(The title of this post, loosely translated into the Queen’s language means - “Those good ole days at coffee house, ain’t no more !”)
Coffee house tucked away in a heritage building on Bankim Chatterjee বই পাড়া, is seeped in history. It is a mnemonic that will tug at most any heart of die hard lover of this city. There are some places that transcend generations and stand the test of time. Coffee House leads the pack of this club. The history of the Coffee House at College Street can be traced to Albert Hall, which was founded in April 1876. Later, the Coffee Board decided to start a coffee joint from the Albert Hall in 1942. Notable citizens, including Rabindranath Tagore and Subhas Chandra Bose, were frequent visitors to the place. In 1947, the Central Government changed the name of the place to "Coffee House". The place became a meeting place for the poets, artistes, literati and people from the world of art and culture. In 1958, the management decided to shut down the Coffee House, but it was re-opened the same year, after professors of Presidency College and Calcutta University rushed off a special petition to the government, to save the heritage place.
To give you some more history about this place here is a little trivia - The India Coffee House chain was started by the Coffee Board in early 1940s, during British rule. In the mid 1950s the Board closed down the Coffee Houses, due to a policy change. The thrown-out workers then took over the branches, under the leadership of the communist leader A. K. Gopalan and renamed the network as Indian Coffee House.
After a gap of nearly a month, I return to my blog space with vengeance. With a mild winter finally setting in Calcutta, there is hardly any time to waste. Thanks to an extremely short lived winter we see in Calcutta, I hold it close to my heart. What better time to descend on to this historic address than a cool and crisp Saturday morning. The day started with a bang ! Me and my wife as luck would have it, got into the heated debate early in the morning. There is something about anger and excitement. The adrenalin rush does wonders to your metabolism. Don’t know about you but it does to me. Thanks to an exciting start to the day, I was hungry and was craving for some steaming ‘Americano’ coffee with a classic breakfast, Coffee House style ! I called a friend, who as always came to my rescue and agreed to accompany me on my journey to Joie de vivre !
10 AM. Rush hour traffic. Time taken - 30 minutes, elapsed time to the centre of the earth(read city). Most book stalls still closed. Some shop keepers who were just getting ready for the day. Setting up their shops for a grueling day of business. Just another day at the office for a college street book stall owner.
We parked our car on University Street and walked down one block towards our destination this fine morning.
The erstwhile Albert Hall, now Coffee House is almost hidden among book shops, bill boards and political graffiti. This place was as much a seat of intellectualism as it was a breeding ground of student politics. Many a war of words and otherwise have been fought at this battle ground. Over endless cups of coffee and smoke billowing out of cigarettes. Now I say this at the risk of sounding like a supporter of Big Tobacco, which I am not. I confess that I am myself a light/occasional smoker. If you go back in time, to say Ray movies for example – all protagonists, characters, villains smoked nonchalantly. Smoking in Bengal has always been part of the culture. We all know of it’s ill effects, and this is not a forum to debate that. I am stating facts the way they are, I am not asking you to smoke or not to for that matter :)
Just as you walk into the promenade of the coffee house – history embedded in the stairwells and its walls embraces you. It is plain sad that a place as rich in history is neglected. Lack of cleanliness. Lack of maintenance. Lack of upkeep . Or may be it is just that the cob webs and the dusty look adds to the ambiance. Bengal and Calcutta has always been a hot bed of politics and today’s politics is no different in that aspect. And it thrives right here under the shade of this age old institution. But I tell you what – whatever this place lacks in terms of being spic and span, it makes up for it by it’s character. Picture as they is worth a thousand words or may be more. So here are some….
Believe me when I say this is the best time of the year if you are to visit Calcutta. Mild winter temperatures, cool day breeze and the soft rays of a winter sun. Kids are happy as a punch, with their schools are about to give over for Christmas and winter vacations. So we walk into a surprisingly clean, well ordered, and only sparsely populated 1st floor lobby of The Coffee House !
May be I am just a die hard romantic, but not visiting The Coffee House on a trip to Calcutta is pure sacrilege. It is almost like visiting Rome and not getting a dekko of the Sistine Chappel ! Some might balk at this exaggeration, but then who cares !
This to me is an instant classic. Just look at the sun rays tunneling through the sun roofs and bathing the entire dining area with crisp winter sun ! I say, La Dolce Vita !
My previous memory of this place is from my college days when this used to be a favorite haunt among us, even though our college was some ways from it. No contrary to popular perception – I did not go to one of them fancy colleges be it – St. Xaviers, Presidency, Scottish Church, or even Goenka College of Commerce. I went to SAJ for short – Seth Anandaram Jaipuria College.
The menu at The Coffee House is simplistic. Don’t go in here expecting to get spoiled with choices. Coffee means coffee here. There are a couple of variants though – hot, cold, premixed with milk and sugar, or milk and sugar served separately, or hot/cold coffee with cream or just plain old Infusion. No lattes, No cappuccinos, No Mochas either or any of it’s fancy cousins. If you ask me, I think they are overrated any how :)
Apart from the coffee, the menu presents a stellar cast of Omlettes, Chicken Sandwiches, Onion Pakora (Onion Fritters to the anglicized :) and Chicken Afghani. Prices are reasonable to say the least.
There were few people when we walked in. Service was swift. From 0-60 in about 10 mins. We flagged our waiter down with a hand gesture that only works in this part of the world. Some people like to use phrases such as ‘এই যে দাদা !’ loosely translated means - ‘Hey big brother !’.
I think the gentleman above was called 'either ‘Salim bhai’ or ‘Suleiman bhai’. I wanted to talk to him and ask him a few questions as to how long he had been here and what are some of the changes he has seen over the years. But people had to started to pour in, and he was getting busier. And in the conundrum I forgot to interview him for this post. What a shame ! Oh well, next time I guess !
We placed our order without much deliberation.
- 2 Hot Coffee Trays
- 2 Chicken Omlettes
- 3 Buttered Toasts
- Chicken Sandwiches
The coffee was Signature Coffee House. So were the omlettes, and buttered toasts. The omlettes here are nearly deep fried, you can tell by the look of it. If I know a thing or two about cooking, I can be sure that these are fried on frying pans with liberal quantities of oil. They had little to no salt in them, again just classically served. You add your own salt and pepper.
There are few places where the intellectual ambiance and sheer character of the place is more inviting than the actual food itself. The Coffee House is split into two levels, the second floor opens for business only later in the day. I was still able to squeeze myself through a pair of locked doors on the second floor and get some aerial shots of the first floor lobby. Here they are.
The changing face of Coffee House is clearly evident in the picture above, where you see a young man sipping away on his laptop and black coffee. Laptops have replaced old dog eared books. The crowd at this forenoon hour was eclectic from young college students, to middle aged men, to some old timers deep in thought and engaged in conversation.
Finally reproduced below is a rare moment of self adulation. A not-so-young-man in an illustrative yet smoky expression :)
Done with a hearty breakfast, we were ready to hit the road to be back in time for a date with the doctor. By now, clock had struck nearly noon. The dining hall was mostly full and abuzz with activity. Outside, most book stalls had upped their shutters and it was business as usual !
No mention of Coffee House is complete without a recollection of the Manna Dey classic that shares it’s title with the title of this post :) Did you know Manna da himself is an alumni of Scottish Church College ? If you haven’t heard this in a while – enjoy ! After all this, if you are brimming with nostalgia, come on down to Calcutta and we will take a trip down memory lane …