Feeling nostalgic? Take a trip down memory lane at these historic restaurants in India. Many of them date back to the pre-Independence era and are wonderfully atmospheric.
A popular hangout place in Mumbai, Leopold's has been around since 1871 and is one of Mumbai's oldest Irani cafes. (Distinct from Parsis, Iranis are Zoroastrians who came to India much later, in the 19th century). More of a landmark than a restaurant, its claim to fame is that it's "getting better with age". Undoubtedly, it's true! Not only does Leopold feature prominently in the epic Shantaram, in which Gregory David Roberts recounts his checkered past in Mumbai, it also survived the 2008 terrorist attack. (Bullet holes still remain on the walls, as a reminder and tribute to those who lost their lives). Leopold;s is invariably packed with people reliving its legends over huge pitchers of beer (or beer towers, for the really thirsty!). The food is diverse (Indian, Chinese, and Continental), the servings are large, and there's a cozy upstairs area with DJ playing tunes into the night. Opening hours are 7.30 a.m. to 12.30 a.m.
Britannia & Co, Mumbai
Britannia & Co has been in business since 1923 and is perhaps Mumbai's most iconic Irani cafe -- and, one of the last of its kind remaining. It's the place to go to try Parsi cuisine, which curiously blends Persian and Gujarati influences. The restaurant is housed in a grand Renaissance-style building designed by Scottish architect George Wittet, who also designed the Gateway of India. It has a fitting, pervasively vintage, ambiance. Sadly, the delightfully eccentric owner passed away recently, aged in his 90s. However, his legacy lives on. Do order the famous berry pulao (with meat, paneer or vegetables). It's made using the secret recipe of the owner's late wife. Opening hours are 11.30 a.m. to 4 p.m., daily except Sundays. Expect to pay about $20 for two people. Cash only.
One of Delhi's oldest restaurants, Kwality opened in Connaught Place in 1940. It has withstood the test of time and was given an extensive nostalgia-drenched makeover in 2018. Almost 70 original images of Connaught Place, taken by acclaimed photographer Madan Mahatta, line the restaurant's walls reflecting decades of the city's history and post-Independence lifestyle. Velvet curtains, period furniture, a piano lounge, and polo bar add to the retro feel. There's live music too -- a pianist every afternoon during high tea, and jazz bands in the night. Both North Indian and Continental food is served, although the restaurant's signature dish is channa (chole) bhatura. It's prepared overnight using a secret blend of spices and recipe that the owner is said to have obtained from a cook in Rawalpindi, a city in the Punjab province of Pakistan that was the original "channa capital".
Read more about what to eat in Connaught Place.
Karim's has been "serving royal food to the common man" since 1913. Its notable origins go all the way back to the time of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. Karim's ancestors worked in the royal kitchen in the Red Fort but fled after the Emperor was dethroned. Haji Karimuddin returned to Delhi to sell food to those going to the 1911 Delhi Durbar, which was attended by King George V and held to commemorate his coronation. Two years later, he set up his restaurant. Karim's is now into its fourth generation of management and is ranked as one of the best restaurant for North Indian cuisine in Delhi. There's no fancy decor or inviting ambiance but the food more than makes up for it! The Old Delhi location also provides a fascinating look into a side of Delhi that many visitors don't get to see. However, if you're a vegetarian you might want to give Karim's a miss as the menu is meat-centric. Adventurous carnivores can try the brain curry! Opening hours are 9 a.m. to midnight daily. Cash only.
Indian Coffee House, Kolkata
The Indian Coffee Board founded the first Indian Coffee House in Mumbai in 1936. More outlets across India followed. These establishments were popular meeting places for intellectuals, freedom fighters, social activists, revolutionaries, and bohemians. However, business declined in the 1950s, and the Indian Coffee Board decided to shut them down. Employees who lost their jobs got together to form a series of worker co-operative societies and run the coffee houses themselves. Now, there are about 400 of them in India, managed by 13 cooperative societies. Possibly the most famous Indian Coffee House branch, opened in 1942, is located opposite Presidency College on Kolkata's College Street. Students frequently hang out there to converse and exchange ideas. Just don't expect fast service and quality food. It's all about the nostalgia (and of course the coffee)! Opening hours are 9 a.m to 9 p.m., Monday to Saturday. 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Sundays.
For fuss-free south Indian vegetarian cuisine, head to Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (commonly referred to as MTR) while in Bangalore. This legendary restaurant has been dishing it up since 1924! It's the oldest idli dosa place in the city and classic must-try restaurant there. The restaurant's main claim to fame is that it invented the rava idli, during World War II when rice was scarce. It quickly developed a reputation for hygiene and cleanliness. Such is its popularity these days that customers line up on the pavement outside. However, the restaurant was forced to temporarily close down during the 1970s, when the government called a state of emergency and forced it to lower prices to unsustainable levels. During this time, the innovative owner diversified into selling ready-to-make packaged mixes for idlis and dosas. MTR Foods has grown to become one of India's leading packaged foods companies. Opening hours are 6.30 a.m. until 11.00 a.m. for breakfast. 12.30 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. for lunch. 3.30 p.m. until 8.30 p.m. for snacks and dinner. Closed Mondays. Do note that the restaurant's trademark dessert, Chandrahara, is only served on Sundays.
Ratna Cafe, Chennai
A favorite restaurant for lovers of idli sambar in Chennai, the original Ratna Cafe was set up in Triplicane in 1948, just after India gained Independence from British rule. Interestingly, it was not established by a south Indian, but rather by the Gupta family from Mathura in Uttar Pradesh. Unlimited sambar, made from a secret traditional recipe, is poured from a large bucket to appreciative diners. Order it along with the award-winning Special South India Filter Coffee. Opening hours are 7.30 a.m. until 10.30 p.m. daily. Drop by after a walk along nearby Marina Beach.
Trincas harks back to the 1960s, during the glory days in Calcutta (as it was then called) when city was arguably the most important in India. Park Street was abuzz with glitz, glamor, live music, and endless parties. The restaurant started out as a tearoom, founded by a Swiss gentleman named Trinca, in the 1939. Its new owners converted it to its current form and introduced band music to the city. Trincas is the only place on Park Street where the live music never stopped, even today. Unfortunately, the restaurant's decor hasn't remained the same though. The elegant high ceiling and arches are gone, and ordinary white tiles have replaced the plush carpets, making it sadly devoid of its original charm. However, the owners are undertaking a timeline project to gather and preserve memories, pictures and anecdotes from the past. Opening hours are 11.30 a.m. until 11.30 p.m.
Bharawan Da Dhaba, Amritsar
Centuary-old Bharawan Da Dhaba is a must-visit restaurant on the Amritsar food trail. The restaurant has been delighting diners with its authentic Punjabi cuisine since it was established, in 1912, in a tent. Having survived the economic turmoil of subsequent Indo-Pakistan wars, Bharawan Da Dhaba has flourished into a casual air-conditioned eatery near the Town Hall. According to the current owner (the founder's grandson), what makes the food special is the way it's cooked over a slow flame with the use of mild spices so as to not overpower the flavor. All dishes are vegetarian and are made using pure ghee (clarified butter). Opening hours are 7 a.m. to midnight daily.