

Islamabad’s café culture has come some way from the early days of Laila’s in Jinnah market and the open-air hangouts off Margala Road, Marriott’s Nadia coffee shop, haunt of the MNA and the Arab diplomats and The Holiday Inn, with its pricey high teas.

As the ’80s rolled to a close, the focus shifted to Kohsar Market and Table Talk, Riffi's brave new venture, combining the winning combination of indoor/outdoor seating, a selected menu, and great coffee soon became the place to watch the world go by, with clients often coming for a morning coffee and lingering on till way past lunchtime. As Table Talk began to draw in the expat/diplomat crowd as well as the locals, it was only a matter of time before Mocha, Gloria Jeans and Café 1 joined the club, converting this small market into a hub of activity, with customers frequently spilling out onto the street.

Meanwhile in F7, Umer Khan’s Hot Spot, offering homemade ice cream, and a small but tempting menu of sandwiches and coffees rapidly took over the under-25s market. With its kitschy outlet — a railway carriage look-alike, decorated on the inside with Hollywood and Lollywood film posters — a small area to sit outdoors and weekly film shows, this venture rapidly became the coolest place in town. In a city where everything, even the residents, were ‘imported’ from other places, Hotspot came to be seen as the first true home-grown venture; a description that gives it a near iconic status. Now with outlets in Karachi and Lahore, it is perhaps the first franchise to come out of Islamabad.

At about the same time, Civil Junction, opened in the F7 area; a tea house with a social agenda. Billed as a place of discourse and ideas, the Junction, with its quaintly tagged menu items reflecting the leaders and issues of the day, soon became a place for debates, its steps, the scene of many a candlelit vigil. Over time however, CJ, as it is locally known, has slipped into obscurity and its shinier, noisier neighbours are now on the ascendant.

For a while cafés used the lure of sheesha to bring in customers, though I should point out sheesha lounges attract a younger crowd, while the true coffee aficionados, the ‘espressonites’ to borrow a term, prefer a quiet and smoke-free atmosphere. Now, with a ban on sheesha, the teen crowd gravitates towards fast food and ice cream outlets, and coffee houses have reclaimed their more mature clients. Places like Chaaye Khaana, Jia’s Deli, and others have become day-long hubs of activity, some places opening early and offering varied breakfast menus, complimentary Wi-Fi and newspapers.

Islamabad also has café/restaurants in residential areas with Nana's Kitchen my personal favourite. In winter you can huddle on comfy sofas in front of a cheerful fire as you sip the aromatic coffee and enjoy the soothing strains of jazz in the background. In spring, you can enjoy the garden, perched on charpoys or stretched out on rugs.

The world’s most famous fast food outlet, McDonald’s located in F9 park, has become more popular for its coffee than it’s burgers. It’s obviously not the rather insipid coffee that draws the customers but a chance to sit outdoors and drink in a breathtaking view of the Margalla Hills.

Further out, cafés are springing up all over the new sectors of F10, F11 and E11. Obviously, Islamabad’s café culture is here to stay.