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Features

Delectable treat: How Delhi’s iconic eateries evolved

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Over the past few decades, the frenzied pace at which Delhi has transformed, finds reflection in its food scene. Many millennials have just two demands of an eating joint: that the restaurant is stylish and the liquor is served quickly. In South Delhi, hipper restaurants in Hauz Khas Village still find takers even as a large number of restaurants have disappeared after a stint of less than two years. In the demanding club and barhopping scene of 2019, it is somewhat astonishing that several decades-old eateries have not just survived, they are flourishing.

A number of these old haunts from the pre-Partition era are located in Connaught Place. Others, such as York, Ginza and La Boheme, says renowned food critic and academic Pushpesh Pant, survive on the marquee but their souls have departed.

“The footfalls are heading towards more permissive resto-bars and franchised fast food joints,” adds Pant. Some of the restaurants haven’t just preserved their businesses and their identities, they are perceived as some of the biggest food brands in Delhi.

So, how does an eatery attain iconic status?

KWALITY, NOSTALIGIA’S NEW FACE

Started in 1940 by Pishori Lal Lamba as an ice cream store which catered to American GIs, Kwality has undergone a dramatic makeover. As it grew, its clientele expanded to rich Delhiites and Anglo-Indians. But it stood out from other restaurants even in the beginning, says Pant, “Kwality was far less intimidating than the other upscale restaurants. PL Lamba, who came to Delhi from Lahore in Pakistan, never forgot his humble beginnings as a refugee and his eatery bravely bridged the divide between social classes.

It served Fish Portuguesa, Hamburger Steaks, Fish n Chips along with Chhole Bhature”. Divij Lamba, grandson of PL Lamba, and director, Kwality, explains, “These dishes were a mix of traditional Punjabi food and British club food to appeal to both the Indian and Anglo-Indian clientele. But we’ve lost a lot of the recipes.”

Building, it is now a multi-storey, dimly lit restaurant, with black and white photographs lining the walls, and silverware. But Kwality’s chole bhature is still a favourite, as is the Chicken A la Kiev. It took a new avatar last year, with a complete revamp. Lamba adds, “We wanted it to retain its historical charm, and appeal to a new range of customers.” AC Chawla, 63, a retired statistician, agrees, “It was a place where you went with your family.”

Adds Shikha Bansal, a 59-year-old teacher, “I used to go there every Saturday for their sizzler dishes. They didn’t have as many choices as they do now, but even then, it was good.”

UNITED COFFEE HOUSE: A HUB TO EXCHANGE IDEAS

While Kwality has drastically changed its avatar, United Coffee House, also a Connaught Place landmark, has kept up the appearance of its original form, even as it experimented with a number of cuisines.

MF Husain was a regular, and the famed Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi also used to come when he was in town.

Says Akash Kalra, who has been running UCH for the past 28 years, “Built in 1942, we are Delhi’s first café. When we began, we conceived the idea of a coffee place where people could gather and share ideas.”

Gradually, spurred by the demands of its patrons, UCH became a multi-cuisine restaurant. “From Jawaharlal Nehru, to Indira Gandhi, and all the Raja Sahebs, including the Maharaja of Patiala, they all came here.”

MF Husain was a regular, and the famed Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi also used to come when he was in town. As eminent food historian Osama Jalali puts it, “Even when they revamped, the décor remained the same. They replicated the chandeliers which originally came from Belgium, with new replicas, which also came from Belgium.”

KARIM’S, 100 NOT OUT

Karim’s, near the Jama Masjid, began as a small outlet that served meat dishes to 14-15 customers on benches in 1913. As Anuj Sahani, 64, an artist, says “We didn’t really go there for the atmosphere, as it was just benches and tables; we went for the quality of the food, and extremely reasonable prices.”

Now, it is a large AC restaurant, that can seat up to 200. Zaeemuddin Ahmed, director of Karim’s Pvt Ltd, and the great grandson of Haji Karimuddin who founded the eatery, says, “We have flourished for 106 years, as we have been taught that when it comes to food and spices, never compromise on quality.” Ahmed goes on to say, “We have been maintaining the same taste since 1913.”

“It is essentially the same food that was eaten in Mughal times. We even use the same spices, such as cardamom and pepper, the same way, as well as dahi and garam masala,” says Ahmed.

On the roster of celebrities who’ve savoured Karim’s succulent delicacies over the years are actors Dilip Kumar, Sunil Dutt, Raj Kapoor and Shabana Azmi; singer Lata Mangeshkar, and cricketers Gautam Gambhir and Ajay Jadeja.

To keep in sync with the sensibilities of their modern clients, says Ahmed, Karim’s underwent a series of renovations. On the roster of celebrities who’ve savoured Karim’s succulent delicacies over the years are actors Dilip Kumar, Sunil Dutt, Raj Kapoor and Shabana Azmi; singer Lata Mangeshkar, and cricketers Gautam Gambhir and Ajay Jadeja.

Today it has become a city milestone. “Tourists come here see the Lal Qila, India Gate, and Karim’s. Our mutton seekh kebab, badam pasanda, brain curry are the hot selling items ,” claims Ahmed.

MOTI MAHAL, FLEXIBLE DOES IT

Another old brand located in Daryaganj that has withstood the ravages of time is Moti Mahal. Set up by Kundan Lal Gujral in 1947 in Delhi, it can be credited with creating the butter chicken, and propagating the spread of tandoori cuisine in Delhi.

One tradition that has continued in the restaurant are the weekly qawwali sessions first promoted by KL Gujral. Gujral’s grandson, Monish Gujral, who joined the family business in 1983, explains why they are going strong after a century.

“Every brand needs reinvention over the years. My grandfather had started it, but expectations, along with people change over the years,” He goes on to say, “To keep pace with the changing palates of our patrons, we had to stay relevant. Food is like the fashion industry, so we need to keep up with the flavour of the month,” he explains.

Since millennials prefer their food to include lighter options, Moti Mahal is using oats, bajra etc. “Many who come in don’t want to pick up the menu, they order butter chicken and chicken pakoras.” Gujral admits to being flexible giving the menu a twist whenever necessary. Among its celebrity patrons, freedom fighter Maulana Azad, is said to have remarked, “Coming to Delhi without eating at Moti Mahal, is like going to Agra without seeing the Taj.”

The Kennedys, Gordon Ramsey and Justin Trudeau are also said to have visited the place.

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