The narrative of the disappearing Irani Cafés has a certain wistful poetry.
Zoroastrian Iranian immigrants cross the Indian ocean from Iran to arrive in early 20th century colonial Bombay. They work in the homes of established Parsi families, leaving to set up their own cafés. These Irani cafés become an irreplaceable Bombay institution. An institution which earns a fond place in the hearts of Bombayites, regardless of caste and class, by reliably providing a cheap snack, a meal, or just a cup of chai and a refuge from the street.
As the decades wear on eventfully, the Irani cafés peak in number in the 1960s and then start closing down. From none to four hundred and back down to twenty-five within the century. Children of café owners become lawyers and accountants. Café Coffee Day (clad in cheerful Western plastic) becomes the choice for bashful teenage trysts. Bombay becomes Mumbai and cafés become bittersweet memories. Tears are shed, but tomorrow’s modernity creeps in quickly with its own petty pace. Brave new India looks to the shiny future, and it doesn’t pause much to remember its own stories.
How can you tell these stories? A book would do the job, perhaps a film or a documentary. If you had a naive mind you might try and convey some of these stories in a space, in a café, through design. You would have to convey them gently, even wittily – a reference here, a joke there – and you couldn’t be too earnest or people would not listen. Of course, you would need to encourage a use of the space which supported the stories you were telling – form, function and narrative requiring unity.
Creating a pastiche of an Irani café – perhaps an attempt at literal authenticity – would probably be a misguided errand. We’re not in Bombay, we’re not Irani immigrants and this isn’t the 1930s. However, we can still pay loving homage to this rich period narrative in a modern space in London. The marble tables, bentwood chairs, ceiling fans, ageing mirrors and monochromatic palette are the backdrop which start to tell the story. (There is in fact a lovely circularity here, since the Irani cafés, opened in a colonial context, were themselves homage to European cafés.)
The playfully drooping wires of the pendant lights further evoke a mid 20th century Bombay (wiring always an afterthought). A Bombayite might recognise the large art deco clock as a close replica of the one in Victoria Terminus (Bombay’s St. Pancras). The sign of rules by the door is a reference to the rules at Café Bastani which closed in the 1990s. The vintage Indian toiletries in the loo medicine cabinets have an innocent charm. The art deco detail on the screens downstairs evokes the balconies on the city’s apartment blocks while the Gola machine on the bar brings back childhood memories of crushed ice treats on Chowpatty Beach. Even the shade of blue on the brickwork is close to that of Britannia Café.
The artwork tells stories of its own. The owners of Irani cafés would put pictures of their ancestors on the walls. We’ve respected this tradition. My grandmother gazes confidently out of a picture taken for sending to my grandfather before their engagement was agreed. A slim sixteen year old girl in a Bombay studio in 1944, she has poise, but somehow she really doesn’t know what to expect. The photo of my partners’ mother, evokes the look of the Bombay starlets of the 1960s with uncanny precision. She has the end of an arm of her spectacles in her mouth, her hair piled stylishly up on her head.
Other artwork is from the posters and advertising of mid 20th century Bombay. The graphic style is beautifully simple, even naive, and catches us all in its nostalgia. We can believe that Bombay’s version of Don Draper may have dreamt up some of these campaigns. In the ladies’ loo we have life size pictures of the champion Parsi body builders from 1960. (I’m fairly sure that no actual Irani Café had pictures like these in their loos, whether or not the owners were bodybuilders.)
Details are important, but coherence is critical; it all must work together. The chai glasses – which serve proper Bombay chai – must be real chai glasses from Bombay – ageless and enduring. The crockery is deliberately simple and democratic, with plates already piled on tables for sharing. The menu which refers to specific dishes from the Irani Cafés and from Bombay is suited for café style eating – easy, flexible, welcoming. Even the music is chosen carefully to evoke the Bombay and Cafés of this period. Mohammed Rafi plays one track, followed by Django Reinhardt.
Dieter Rams famously laid out ten principles of good design. One thing he didn’t mention is that good design can often tell a story. The story of the Irani Cafés and of 20th century Bombay is a beautiful one. One that has a certain wistful poetry. If we can, through designing Dishoom, convey even a little of this poetry, we have achieved something.
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.
BOMBAY, 1949. A sultry June evening. Lights glow golden. Candles flicker in the warm breeze that arrives gently through the large open windows of the café.