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Vintage Raj

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Ambica Gulati visits iconic Delhi café United Coffee House, which turns 75

In the circular beating heart of Delhi, also known as Connaught Place, there’s a dowager celebrating her 75th birthday. Like any do fit only for the crème de la crème of the imperial capital of the Raj, the crockery is spotless, the cutlery sparkling, the chandeliers glittering and the menu…well, it’s a regal spread for a discerning palate.

At the appointed hour, the guests start to arrive. A special place is reserved for Dr Ashok Kaushik, a 67 year-old doctor, who first sat at the table when he was but a schoolboy. Next, 75 year-old Amritlal Batra, a chartered accountant who has been regularly eating here for 47 years. Then, Javed Ahmed, a travel agent who has flagged this as a special stop on his itinerary for visitors to the city. The guest list is endless but that’s only to be expected for a Delhi icon such as United Coffee House, which turns 75 this year.

Connaught Place has changed plenty since those heady days when United Coffee House threw open its doors to the capital’s elite. Once a showpiece of Lutyen’s Delhi, CP, as it is now called, has become a bustling commercial hub and marketplace. But there’s always time for a slice of nostalgia, and United Coffee House is more than happy to oblige.

Walking into this eatery is like stepping into a time machine. The domes and chandeliers, soft lighting, part-recessed seating and ornate but elegant décor transport you back to a time when army generals told tales of the war, and assistants to viceroys reminisced about the weather back in England, all over generous servings of Chicken Maryland, Chicken a la Kiev, Stuffed Tomato and Coq au Vin. Indeed, time has stood still in this coffee house. Gaze up at the grand Venetian chandelier, the centrepiece of its décor, at the beige painted walls and linoleum flooring and you can almost hear its VIP patrons chatting over a delicious, hot meal.

With the passage of time, the coffee house became a meeting place for generations who have enjoyed their conversations over a cup of coffee. Its platters here have been eaten by political leaders, bureaucrats, celebrities, matchmakers, couples on dates and anyone else who has time to spare.

Our host for the evening is Akash Kalra, managing director and third-generation owner of United Coffee House. He says that among the famous personalities who have dined here are artists M F Husain and Satish Gujral; political leaders such as Sanjay Gandhi and Dr Rajendra Prasad; Bollywood personalities such as Raj Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor and Madhur Bhandarkar; singer Ghulam Ali; and sports personality Milkha Singh.

Kalra takes us back to the 1930s, when his grandfather, a liquor merchant called Lala Hans Raj Kalra, opened the capital’s first restaurant, Esplanade, in Chandni Chowk, which was frequented mainly by British soldiers who loved their grog. “During World War II, my grandfather had obtained a 24-hour liquor licence as soldiers were stationed in that area,” says Kalra, who took over the family business from his father in 1991. But even as shot glasses zipped across the Esplanade’s counter, Connaught Place was becoming the main drag in Delhi. It evolved into a high street whose shops, aimed at wealthy Europeans, began to sell equestrian goods, cameras and pianos and offered bespoke tailoring. United Coffee House became the perfect stop for the well-heeled eager to kick up their heels and enjoy some chitter-chatter over a cuppa.

In the 1940s, Quit India and other political movements were also shaping up, and there was a need for a place where intellectuals could exchange ideas, the snobbish elite could engage in social conversations, and political figures could discuss affairs that would change the course of India’s history. “That was my grandfather’s idea when he opened United Coffee House in 1942,” reveals Kalra.

This chapter in India’s history is clearly etched on the menu of what was arguably Delhi’s first-ever café. “This was the only place that offered global cuisine,” remarks Kalra. “My grandfather sourced cooks from the Calcutta Cricket and Football Club and places in Bombay as these were popular with the British. These cooks knew what would appeal to the patrons.”

The European palate has always been the mainstay of the coffee house, clearly reflected in the ‘Early Inceptions’ section. Here, classics such as sandwiches, grills, burgers, cheese balls, hot dogs and other finger food hold sway. “Breakfast was a crowd-puller though dinner wasn’t.”

An Indian section soon evolved and included Northwest Frontier dishes such as kebabs, curries, butter chicken and the all-time favourite Lahori Meat, explains Kalra. In time, Mughlai, Punjabi and Kayastha dishes too found a place on this hallowed menu. Many of these—Kheema Samosa, Nargis ke Kofte and the Bengal-inspired Tomato Fish—became the eatery’s signature dishes. “As time went by, a multi-cuisine menu was developed, and it offered dishes like American Chopsuey and Fuyong, which were available only overseas or in Chinatown, Kolkata,” recalls Kalra.

With snacks, savouries and coffee, the restaurant took off big time and the senior Kalra personally managed the establishment. “Hospitality runs in our family,” says Akash Kalra. “Apart from Esplanade and United Coffee House, our family also owned Hotel Rajdoot in Nizamuddin and another restaurant called Ramble in Palika Bazaar, which was shut down when its lease ran out.”

Some might call it sacrilege, others smart business sense, but to compete with other eateries in Connaught Place, United Coffee House has been forced to add Asian, Mexican and QSR recipes to its menu. If there’s any consolation, this careful mixing and matching of dishes over the past seven decades has created a treasure trove of over 600 recipes, shares Kalra.

Our conversation is interrupted by a waiter approaching our table, carrying a glass coffee jug and what appears to be a beaker and a burner. A magic trick, perhaps? That’s not far from the truth, for watching a vacuum-brewed Cona coffee maker in action is sheer wizardry. Pure vintage stuff!

On the famed Cona coffee, Kalra reveals, “It comes from the plantations of Coorg and some places in Tamil Nadu. There’s blended, robust Arabica, Cona and filter. We made our own blend with robust Arabica and South Indian filter coffee, and ended up with our famous Cona coffee, which is a huge hit even today. People come here for this experience and have been for generations.”

That’s no empty boast. Dr Ashok Kaushik, 67, who has seen the coffee house evolve from a simple café to a plush restaurant, still finds the food and service excellent. The 67 year-old doctor shuts his clinic in Shakti Nagar at 3 pm and heads straight here to spend two hours with his friends. Tea, biscuits and friendly chatter are just what the doctor ordered! “My uncle brought me here for a treat when I stood first in my class, in school,” says Kaushik. “I began coming here with friends when I was in college and then with my family.” A table is always reserved for this coterie at the coffee house.

Ashok Chopra, 67, too, has been eating here for the past 50 years, since he was in college. “I always bring my family here on special occasions,” he says. “The only change I see is the coffee-house ambience giving way to a fine-dining restaurant. The hospitality here keeps bringing me back.”

As for Javed Ahmed, he’s been bringing tour groups here to experience a taste of the Raj for the past 12 years. “It’s among the few good places to take foreigners to enjoy Indian hospitality at its best and take that experience back to their countries,” he avers.

Evidently, the coffee house’s success is testament to its owners’ business acumen and generous hospitality. Will there be another outlet? Not in the near future, says Kalra. “Can you replicate a bottle of vintage wine?”

Photos courtesy: United Coffee House
Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
September 2017