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Dining out in Mumbai's glittering restaurant row in the 1950s

Churchgate, once the entertainment quarter in the city, is still dotted with eateries, from the recently opened Nksha to classics like Gaylord

 A photo of Gaylord from 2006. (Photo: Kunal Patil / HT Archive)
A photo of Gaylord from 2006. (Photo: Kunal Patil / HT Archive)

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The setting at Nksha, a new restaurant on Mumbai’s Veer Nariman Road, is chic and modish, yet distinctly vintage. The tiered chandelier, the framed, antique patina arches, the shiny marble flooring and warm light glinting on glassware and antique brass accents create an aura of quiet opulence. Designed by the Mumbai-based firm ns*a Architecture’s Shruti Jalan and Neesha Alwani,Nksha “is a hat tip to the legendary Art Deco heritage,” says Pranav Rungta, who co-owns the 46-seater fine-dining establishment with chef Vikram Arora.

It occupies a prime spot on what was once the Churchgate Street extension, which connects two of the most iconic collections of Art Deco buildings—the Oval Maidan at the east end and Marine Drive, at the edge of Back Bay. The area is dotted with eateries old and new, from the recently opened Mexican cantina-cum-bar, Mezcalita, to decades-old classics like Gaylord and K Rustoms & Co. Ice Cream Parlour—all showcased by some impressive specimens of Art Deco architecture. These include the sea-facing Soona Mahal that once housed the Parisian Dairy Company, famed for its peach melba. The popular Talk of the Town replaced it. In the 1980s, it morphed into Jazz by the Bay. Today, it’s home to Pizza By The Bay.

Architect Nikhil Mahashur, whose Walkitecture walks explore south Mumbai’s heritage, says the area was part of the Back Bayreclamation plan, which aimed to create over a thousand acres by building a seawall. It was shelved following a backlash, led by Khurshid Nariman, a lawyer, an activist and Bombay mayor in 1935-36, against corruption and financial malpractices on the part of the British administrators. Only parts of the Back Bay had been reclaimed till then.

The interiors of the newly opened Nksha.
The interiors of the newly opened Nksha.

But this is where a new form of architecture thrived in the 1930s-40s, says Mahashur. The style—with its streamlined form, geometric patterns and modern themes that often took cues from contemporary technologies and the use of new materials like reinforced cement concrete—soon became synonymous with the making of Bombay as a modern metropolis.

“The street on which Nksha stands,” Rungta says, “was Bombay’s glittering restaurant row and entertainment quarter back in the 1950s, when the sound of jazz spilled out of the elite watering holes that lined the street and stylish men and women showed up in black tie and evening gowns for a lavish meal before sauntering down the street to watch the cabaret.”

Frank F. Conlon writes in the essay Dining Out In Bombay, part of the compilation Consuming Modernity: Public Culture in A South Asian World (1995): “The end of the 1930s saw several new developments in restaurants in connection with the first construction of buildings along the new extension of Churchgate street in land that had been reclaimed from the Back Bay in the 1920s. Although the first eating house to be encountered here in approaching from the Fort city centre was an Irani shop , the Asiatic Cafe and Stores, a number of ground-floor premises in multi-storey apartment blocks were taken out on lease for first class restaurants”—which largely served Continental food.

The area was already home to the Italian baker L.U. Mongini’s eponymous confectionery and restaurant. It had been dishing out mince pies and nougats for Christmas and chocolate eggs for Easter since 1902, before moving into a larger building in 1919 in the same area.According to its inauguration brochure from 1938, the now defunct Eros Cinema, an Art Deco masterpiece with its dual-toned facade and tiered wedding cake crown, “boasted of being the first theatre in the East which included a first class restaurant”, complete with a cocktail bar, a bandstand and a “dance floor in the centre of the restaurant”.

Then there was the Chinese restaurant, Kamling, which made way a few years ago for the Asian tapas bar Foo Town, and Continental-fare Bombelli’s, launched by a Swiss gentleman, Freddy Bombelli, which closed years ago. The Wayside Inn, opened in the 1930s by a Mrs Edwards in the Kala Ghoda area, described itself as a “pleasing English inn”, offering dishes like Welsh Rarebit and Lancashire Hotpot, served by white-gloved waiters in the finest china.

Among other Churchgate street icons from the time are the Ambassador Hotel, The Astoria Hotel (though its famed restaurant, Venice, is long gone) and the Ritz hotel, a beautiful specimen of Art Deco architecture (again, its restaurant, The Little Hut, is no longer there). Most of these served up multi-cuisine menus and great music, at least till the 1960s.

In 1956, the street welcomed Gaylord, started by Delhi-based entrepreneurs Pishori Lal Lamba and Iqbal Ghai of Kwality Group. Nearly seven decades later, Gaylord is still a name to reckon with.

Nksha occupies the spot, a hop from Gaylord, that was once home to a restaurant that served up European food with French flair—Gourdon & Co, owned by Emile Gourdon, a World War I veteran.An army and navy guide to Bombay, possibly from the 1930s, features an advert for Gourdon & Co. (formerly O Prandi & Co), describing it as a restaurant, confectionery and bakery serving table d’hôte and à la carte meals. “In the fifties, we went to Gourdon’s on Churchgate Street for a nine-rupee five-course meal cooked and served by Goans,” writes Eric Pinto in the book Bomoicar: Stories Of Bombay Goans 1930-1980.

Indian food had its place too. Deepak Purohit’s Mockingbird Cafe, across the road from Nksha, was once a vegetarian restaurant, founded by his grandfather, Harjivan Das Purohit. A Churchgate Street institution, it turned outmeals, purportedly made by Brahmin cooks, on silver plates. Nearby, Berry’s served up legendary tandoori butter chicken.

Today, the Nksha kitchen, headed by Arora, has a north Indian-focused menu accented with diverse culinary influences and interpretative dishes that take their clue from global trends in modern Indian food. So, among the dal makhni, chicken changezi and delicate pulao studded with Kashmiri morels are dishes like thinly sliced raw salmon in a pool of jamun (java plum) vinegar, topped with tiny dollops of avocado cream and a mound of crushed peanuts for a textural counterpoint.

With a solid selection of cocktails that draws inspiration from north India (think ghee-washed rum) and a crisp wine list, Nksha has all the makings of a good evening—though old-timers may still indulge in sepia-tinted memories of a gilded past.

Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based food and culture writer.

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