It was the monsoon of 2007 in the city I love most - Bombay.

On a Sunday evening, Lubna and I went on a cafe crawl in Fort area. We started with the once-upon-a-time stars Mondegar and Leopold. It is very sad that these lovely Irani cafes have been reduced to nothing but heavily crowded tourist junctions with people trotting into them with travel guides in their hands and cameras around their necks. So is it wrong to be a tourist in a place? No! But if the only other person I will meet and interact with at that place is another tourist, I would rather give it a skip. I sometimes feel that Lonely Planet and Frommer's did more harm to Cafe Mondegar and Cafe Leopold than good. Even Cafe Royal has changed her clothes to a posh lounge cum dining place.

Incidentally, Hyderabad still has a lot of cafes serving Irani chai, bun and biscuit which haven't been talked about in India travel guides. I hope they don't. I remember when Surdy and I walked into one such cafe; we ended up drinking four cups of tea. The beverage here isn't a bag of tea dipped in hot water and topped with two spoons of milk and one spoon of sugar. The beverage we call Irani chai is one portion of strong tea decoction mixed with 3 portions of sweetened milk that's been boiling all day. When served in a cup and saucer, a lot of locals tend to pour the chai in a saucer and sip it from the edges. It cools faster this way and you can slurp it too.

So after these pseudo-cafes in Bombay, we moved on to Baghdadi and Bade Miyan. I have enjoyed many wonderful lunches and dinners at these places. Baghdadi is still the same! Hardcore non-vegetarian food, cheap prices, informal ambience and quick service. We didn't have a chance to dine here tonight as we picked Bade Miyan over Baghdadi.

I always felt Bade Miyan was a unique concept in street side dining! Bade Miyan is a 4'x12' shack on the pavement of a back alley - just in the shadows of Bombay's seven star hotel Taj Mahal. When the shack is closed during the day, it is difficult to notice it on the street. But its popularity exceeds its size and presence. Come evening, the entire street is dotted with cozy tables along the pavement. The street itself is lined up with cars whose passengers have come from every corner of the city to enjoy the great food! A waiter pops open the bonnet and jacks a Coca Cola bottle beneath it. Voila! Your car is now a dining table. Dozens of waiters take orders without a pen or paper and your food is on your plate even before you can say 'I am hungry'. Bade Miyan served food long after everything else closed in Bombay. And prices on the menu varied with hours. I have never figured out how much I paid for bheja fry or special gurda fry. They got expensive as the night progressed.

I was always fascinated by Bade Miyan. Not just by the spicy kababs, hot rumali rotis and rocket green chutney, but by the ability to run this business right in the back alley of Taj in Bombay's Fort area. I've always assumed the owner of this shack was in the good books of both government officials and underworld dons. How else otherwise can one pull off this stunt? And I was always proud of Bade Miyan. If New York, Rome and Paris have their street-side cafes, Bombay has Bade Miyan.

Alas, all this changed for me tonight. At some point of time during the last one year, they did away with the tables along the pavement. I am sure this had to be a government directive (and I am not saying it's wrong). The shack is still there on the pavement, the cars are still there on the street, but it's not the same anymore. The ambience completely changed when they moved the tables from the pavement to a large hall across the shack. The hall is staid, sterile and feels it might crumble anytime. The food is still the same but Bade Miyan isn't. It's no longer a 4'x12' shack that's dead during the day but brings to life the entire street during the night.

For me, this is the end of an era of some great street-side dining in Bombay's Fort area.


Written: Aug 2007