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.
With February comes a gladdening of spirits, lighter morning skies and discernibly louder birdsong. It is also the month to bid farewell to our winter cocoons (at least partially) and tune back into the world beyond our blankets. Allow us to ease the de-hibernation process, by sharing some of the things piquing our interest this month.
“Who wants to see some magic?” Chef Arun calls out. He flings the rolled out dough into the air, sending it soaring above the counter. It spins and twists, a graceful dancer in the air. The children watch its arc, their eyes wide with wonder, until it lands gently back in the chef's hands. The children shriek in delight.
January is a most divisive month. For some it heralds the hopeful turning over of new leaves; for others it is a month to trudge begrudgingly through towards the promise of spring. Whichever camp you find yourself in, we have plentiful diversions to share. See them as the cherry atop your already gleeful January cake, or a welcome distraction while you await winter’s end.
I AM HERE, dear reader, slovenly and slouched, staring into my drink at the end of the bar in our new restaurant in Battersea. My mind is still down and out, sifting around in the dregs of ’23 but of course it knows that I should really straighten my back, raise my chin and look squarely up into the cold new light of ’24. My drink – Choti’s Punch – clear and strong, sweet with a little salt, may help.