Leopold’s café on Colaba is another Bombay institution. The wide shopfront on Colaba Causeway, one of the oldest and busiest roads in the city, opens up the large café to an expansive view of the street. Beggars beg, hawkers peddle counterfeit goods to the crowds of passing locals and tourists, and black and yellow taxis stuck in traffic honk, pointlessly. It’s a snapshot of vibrant, energetic, urban Bombay.
Gregory David Roberts famously wrote about Leopold’s in his book Shantaram, which was the essential backpacker accessory a few years ago. The main character used to sit there endlessly with his colourful cast of friends. The book recounts the story of Roberts himself, an Australian prison escapee who lived in the slums, where he established a health clinic, became a street soldier for the Bombay mafia, was thrown into Indian prison and then went on to fight with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Slightly crazy, but a fun and lively read.
As in the book, Leo’s is almost always full, but it’s much better to be inside than outside. The high ceilings and buzzing fans provide welcome relief from the heat. The café chairs are just comfortable enough. The big old clock above the door and the aging mahogany trimmed mirrors even lend the café a distinguished air. Leo’s dates back to the 1870s, so it has earned the right to its shabby elegance.
The customers are pretty diverse. Bombayites mix easily with tourists from all over the world. Hours are lost in people-watching. Business is conducted. Some suggest that Leo’s is a good place for less legitimate kinds of trade, but it’s just part of the fabric of Bombay.
If you ask, the waiters will point out the bullet holes in the walls and in the mirrors where the terrorists who took over the café for a day in 2008 left their mark. It was a traumatic day but a few days later, Leopold’s re-opened and resumed its rhythm.
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.