Looking back at Karachi's Irani cafe culture
Sometime in the 1920s, Rustom Aspandiar Bahmani, a Zoroastrian, left Yazd, then a small desert town in Iran, with his companions. All of them perched on mulebacks trotted all the way to Zahidan, from where they took a painfully slow train to Quetta. A faster train took them to Karachi from where they boarded a sailboat to Bombay. After a six-day voyage, the vessel dropped anchor at the city’s harbour.
The city was not unfamiliar to Zoroastrians. Waves of Zoroastrians had migrated from Iran between the 8th and 10th centuries and had made their way up the social ladder as successful businessmen and industrialists. Quite understandably, they were supportive of their co-religionists. To cut a long story short, Bahmani, like other Zoroastrians, made their mark in the restaurant business. They were followed by Bahais, practitioners of the 19th century religion, and Muslims. The latter moved to the state of Hyderabad in large numbers.
A good number of Iranis didn’t go to Bombay, however; they decided to settle down in Karachi. There were more than a hundred Irani restaurants (Irani hotels in common parlance) in Karachi in the 1970s but today hardly 10 remain. After Independence, not many opened in the newer parts of the city. Café Liberty and the one in Nursery market in PECHS (whose name nobody seems to recall) were among the exceptions. Areas such as Defence Housing Authority and North Nazimabad never had a single Irani restaurant.
The Iranian cafes of yore
The middle class localities and commercial areas of the city were once punctuated with Irani restaurants. Most of them had ‘cafes’ preceding their names. Four restaurants were in close proximity in Saddar. Fredrick’s Cafeteria was the haunt of punters who frequented the place after placing bets at the city’s racecourse. It also had a pay phone which one could use after inserting two coins of 10 paisas each in the slots. Café George, on the intersection of Victoria Road (now Abdullah Haroon Road) and Frere Road (now Shahrah-i-Liaquat) was known for its snacks, particularly its mutton patties and the accompanying chutney concocted by its cook (chef was a term that was yet to come in vogue).
On the other side of the road was Eastern Coffee House, which was named India Coffee House until a few years after Partition. It was initially run by the India Coffee Board, (ICB), which ran a chain of coffee houses since the mid-1930s (it still does in India). India Coffee House in Saddar became Zelin’s Coffee House but, soon after, an Irani took over, who christened it Eastern Coffee House. Mr Merchant, a coffee-taster turned manager at the ICB, then set up Pioneer Coffee House in what is now the Electronics Market.
Eastern Coffee House was the haunt of writers and student leaders. Some people were regular visitors. Come rain or shine, they were there in the afternoons. Once the Marxist student leader Ali Mukhtar Rizvi, who was part of the Moharram zuljina juloos, climbed up the stairs, had a quick cup of tea before joining the tail of the long procession. Then there was one Mr Bilgrami, who never loosened the buttons of his sherwani even when mercury crossed the 110F mark. In those days air conditioning in restaurants was a rarity. Only Shehzan and Pioneer had that facility. Fredrick’s Cafetaria and Eastern Coffee House had sections for families as well.
As you walked towards the Elphinstone Street (now Zebunnisa Street), you saw Café Parisian (the septuagenarian Parisian Bakery is still there). Then as you proceeded towards the corner of Bohri Bazaar, you saw the plebeian Boman Abadon Irani Restaurant where ready-made tea was served. Outside the restaurant there was a row of shoe-shine men from what was then the NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). You would place your foot on a pedestal and the man seated on a stool would live up to his promise of making your shoe shine like a mirror. “Sheesha banaiga” used to be their slogan.
Diagonally opposite the Parisian was Café Gulzar, which had its loyal clientele too. The Karachi-born singer C.H. Atma, who had migrated to Bombay, visited his native city sometime in the ’60s. He made it a point to visit two places — Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s mazaar and Café Gulzar. In an interview with a local journalist he said that whereas he got spiritual satisfaction at the mausoleum, the food in his favourite restaurant gave him gastronomic satisfaction. “It still tastes as delicious as it did before Partition,” he said.
