Thursday, April 18, 2013

Three iconic eateries - which once defined eating out in Mumbai - down their shutters,

Three iconic eateries - which once defined eating out in Mumbai - down their shutters, defeated by inflation and the craze for firangi fast food

The lost order

Posted On Friday, April 19, 2013 at 03:14:29 AM

Three venerable restaurants that have for decades served authentic Maharashtrian and south Indian meals and snacks for less than the price of a small Starbucks cappuccino have been forced out of business by the city's growing appetite for fast food chains. While Vishwa Mahal (Mulund) has already reopened as a McDonald's, Mahabhoj (Matunga) is being turned into a fast food restaurant. Dattatray (Shivaji Park), meanwhile, is on its last legs and has announced that it will close next month. It will reopen as a branch of HDFC Bank.

Mahabhoj, Matunga

“Rs 50 a thali was bleeding me. I tried my best to sustain it, but finally gave up,” said Sachidanand Shetty, owner of Mahabhoj, which he opened in 1942 as the South Indian Family Mess. It originally sold packed rice before being turned into a eatery. Mahabhoj, its final avatar, was known for its economical South Indian thali of dal, sabzi, rice, chapatti, curd and papad.

Shetty added, “The rise in gas prices, shortage of labour and sky-high prices of vegetables are the major factors that forced me to shut Mahabhoj. My father used to sell packed rice here before Independence and I turned it into an eatery. People used to crave our rice plate, which we served with freshly cooked veggies. But with high inflation, labour is getting more expensive and difficult to find. I'm left with no choice but to join the fast food bandwagon. Even my daughter prefers fast food over a healthy thali."

Mahabhoj, now being renovated, will reopen as Cafe Greens & Beans, a fast food restaurant, in a few months. “I have outsourced the cuisine to an expert who has knowledge of international cuisines, which I don’t,” Shetty added.

Vishwa Mahal, Mulund

Manhohar Shetty, owner of Vishwa Mahal restaurant at Mulund, which opened in 1964, echoed these sentiments. “This business had became a headache for me. You put in all your energy, time and money for measly returns. To keep up with changing times we had even started serving Punjabi and Chinese dishes, but eventually the business became unfeasible. I tried my best to continue our ancestral business but the fact is the returns were poor. Finally, last June, I leased out my place to McDonald's. Today, I earn more than I used to, and without wasting my time and energy,” said Shetty.

Dattaray, Shivaji Park

Meanwhile, Dattaray, the iconic eatery at the Sena Bhavan junction at Shivaji Park, turns 60 on May 4. By the end of May, it will have shut down. Owner Prakash Wagle has leased it out to a bank. Always well-known for its authentic Maharashtrian fare, Dattaray's fame shot up after former Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray developed a taste for its batata vada and kotambir vadi.

Owner Prakash Wagle said, “This business was started by my father in 1953 and I joined him a few years later. I am 60 now; both my daughters are well-settled and have little interest in running this business. Also, with the current levels of inflation, I have no choice but to close the business. At one point, I had four waiters per shift. Today, I am just left with two. There were times I had to personally clean the tables. But this is no longer possible as I am too old."

Wagle, smiling ruefully, said many of his loyal customers are distraught at the news, but added, “I will make more money by leasing out the place than I do now."

 Some fight on

While Mahabhoj, Vishwa Mahal and Dattatray have been forced out of business, other iconic eateries continue to flourish. These include Mani’s, Café Mysore, Rama Nayak’s and Rama Ashray (all in Matunga).

Devrath Kamath of Cafe Madras said, “Three generations of our family have run this restaurant. It is a family business, and not run by any manager. Ours is a very small set-up and our prices are reasonable, so we make a profit. It is all about the way you manage things." Café Madras, which has been serving melt-in-the-mouth dosas since 1940, dishes 200 to 300 of them a day.


Tagore at Mulund's oldest Udipi

By: Fiona Fernandez  

Fifty years is a long time to continue serving the best Medu Vadas and filter kaapi along the eastern suburbs. Mulund's Shetty-owned Vishwabharati that has a strange connect with Rabindranath Tagore, has been doing just that -- in authentic Udipi fashion

Over 50 years ago, late Padmavathi J Shetty's husband, restaurateur and Mazgaon resident Jagannath Shetty was scouting for an address to open another eatery. His enterprise didn't stop him from trudging to faraway Mulund. "Those days (1957-58), the suburb wasn't a part of Bombay. It was plotted under Thane district. It was a village without proper roads. The developed areas extended only up to a hundred metres from Mulund's station. The rest was a jungle," recollects current owner and Shetty's son, Sudhakar.

