Of Velvet Curtains And Pink Gin

September 23, 2013 7:53 am

Dancing at Studio 29. Photo courtesy of Sangeeta Chopra.

“I’d go there with plenty of four anna coins for the jukebox, and have espressos and hot dogs for Rs1.25 each. Napoli was an open, noisy cafe. The owner always managed to have the latest vinyls, and five bucks was enough for two people to have a snack and a coffee each. One car would go down the street every half hour, a Dodge Kingsway, or a Baby Hindustan – the precursor to the Ambassador, modeled after the Morris Minor – or an Austin A40, or a Studebaker Commander, and it would always be jam-packed with high school or college kids, who would all pour out of it at one of the spots on the streets. We’d listen and dance to Elvis, Bill Haley and the Comets, Connie Francis, Helen Shapiro…in the evenings we’d go to Moka at the Airlines Hotel (near the Ritz Hotel). At first none of us knew what the name meant, but soon our Parsi teachers at Xavier’s Boys’ Academy told us that it was a coffee drink.”

That’s just one of the many stories I hear from my dad a few times every year. They come up at all sorts of times. Like when we walk down Marine Drive to Veer Nariman Road after dinner to have ice cream sandwiches at K. Rustom. Or when we have a family dessert of Baked Alaska at Gaylord. Napoli, Talk of The Town and Volga are just some of the other places he would frequent. And they were all in what was once Bombay’s hippest neighbourhood, in and around one street: Churchgate Street Extension, now known as Veer Nariman Road.

The area may have lost some of its shine over the last decade, but from the 1960s until the mid ’80s, it was home to the most popular dining and drinking establishments in town. Restaurateur Riyaaz Amlani, who opened Mocha in 2001 in the spot previously occupied by his father’s restaurant Berry’s, continues to be bullish about the stretch, and will soon open a Salt Water Cafe in the same location. “It’s an arterial road in the heart of Bombay’s Art Deco district, and a very historic space in Mumbai’s nightlife,” he says.

Every cuisine that was popular then was represented on and around the street. If you wanted a multi-course menu offering fried oysters, steak and creamed spinach, all served by doddering waiters, you went to Gourdon, now Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank near the Asiatic department store. For Gujarati food and lots of farsan served in silver thalis, you went to Purohit’s, now Indian Summer. For hot chocolate and Marquise cake there was Bombelli’s, now Shiv Sagar. Owned by a Swiss man named Freddi Bombelli, Bombelli’s also had a branch near Amarsons in Breach Candy.

“There was nowhere else to go,” says my friend Anandita’s dad, Sudhir Shah, who spent a lot of time in the area between 1958 and 1975. “The top three places in the city for dinner and dancing were The Other Room [at the Ambassador], The Little Hut at The Ritz, [and] The Rendezvous at the Taj. For all-day coffee and snacks, there was only Bombelli’s, Parisian Cafe, Volga, Gaylord and Monginis. My dad would take me for sponge cake, cheese toast, and puff pastries to Monginis. Places would have morning jam sessions, from 11am to 1pm, during which there would be no dancing. An orchestra would play, we’d listen and drink tea and coffee.” Eventually Parisian Cafe became Talk of The Town, which became Jazz by The Bay, then Not Just Jazz by the Bay and is now Pizza by The Bay. Napoli and then later Volga stood where the recently-shuttered Chopsticks is located. Monginis occupied the spot in Fort that now has Akbarallys, which bought over the brand.

The Other Room was a universal favourite for its music, dancing, cuisine, and crowd. In Naresh Fernandes’s book Taj Mahal Foxtrot, he writes that in the 1950s The Ambassador was “managed by a cigar-chomping Greek named Jack Voyantzis”. When The Society (which today is best known for Spaghetti a la Fernandes, a dish named after the chef who created the recipe) was full, Voyantzis would invite people to “‘the other room across the hall, where’s there’s music and dancing.’ The name stuck. The menu at The Other Room featured Greek, Hungarian, Swiss and Burmese dishes.”