At the other end of Victoria Road, opposite Hotel Metropole, was Café Victoria, which was spacious and comfortable. It had a number of delicacies listed on its menu, but to a friend, who frequented it in the ’60s, the piece-de-resistance was the Mahi Kabab — ‘mahi’ being the Persian word for fish.
Café Subhani, close to Fleet Club, was widely known for its Chullu Kabab, an Iranian specialty kabab served over a bed of buttered rice. It closed down a year or two ago. It is now owned by locals, who have refurbished it and renamed it Chullu Kabab Sistani.
Two Irani restaurants which are still there are adjacent to each other. Pehlvi Restaurant, at the intersection of M.A. Jinnah Road and Zebunnisa Street, offers tea in cups and also has a small stall which serves tea in chainaks — small metallic teapots. Next to it is Café Durakhshan, owned by the same family, where tea is served in teapots, accompanied with sugar in a pot and milk in a small jug. Its fastest selling dish is the Spicy Pulao. It retains the feel of old while Pehlvi seems to have morphed into a more modern fast food joint.
Almost invariably all Irani restaurants, not just in Karachi but also in Mumbai and Pune, are located at street corners, a testament to their early-mover advantage in real estate. They are open on two sides. It seems Pehlvi and Durakhshan were once one restaurant but were later divided between two siblings, so the latter does not enjoy having entrances from two sides. The present owners simply refuse to comment on this subject.
The only Irani Restaurant which was not in a corner was Café Gloria in the small lane which is still called Capitol ki Gali. Capitol was one of the two cinemas owned by the Mobed family, who were Parsis. Flamingo, a snazzy restaurant on the first floor of the cinema, was particularly known for its cold coffee. While Flamingo was owned by a Zoroastrian, Café Gloria’s proprietor was a Bahai. Capitol Cinema and its twin, Paradise Cinema, have vanished like many other movie houses in Saddar.
Café Yasmeen near the Police Head Office on I.I. Chundrigar Road was the latest Irani restaurant demise and the one to suffer the most is the paanwallah outside —all Irani restaurants have paan shops tucked in small spaces outside the premises. The paanwallah has lost his clientele and now closes shop at 6pm.
Not too far from Cafe Yasmeen was Café Victory on what was South Napier Road, which was renamed Altaf Hussain Road after the founding editor of Dawn. With the offices of the Dawn Group and Millat Publications being there, journalists thronged the café at lunch hour. It was known particularly for its succulent beef steak and the sauce that topped it.
Perhaps the only Irani restaurant which is faring quite well is Khairabad Tea Shop. It has its loyal clientele, some of whom keep returning even after years. Syed Abdullah Shah, the chief minister of Sindh from 1993-1996, paid a visit to have tea there after assuming the top office in the province. He recalled that Khairabad was his usual haunt while studying at the nearby S.M. Law College.
Why are Irani restaurants closing down?
But why are so many Irani restaurants closing down despite their being a part of Karachi’s heritage? Young Abbas Ahmed of Café Durakhshan, an MBA, has the answer. “For one thing, the trend has changed,” he says. “Now there are fast food joints as well as eateries which specialise in items such as nihari, biryani or barbecue. Secondly, there is much hassle in running restaurants, particularly when the profits have dipped. You would be better off selling the restaurant and putting the money in fixed deposit.”
Why have the marble top tables that were the mark of Irani restaurants disappeared? “Simply because they were too space consuming,” explains Ahmed. “But the bentwood chairs are still there. In fact, you are sitting on one. The large mirrors which give the impression of extra space have not disappeared either.”
The Iranis are still very much into selling tea leaves. “Two of the leading shops, Islamia Tea and Iranian Tea are doing quite well,” Ahmed points out.
Irani restaurants may be vanishing but they have left their mark on their city. Proof, if proof be needed, is that the Tariq Road and Allama Iqbal Road intersection is still called Café Liberty and the area near Fleet Club is known as Lucky Star, after the restaurants which dropped shutters years ago.
Originally published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 4th, 2016