By Venkatesh Raghavan | Opening Doorz Editorial | March 16, 2020
Memories of yore arise when you sit in this Irani restaurant located opposite the erstwhile tram terminus in Matunga. The Irani Restaurant, Koolar and Company has come a long way since its inception under the partnership of brothers Mandou and Saffaro.
The second-generation owners of the Irani, Amir and Ali are currently running the show taking turns at supervising at the cash counter. On a quiet Friday afternoon, the younger brother Amir narrates the moments of past glory that ensconced the restaurant since early 1932 when the first generation Koolars took over the restaurant.
The Early Years…
Amir’s father worked tirelessly in the restaurant which was owned by Noonwa and saved money by eating kela pav which was the cheapest food available in those days. Amir’s paternal grandmother was a single parent to four sons and two daughters after her husband passed away. She fought the hardships bravely by offering needlework services and also taking care of the flock of shepherds.
Amir’s father Mamalo migrated from Iran and started working in the restaurant from the age of 13 and had to miss out on formal education due to financial constraints faced by the family. Mamalo who turned joint owner of the Irani later compensated for dropping out of school by taking English tuitions from a local Gujarati.
Welcoming the Dalits
Apart from fond memories of the visits made by Bollywood Kapoor scions, Amir also recalled the first step taken in cosmopolitan Bombay towards egalitarianism. In those days, the practice in all Bombay restaurants was that Dalits had to sit outside and use separate cups and plates that were meant for only their community. Saffaro broke the barriers stating they pay the same amount as the other customers and there should be no discrimination.
Eventually, the elder generation of Koolar families became owners of seven restaurants in Bombay out of which two were located in Matunga. At that juncture, Saffaro was the president of the Bombay Hotel Association. The brothers Mamalo, Saffaro and Amroh jointly owned the flourishing hotel business till well past the British era.
Bollywood, Koolar and Cuisine
In the early days there were many from the film fraternity who visited this restaurant. This included the first-generation Kapoor clan, Prithviraj Kapoor. Subsequently Raj Kapoor and Shashi Kapoor frequented the Irani joint. Among others who hailed from the film fraternity were KN Singh the noted Bollywood villain and Bharat Kapoor.
The cuisines available at this restaurant are pretty delectable. Noted journalist Ronnie Williams was full of praise for the Mutton Kheema that gets served in hot bowls along with plates. Though the prices are somewhat premium, people continue to frequent the joint as it provides good quality food that is delicious to the palate.
Bun Maska, Brun Maska and Mutton Kheema
Amir invited me to taste the Irani bun maska which was an Iranian Specialty. The dish constitutes Bun slice sandwiching cheese and honey. Among the refreshments, Irani tea is a delight—it is black tea mixed with lemon squeeze and an optional offering of sugar in a separate bowl.
A variety of cakes abound the connoisseurs of bakery dishes. Mawa cake, Plum cake and black forest to name a few are on offer for people with a sweet tooth. Caramel Custard is a delight. Poultry food including egg dishes and chicken patties come as a novelty for lovers of white meat. Brun Maska is another favourite dish for people who love crusty hard bakery bread.
Vaastav, Lunchbox and a slew of Bollywood movies
Post-mid-eighties, the Restaurant doubled up as the hotspot for feature films and ad shooting. Amir recalled the famous Bollywood potboiler Vaastav centred on the Bombay underworld being shot there. At that point in time, the iconic manager Ali Akbar was in charge of the cash counter. The people sitting in the Restaurant were not aware that a film shoot was taking place. The idea was to make the shot look natural.
“A fake bullet was fired that made a loud noise. Immediately people scrambled for cover and two people jumped out of the window,” laughs Amir.
Another memorable shoot was MTV Bakra that was a prank played by Cyrus Broacha on unsuspecting customers. This happened in the millennium year. Since then, some Marathi movies apart from a slew of Bollywood films have also been shot here.
O Come, All Ye Faithful
Christmas decorations are very special for the Restaurant as one of the old-time waiters dresses up as Santa. Soon after the Midnight Mass, the faithful who come to the Shrine of Don Bosco’s Madonna, troupe in.
On Sunday mornings, the Restaurant is packed. Despite some recent aberrations (like the construction of the flyover connecting the Ruia signal with King Circle station), people still love to frequent the Restaurant. Things to look out for when you visit this Restaurant include a picture of Charles Bronson and a visual of Mother Mary holding infant Jesus in her hand.
Being well into the 21st century, the old-world charm joint is run by the two brothers along with help from family members. Amir ends the conversation with his favorite concoction, namely green tea.
(Venkatesh Raghavan is a versatile reporter who has handled various beats like crime, aviation, defence, infrastructure, SEBI, revenue intelligence and the textile industry for more than 30 years. He is currently deputy editor of a niche textile magazine Textile Excellence. He has penned three novels: The Counterfeit Racket, Those 9 Days and Operation Drug Mafia.)