Once the most ubiquitous part of Karachi’s heritage, Irani ‘hotels’ are fast disappearing from the urban landscape...
The Irani cafes of Karachi
by Asif Noorani
Sometime in the 1920s, Rustom Aspandiar Bahmani, a Zoroastrian, left Yazd, then a small desert town in Iran, with his companions. All of them perched on mulebacks trotted all the way to Zahidan, from where they took a painfully slow train to Quetta. A faster train took them to Karachi from where they boarded a sailboat to Bombay. After a six-day voyage, the vessel dropped anchor at the city’s harbour.
The city was not unfamiliar to Zoroastrians. Waves of Zoroastrians had migrated from Iran between the 8th and 10th centuries and had made their way up the social ladder as successful businessmen and industrialists. Quite understandably, they were supportive of their co-religionists. To cut a long story short, Bahmani, like other Zoroastrians, made their mark in the restaurant business. They were followed by Bahais, practitioners of the 19th century religion, and Muslims. The latter moved to the state of Hyderabad in large numbers.
A good number of Iranis didn’t go to Bombay, however; they decided to settle down in Karachi. There were more than a hundred Irani restaurants (Irani hotels in common parlance) in Karachi in the 1970s but today hardly 10 remain. After Independence, not many opened in the newer parts of the city. Café Liberty and the one in Nursery market in PECHS (whose name nobody seems to recall) were among the exceptions. Areas such as Defence Housing Authority and North Nazimabad never had a single Irani restaurant.
The middle class localities and commercial areas of the city were once punctuated with Irani restaurants. Most of them had ‘cafes’ preceding their names. Four restaurants were in close proximity in Saddar. Fredrick’s Cafeteria was the haunt of punters who frequented the place after placing bets at the city’s racecourse. It also had a pay phone which one could use after inserting two coins of 10 paisas each in the slots. Café George, on the intersection of Victoria Road (now Abdullah Haroon Road) and Frere Road (now Shahrah-i-Liaquat) was known for its snacks, particularly its mutton patties and the accompanying chutney concocted by its cook (chef was a term that was yet to come in vogue).
On the other side of the road was Eastern Coffee House, which was named India Coffee House until a few years after Partition. It was initially run by the India Coffee Board, (ICB), which ran a chain of coffee houses since the mid-1930s (it still does in India). India Coffee House in Saddar became Zelin’s Coffee House but, soon after, an Irani took over, who christened it Eastern Coffee House. Mr Merchant, a coffee-taster turned manager at the ICB, then set up Pioneer Coffee House in what is now the Electronics Market.
Eastern Coffee House was the haunt of writers and student leaders. Some people were regular visitors. Come rain or shine, they were there in the afternoons. Once the Marxist student leader Ali Mukhtar Rizvi, who was part of the Moharram zuljina juloos, climbed up the stairs, had a quick cup of tea before joining the tail of the long procession. Then there was one Mr Bilgrami, who never loosened the buttons of his sherwani even when mercury crossed the 110oF mark. In those days air conditioning in restaurants was a rarity. Only Shehzan and Pioneer had that facility. Fredrick’s Cafetaria and Eastern Coffee House had sections for families as well.
As you walked towards the Elphinstone Street (now Zebunnisa Street), you saw Café Parisian (the septuagenarian Parisian Bakery is still there). Then as you proceeded towards the corner of Bohri Bazaar, you saw the plebeian Boman Abadon Irani Restaurant where ready-made tea was served. Outside the restaurant there was a row of shoe-shine men from what was then the NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). You would place your foot on a pedestal and the man seated on a stool would live up to his promise of making your shoe shine like a mirror. “Sheesha banaiga” used to be their slogan.
Diagonally opposite the Parisian was Café Gulzar, which had its loyal clientele too. The Karachi-born singer C.H. Atma, who had migrated to Bombay, visited his native city sometime in the ’60s. He made it a point to visit two places — Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s mazaar and Café Gulzar. In an interview with a local journalist he said that whereas he got spiritual satisfaction at the mausoleum, the food in his favourite restaurant gave him gastronomic satisfaction. “It still tastes as delicious as it did before Partition,” he said.
At the other end of Victoria Road, opposite Hotel Metropole, was Café Victoria, which was spacious and comfortable. It had a number of delicacies listed on its menu, but to a friend, who frequented it in the ’60s, the piece-de-resistance was the Mahi Kabab — ‘mahi’ being the Persian word for fish.
Café Subhani, close to Fleet Club, was widely known for its Chullu Kabab, an Iranian specialty kabab served over a bed of buttered rice. It closed down a year or two ago. It is now owned by locals, who have refurbished it and renamed it Chullu Kabab Sistani.
