Amid the clattering noise of cups and spoons, and the murmuring voices of customers, run the goings-on of the Irani Cafe. This is not a singular noun. Rather, it is a plural noun. Iranian-style cafes are known to be clustered in Western India, mainly Mumbai. They are the oldest surviving cafes that were started, dating back to the 1890s, when Muslims from Iran came to India. These cafes were situated around the corner of buildings, which other people may have favoured against for opening a restaurant, but were considered idyllic by Iranis. They brought the dishes which were so representative of their heritage such as mutton cutlet, Irani chai, dhansak, famous keemas, salli boti, patra ni machchi, chicken farchan, raspberry soda, bun maska and so on.

   

Whoever carries forward the legacy of Irani Cafes is a hero in their community: it is the father, his son, then his son, coming generation after generation, who manned the counters and even partook in the service often. This was a new way of establishing a no-hierarchy, no-nonsense culture. The furniture, to this day, remains antique and the names of cafes are candid and innovative. But the culture is informal and warm, just like the spirit of the owners who grew up in the 1900s. As these cafes date back to an era when the British reigned, some names of the cafes go like Cafe Leopold, Cafe Britannia and so on. Others have Persian-Urdu names such as Light of Persia. Furthermore, some of these cafes used to have family rooms reserved for women, at a time when women and men didn’t mingle together in public.

 

Today, our culture has certainly changed. Things are not as they used to be, but these cafes have still kept their old-world charm intact. The iconic Irani cafes have certain characteristics which continue to astonish: it’s the Indo-European atmosphere, it’s the taste of Irani chai, and the way that affordable buns are sold by hundreds. Parsi community itself is a close-knit one that doesn’t belittle anyone who comes from a less fortunate background; perhaps that is where the warmth at their cafes come from. It’s the little things such as the antique feel of the tables and chairs which, once upon a time, enhanced the grandeur of colonial India, but most of all, it is the quirky and unique identity of each cafe. The time spent in Irani cafes makes up the matter of stories told by people that have good memories, and the scores of their regular visitors to this day are proof of that. 

For hundreds of years, not only had Irani cafes survived competition from other fast-food brands (though, some cafes have adapted to the demands of the new world), but many well-known public figures with high stature ate in these cafes. In Cafe Britannia, the likes of Abhishek Bachchan and Boman Irani used to pay visits. A lot of these cafes are shutting down today because there is a lot more competition than they anticipated, and the future generations are not choosing to continue the family businesses. However, perhaps that may not mean it’s the end. There are things that the newer, if not all-traditional, Irani places have created. They are also retaining the nostalgic feeling you get when you enter a Parsi cafe and set your sights on the cheque-cloth and the quirky showpieces. SodaBottleOpenerWala is one such place. Not all is lost, and the upcoming Parsi restaurants are proud to be continuing the legacy.