Britannia Café is a lovely piece of vintage Bombay which is slowly disappearing. It was built in the early twenties by George Wittet, the architect who also built the Gateway of India to greet George V on his visit to Bombay. We were recently at Britannia, sipping Thums Up in its faded elegance.
Boman Kohinoor is the owner of the café. He ambles over to us and addresses us. “How old do you think I am?” he asks. We study him. He is wiry and lean and peers at us through his thick glasses. He gives us a clue. “I’m as old as this place.” Finally he tells us. “I was born in 1923. The same year as Britannia opened.” He says with a wide, wise smile. He shares his name with the famous diamond claimed by the British to crown Queen Victoria the Empress of India.
Next to us a pair of posh ladies take tea. They talk in the refined English of upper class Bombay. On our other side is a table of students taking a very late breakfast. They are eating hot buttered toast and drinking chai. They manage to devour their food hungrily and chatter loudly at the same time. On another table are a pair of earnest backpackers, who have probably read about Britannia in their dog-eared copy of the Lonely Planet Guide. They look excited to be here.
Britannia looks like it always did. Fans turn slowly under high ceilings. Bentwood chairs are reflected in stained mirrors, hung amongst ancestors’ faded sepia portraits. Exposed wiring droops across flaking blue walls. The image of a classic Bombay Café. It’s not that hot yet. But as the temperature rises, Britannia will become a haven from the city heat. As it has been, for many years.
Mr. Kohinoor’s pride is tempered with sadness. “Fifty years ago there were hundreds of these cafés. Now there are only thirty. Our children just don’t care. They go abroad, to make money. When I’m gone, they tell me they’ll close Britannia.”
The berry pulao arrives – a dish still spoken of by many Bombayites. Mr. Kohinoor takes the plate from the waiter and places it on our table for us to share. “Enjoy your food” he says. He pauses, smiles again, and returns slowly to his rightful place in the chair by the front door.
IT HAS BEEN an annual December habit of mine, these past ten years since we embarked upon this restaurant business, to sit alone, with myself, and reflect on the year gone by. I am grateful to be here in the Permit Room in our restaurant in Shoreditch scribbling and writing, the oddly enjoyable taste of splintering wood from my chewed up pencil smoothed by my decently strong drink.
These are the last few days, the dregs of 2019. It’s my habit to sit here in the Permit Room at this time. I am the be-stubbled and dishevelled regular, cherishing his precious drink at the end of the bar. Weary, I sit here pondering the year, attempting to figure out what it was trying to teach me. What wisdom can I glean from it?
I love to truly understand and appreciate the origins of a dish, and learn how communities have adapted a recipe over time to make that dish unique to them.
We have arrived at a very sad, but inevitable and clear choice. As of now, all Dishooms are now closed to diners.