Two Irani restaurants which are still there are adjacent to each other. Pehlvi Restaurant, at the intersection of M.A. Jinnah Road and Zebunnisa Street, offers tea in cups and also has a small stall which serves tea in chainaks — small metallic teapots. Next to it is Café Durakhshan, owned by the same family, where tea is served in teapots, accompanied with sugar in a pot and milk in a small jug. Its fastest selling dish is the Spicy Pulao. It retains the feel of old while Pehlvi seems to have morphed into a more modern fast food joint.
Almost invariably all Irani restaurants, not just in Karachi but also in Mumbai and Pune, are located at street corners, a testament to their early-mover advantage in real estate. They are open on two sides. It seems Pehlvi and Durakhshan were once one restaurant but were later divided between two siblings, so the latter does not enjoy having entrances from two sides. The present owners simply refuse to comment on this subject.
The only Irani Restaurant which was not in a corner was Café Gloria in the small lane which is still called Capitol ki Gali. Capitol was one of the two cinemas owned by the Mobed family, who were Parsis. Flamingo, a snazzy restaurant on the first floor of the cinema, was particularly known for its cold coffee. While Flamingo was owned by a Zoroastrian, Café Gloria’s proprietor was a Bahai. Capitol Cinema and its twin, Paradise Cinema, have vanished like many other movie houses in Saddar.
Café Yasmeen near the Police Head Office on I.I. Chundrigar Road was the latest Irani restaurant demise and the one to suffer the most is the paanwallah outside —all Irani restaurants have paan shops tucked in small spaces outside the premises. The paanwallah has lost his clientele and now closes shop at 6pm.
Not too far from Cafe Yasmeen was Café Victory on what was South Napier Road, which was renamed Altaf Hussain Road after the founding editor of Dawn. With the offices of the Dawn Group and Millat Publications being there, journalists thronged the café at lunch hour. It was known particularly for its succulent beef steak and the sauce that topped it.
Perhaps the only Irani restaurant which is faring quite well is Khairabad Tea Shop (see interview). It has its loyal clientele, some of whom keep returning even after years. Syed Abdullah Shah, the chief minister of Sindh from 1993-1996, paid a visit to have tea there after assuming the top office in the province. He recalled that Khairabad was his usual haunt while studying at the nearby S.M. Law College.
But why are so many Irani restaurants closing down despite their being a part of Karachi’s heritage? Young Abbas Ahmed of Café Durakhshan, an MBA, has the answer. “For one thing, the trend has changed,” he says. “Now there are fast food joints as well as eateries which specialise in items such as nihari, biryani or barbecue. Secondly, there is much hassle in running restaurants, particularly when the profits have dipped. You would be better off selling the restaurant and putting the money in fixed deposit.”
Why have the marble top tables that were the mark of Irani restaurants disappeared? “Simply because they were too space consuming,” explains Ahmed. “But the bentwood chairs are still there. In fact, you are sitting on one. The large mirrors which give the impression of extra space have not disappeared either.”
The Iranis are still very much into selling tea leaves. “Two of the leading shops, Islamia Tea and Iranian Tea are doing quite well,” Ahmed points out.
Irani restaurants may be vanishing but they have left their mark on their city. Proof, if proof be needed, is that the Tariq Road and Allama Iqbal Road intersection is still called Café Liberty and the area near Fleet Club is known as Lucky Star, after the restaurants which dropped shutters years ago.
“There were close to 100 Irani restaurants in the 50s and 60s, now there are less than 10.” — Abbas Ali the proprietor of Khairabad Tea Shop
Abbas Ali, the proprietor of Khairabad Tea Shop, mans the counter of the restaurant at the intersection of I.I. Chundrigar Road and Dr Ziauddin Ahmed Road for at least six to eight hours a day. He greets you with a cheerful Khushamdeed (‘Welcome’). However, if you wish to interview him, he politely asks you to see him after the peak hours — 12 noon to 4pm. I talk to him when he is relatively free.
AN: When was this restaurant set up?
AA: In 1932 by my grandfather, who had migrated from Iran. My father was then a young man.
AN: How come you call it a tea shop? I don’t recall seeing an Irani restaurant in Karachi or Mumbai, not even Pune, where any restaurant bore that description. They are all called ‘cafes’, even though coffee is not a popular drink in our country, nor in that part of India.
AA: That’s a question that you should have asked my father, but he is up in the heavens. However, if you look at our menu displayed under the glass, you will find that we have renamed the restaurant. It is called ‘Café Khairabad (Tea Shop) and Food Centre’. It’s too long a name to be painted on the board fixed on top of the entrances so we have continued with the original name.
AN: Why Khairabad?
