Rediscovering a Karachi classic — Café Clifton

Rediscovering a Karachi classic — Café Clifton

Seabreeze and barbeque are a perfect combination, especially after months of being cooped up inside due to the pandemic.
25 Jun, 2021

With Covid somewhat relaxing its iron grip, Karachiites heaved a sigh of relief and got back to their favourite activity: eating out.

After having been granted permission to pull up their shutters, restaurants have come back to life, but the hitch is that it is only for outdoor dining. This entails grappling with the heat and humidity as you eat outdoors with fans to cool you down.

But there is one café in Karachi which has been specialising in outdoor dining for decades, and for whom these drawbacks do not apply. Come summer or winter, Café Clifton (CC) does roaring business, that too without any fans, making do with the sea breeze. In fact, it’s no-frills nature is part of its romance.

After a backbreaking day of work, I decided to let my taste buds come back to life. Naturally, I headed towards CC to get my fill of the succulent protein-rich tikkas and chomp on their juicy kebabs and rolls.

As our car parked adjacent to a table of women sitting out in the open on plastic chairs, their smiles turned to frowns. But they relaxed when they saw that there were women in our car. Women owning public spaces is a rare sight and, hence, is all the more welcome.

I ask for the menu, but am told it has gone for an overhaul because prices are being hiked up. When I ask why, CC manager Zahid Shareef says simply, “What do you expect? Everything has become so expensive. Look at the price of chickens! What can we do?” He goes on to complain that delivery service charges are also driving up prices.

Café Clifton in Karachi offers scrumptious barbeque fare without frills, a variety of tea and lots of sea breeze

Looking at the crowd thronging the simple plastic tables and chairs, I ask: “Hasn’t your business been affected by Covid?”

“Nothing affects our business! Our customers just do not want to leave us.”

Despite the recent opening of some other cafes in the vicinity, CC keeps on drawing maximum customers. When I asked for the CC waiter after pulling up, the waiter from another nearby café begged me to try their kebabs instead. Next time, I replied, rolling up the car window at his disappointed face.

Part of the dining experience here is having tikka and kebabs in your car, which may sound strange to people from other cities. But who in Karachi has not balanced plates of steaming barbecue in the comfort of their car? If it is boiling hot, you eat in the chilled comfort of your car’s AC and, if it’s winter, you just roll down the windows. Of course, balancing plates of tikka, kebab, naan, paratha as well as soft drinks, tissues and sauces is by no means an easy task, but it seems to come naturally to us.

Not for CC, the niceties of other barbecue outlets that give you trays and napkins. The tissues are of the cheapest variety and the plates are plastic. Pandering to niceties has never been CC’s style.

In terms of food, the chicken tikka is a staple and you cannot go to CC and not have it. The tikka is supremely satisfying as it glides down your throat; but there have been times when the tikka has been overdone. One needs to specify to the waiter exactly how you would like it. For the palate that prefers the less spicy tikka, one suspects that CC’s solution to this quandary (like many other tikka joints) is to wash the seasoning off before grilling and serving it.

The chicken boti is succulent and soft but is a trifle spicy, which tends to overwhelm the flavour of the chicken. The beef kebabs and beef Bihari boti, on the other hand, are scrumptious and what enhances the taste is that they are not dry and melt slowly in the mouth.

What should round off these dishes is piping hot naan, but this is where CC falters. The naans are rubbery even when they are hot, but as they cool they start resembling car tyres. As a veteran CC diner, whose suggestion to improve the quality of naans has been met by a resigned shrug, my tip is to get your naan instead from the tandoor round the corner, where delicious naans are trotted out straight from the oven. Even if you take them home and eat later at night or a day later, all you need to do to revive them is to heat them up.

The parathas at CC are crisp, except that they are a little on the oily side. But then, as Shareef would say, what’s a paratha without oil?

To wash this all off, I order tea, scanning the varieties on offer: doodh patti, kahwa, Kashmiri chai and elaichi chai. I am delighted to see that my doodh patti is frothy and hits the right spot; a satisfied sigh escapes me.

CC is frequented by people from all sections of society. The clientele includes boys with bulging biceps in T-shirts and shorts, bearded men with families in tow, blue collar workers on bikes and in vans, women in abayas and dupattas, and girls in jeans, as well as enthusiastic Pakistani expatriates who fly in and head straight towards the café to get their dose of the desi delights that they have been deprived of for so long.

Café Clifton has been thriving since the mid-80s, and be warned that you will be doing it an injustice if you do not go with an empty stomach because, once you are there, your gastronomic juices kick into action and you will want to try more and more of their simple but mouth-watering dishes.

Originally published in Dawn, EOS, June 20th, 2021


Salazar Jun 25, 2021 11:44am
This should have been a pictorial...
Jo Jun 25, 2021 01:02pm
Sounds fab. No frills but just yummy food. Thank you for the article.
ZZ Jun 25, 2021 01:13pm
I visted Cafe Clifton after nearly 2 years a few weeks ago and was appalled or rather shocked to see how much they were charging for Halwa Puri. Highway robbery at its finest and I say this as a customer of over 30 years. I have been going there since childhood!
TIM Jun 25, 2021 01:23pm
Why go there when nothing is good, as per the review? Baffles me.
Iqbal Hadi Zaidi Jun 25, 2021 01:51pm
Very descriptive account of CC which is not only awfully interesting but alluring me to dine there at least once if not more but my problem is that I am overseas since 1976 and almost 90% I have flown to Lahore to meet my parents there (both buried in Lahore) though Karachi and Islamabad have not been ignored either. CC is in open which is good from health point of view because then one breathes natural fresh air which is conducive for refreshing one's respiratory system but not possible within 4 walls of a room. However, I feel that CC being on the beach must be a damp place where at times, not always, humidity could pose problem and uneasiness. Did any of our Head of State (President) or Head of Government (Prime Minister) been to CC is my question? I think it was 2010 when I flew to Karachi and my cousin took me to mouthwatering Village, for lunch where some weeks before my bhaijan President Gen Pervez Musharraf (he is Aug 43, I am Dec 43) had dined.
Khurram Jun 25, 2021 02:27pm
You visit CC regularly and don't even know what's the most famous item on their menu due to which majority visit there? It's their tea - doodh pati and karak chai that is one of the best out there. Seems like you had it for the first time, but many people like me visit it only for their tea.
Nh Jun 25, 2021 02:28pm
Visiting CC since the 80's. Yes their tikka is the best and at a very reasonable price. The tikka wala is also as old as the CC itself. In the picture it's not him. Used to have its breakfast during night cricket days . It's a landmark and a meeting place. It also serves free breakfast to hundreds of people each day.
Arsalan Jun 25, 2021 04:05pm
Totally exaggerated..It is like a common hotel and totally unhygiene food and average food
Khanm Jun 25, 2021 04:52pm
In any third world country ..if food department barely exists ..well at least I am careful ..paid a heavy price for eating out side ...I guess it is a risk most Karachiaites takes ...
Dr. Salaria, Aamir Ahmad Jun 25, 2021 06:18pm
Welcome back to the club and the clubhouse. As always, keep it up and hang on tough.
well-wisher Jun 25, 2021 06:42pm
Now my mouth is watering just by reading!