Voyantzis also gets a mention in singer and musician Biddu’s memoir Made in India. He writes about an incident in 1964, when he just arrived in Mumbai: “We turned left into Churchgate and right there on the left side of the road was the Ambassador Hotel, a small but prestigious four-star establishment. We were greeted by the owner. Jack was a bear of a man, as wide as he was tall, with a handshake as firm as clamping irons and a voice that rasped like sandpaper. ‘Welcome. You play here,’ he said in his guttural English, taking us into a little room, plush with velvet curtains and tables for two and four with light-pink tablecloths and lilac walls.”

Theatre actor Sabira Merchant, who launched one of Mumbai’s earliest discotheques Studio 29 at the Bombay International Hotel (now Hotel Marine Plaza) in 1980, loved the “beef strips in creamy sauce flambeed in brandy” at The Other Room. Merchant recalled how people would dance to a four-piece band at the restaurant, and come back to their table to drink hard liquor out of teapots during the Prohibition years, which lasted until 1973. Pink gin – a mix of gin and bitters with a slice of lime and some ice - was the thing to drink. “It was only that little stretch [in Churchgate] where we could go out to eat,” says Merchant.

At Gourdon, expats, tourists, consulate employees and advertising professionals would chow down on British food as well on crisp pickled onions, jars full of which were kept on the tables. Tea Centre and Samovar (inside the Jehangir Art Gallery), both of which still exist, were more affordable and would attract the poorer literati, while Gaylord was much the same as it is now, except that it had a band, as did Berry’s and Talk of The Town.

Like Gaylord, Tea Centre and Kamling (which opened way back in the late 1930s), some of the smaller establishments such as K. Rustom and Stadium are still around. Retired IPS officer and Bombay Local History Society member Deepak Rao remembers going often to Stadium restaurant in the Lalji Naranji Memorial (Indian Merchants’ Chambers) building, to pick up mutton samosas with his school friends. Rao walked up and down the street with me and from his archives showed me street directories from the 1930s and 1940s, as well as newspaper advertisements of Kamling, Moka Bar, and Asiatic Stores when it used to be an Irani restaurant with waiters wearing white shirts and bow ties.

In the 1980s, members-only discotheques such as Studio 29, The Cellar at The Oberoi, and 1900s (which replaced Blow Up) at The Taj Mahal Hotel became the places to be. Marine Drive’s Bombay Club, which was designed by English architect Claude Batley (who worked on many of our city’s iconic structures including the Bombay Gymkhana and Cusrow Baug), became the Nataraj Hotel. The hotel was initially best known for the Kebab Korner restaurant and Yankee Doodle ice cream parlour, and later for RG’s, the discotheque named after owner Ravi Ghai. The al fresco Yankee Doodle had semi-circular marble booths and a swing, and served sundaes like the Top Notch and Hot Notch.

“Studio 29 and RG’s saw the jet set crowd of the city,” says businesswoman Deveika Bhojwani. “People were not so conscious of dressing up in the ’70s and ’80s unless they went to a discotheque, or for a celebration.” Unlike today’s luxury brand-obsessed revelers, disco goers of yore wore jersey bell bottoms and suits, bought accessories from trips to Bangkok, and drank Alcazar vodka or Rs40-a-bottle wine, says businessman and long-time party goer Kishen Mulchandani. The dancing was more important than the drinking. “If you were a member at The Cellar, 1900s and RG’s then you really were something,” he says. “Nobody cared about which building you stayed in, or what your surname was. Everybody paid the same membership to get into the club, so it didn’t matter. There was individuality, not like today when everybody dresses the same.”

Then airline crews would frequent these discos during their layovers, and getting to hang out with them was more interesting than sidling up to the superstar actor dancing alongside recollects Mulchandani. To end the partying, everyone would land up at the Shamiana at The Taj for cappuccino, or Samarkand at The Oberoi for cold coffee, but there was no such thing as a deadline. “Now, people drink six drinks in two hours,” he says. “Then, people drank two drinks in six hours.”

Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi is a Mumbai-based food journalist, a contributing editor at Vogue magazine, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York City, and the restaurant reviewer for the Hindustan Times newspaper in Mumbai.