AA: That is where my family hails from in Iran. You will see quite a few restaurants named after the towns from where their owners belonged to. [There were also Café Meharabad and Café Ispahan, to name just two.] Sadly, they are among the many Irani restaurants that have dropped shutters. The latest casualty is Café Yasmeen, which was on this very road. There were close to a hundred Irani restaurants in the 50s and 60s, now there are less than 10.
AN: What’s the reason for closures on such a vast scale?
AA: The business is not that good. The electricity and gas charges are prohibitively high. The prices of meat and vegetables, not to mention cooking oil, have risen considerably. Wages have gone up too. We can’t raise the food charges accordingly because there is strong consumer resistance.
AN: The owners of Irani restaurants that I have met complain that extortion by members of political parties is a major cause of dropping the shutters. What do you have to say on that issue?
AA: I wouldn’t like to comment on that. You are a journalist. You should know better. (Smiles)
AN: What business do the Iranis who close their restaurants do after selling the premises which are invariably on prime locations?
AA: They go back to Iran. There is no future for us here. Even those Iranis who were born here have not been given Pakistani nationalities.
AN: How come Khairabad is a longish-shaped restaurant, unlike others?
AA: My grandfather bought a shop and turned it into a tea shop. My father bought two more [which he combined], which is why you get that impression.
AN: You have a fast food joint very close to Khairabad. Fast food joints are not your cup of tea. They are different from Irani restaurants. Then there is Ramzani Bakery which is a few steps ahead of Agha Fastfoods. How will you explain this diversion?
AA: We have to keep pace with the changing times. And as for the bakery, may I remind you that bakeries have always been a part of the operations. Many restaurants have bakeries next door.
AN: Why does Agha Fastfoods remain closed on Sundays?
AA: There are no clients on Sundays and public holidays because this is a commercial area. Even Khairabad has many empty seats on the second half of Saturdays and whole day on Sundays. — AN.
Memories of Avalon
A regular customer shares memories of his favourite haunt in the 60s
Khan Sahib (not his real name) in his late seventies but his memory of his college days is surprisingly quite sharp. He used to bunk his classes when he was studying for his B.A. For this reason it took him six years after matriculation to complete his graduation, which otherwise he could have done in four years.
When I, his junior, approach him for his views on Avalon, the Irani restaurant, where he used to hold his ‘darbar’, he sounds reluctant. “I shall talk to you only if you promise me that you won’t publish my name because I don’t want my grandchildren to know that their grandpa used to bunk classes,” he lays down just one condition.
I recall that there were always some freeloaders who wanted free cups of tea and often ‘maska bun’ (buttered bun). Khan Sahib, the son of an affluent jeweller, was never short of cash. More than that, he was quite generous and never hesitated to loosen his purse strings.
Drifting down memory lane, Khan Sahib says, “Almost all Irani restaurants were quite spacious but Avalon was perhaps the largest in terms of space. A table in one corner, from where I could watch college girls going to Sind Muslim College and DJ Science College, was unofficially reserved for me. Let me be honest, I never had the guts to talk to them but, on the other hand, I served as Agony Aunt to boys whose ‘crush’ for girls was never reciprocated.”
Khan Sahib further says, “Avalon was a second grade Irani restaurant where readymade tea was served in tea cups. They were never full or else tea would have spilt in saucers. Payments were made at the counter and the waiters were not given tips. However, I did reward them occasionally, which was why I was given what was known as ‘VIP treatment’. For instance, I was never served tea in a chipped cup. Like other restaurants of their type, they also served what was known as Sulemani Chai, which was light tea, devoid of milk. Green tea came in vogue much later.”
Admiring the servers’ memory, Khan Sahib says, “The waiters would remember what they had served on which table and how much money was to be collected. Surprisingly, when a bearer [as the waiter was called in those days] had to hand over the charge to his successor at the end of his shift, he would tell them how much money was to be paid by every customer.
“In those days one could share a table with a stranger, without bothering to take his permission,” he recalls. My table was an exception. My flashy moustaches — now no more, thanks to my wife — kept the intruders away.
“Two notices were displayed prominently on the premises. One instructed the customers to refrain from discussing politics and the other advised them to check with the person manning the counter if he could handle a 10-rupee note, which was equivalent to a present day 1,000-rupee note,” Khan Sahib reminisces.
“I wasn’t keen to graduate, but I feel that the examiners were generous when I managed to get pass marks in maths, which was my weakest subject. That was in 1964. A couple of years later when, out of sheer nostalgia, I went to have a cup of tea, I found much to my dismay, that Avalon had been replaced by a bank. The proprietor, I learnt from his neighbour, had moved back to Iran,” he says. Incidentally the bank too is no more there.
“To me, Avalon would have been a heritage site, had it not vanished,” concluded Khan Sahib, in a wistful tone. — AN
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 4th, 2016