Sudharakar Shetty of Mulund's Vishwabharati says they use jaggery
instead of sugar in their Sambar, and no garlic in their Coconut Chutney.
This master stroke, along with the all-vegetarian menu, has made the
eatery a hit with Gujaratis. Pics/ Rane Ashish
Self-service, fine dining and Continental cuisine are an inevitable reality.
Still, at the end of the day, don't we always come home to our rice and dal?

When the time arrived to name this new eatery, Sudhakar's mother, a keen follower of Rabindranath Tagore's writings and poetry, suggested Vishwabharati -- after Tagore's centre for the arts in West Bengal. 

At Vishwabharati, cooks begin work at 4.30 am to ensure patrons are
served fresh food when they pull up their shutters at 6 am. A senior cook
has been given the task of keeping a measure of the exact mix of
ingredients to ensure consistency.

South to NorthLike numerous fellow restaurateurs to have emerged from the coastal town of Udipi in Karnataka, Shetty senior too was bitten by the bug when he was still an employee at Mumbai's Khatau Mills. In the 1940s, just before the Fort Stikine blast devastated the Bombay harbour, he decided to start a restaurant called Bombay Fancy at Carnac Bunder. "My dad's nephew still runs the place; it's now called Bombay Fancy Hindu Hotel," shares Sudhakar, sipping on a glass of sweetened chai. "Bombay Fancy began as an eatery that served Maharashtrian cuisine, and added Udipi dishes to its menu, later. In fact, dad used to prepare good Usal (a pulse gravy). It was part of morning breakfast at home, and so we decided to serve it to his customers too."

It's 11.30 am. Vishwabharati's kitchen door swings furiously, juggling a mix of bruncheon customers and the early lunch crowd. The sixty-one-year-old has to break away from our conversation to graciously acknowledge a handshake or a namaste each time an old-timer stops by our table, before returning to the timeline.

"Later, dad decided to start a restaurant in Tardeo, but we had had to shut it down after it ran into losses. Dayanand, near Lalbaug, was another venture we launched;  it's now been given on lease. By then (late 1950s), he wanted to expand northward. He scouted around Ghatkopar but realised Mulund was more suitable for his plan. We've been around since then, by God's grace and dad's farsightedness."

Today, Shetty and his brothers run four restaurants, including Vishwabharati, Vishwa Mahal, Vishwa Samrat (both Mulund) and Vishwa Jyot (Vashi).

The Udipi formula
The Shetty-Udipi connect remains one of Mumbai's most fascinating restaurant success stories. We prod Sudhakar about this culinary love affair. "Our kitchens are spotless, food is cooked on the spot, the ingredients are never carried forward to the next day. We bring this ethic to our restaurants and the formula continues to click with the classes and masses. Our food will never harm your system," explains Sudhakar.

At Vishwabharati, his cooks begin work at 4.30 am to ensure patrons are served fresh food when they pull up their shutters at 6 am. A senior cook has been given the task of keeping a measure of the exact mix and ingredients to ensure authenticity is maintained. Vishwabharati's famous fluffy idlis are cooked from a batter that is left to ferment overnight, and is the only food item that is prepared a day earlier.

Sweet as SambharLike the Shetty-Udipi connect, Mulund has had a long association with the Gujaratis. Old-time residents of the suburb will vouch for the community's inherent entrepreneurship skills that helped establish Mulund as one of the most prosperous suburbs on the eastern line. Likewise, their love for dining out meant that Vishwabharati's menu had a sugar-induced leaning. "We use jaggery in our Sambhar. It's a good substitute for sugar," says Sudhakar. "Our Sambhar is made slightly sweeter; no garlic for our coconut chutney too." This masterstroke, along with the all-vegetarian menu has made Vishwabharati a hit with the Gujaratis.

Palate-sensitive gestures apart, competitive pricing has helped. A hearty breakfast based on Shetty's recommendation (Masala Dosa, Sheera and instant coffee) costs you around Rs 70. Nudge him about his favourite daily opener and the genial restaurateur reveals his sweet fixation: "It's Sheera; we don't use food colouring."

Does the veteran worry about fast-food chains invading his client base? "We have had to move with the times when we opened an extra mezzanine floor in the 1970s to serve Chinese and Punjabi vegetarian dishes. Self service, fine dining and continental cuisine are an inevitable reality. Still, at the end of the day, don't we always come home to our rice and dal?"