Some restaurants are more than that. They are a part of your being, in the sense that they have played a large role in your life at some stage. You have hung out there, waiting for someone special, or with someone special. Or gone back there again and again, to have one particular dish. You associate some extremely important occasion with them, if not many.
This week, I learnt about the fall of not one but two such places.
The first one is Crystal. To anybody who lives in Mumbai, it is difficult not to have heard of it. For business school grads who are not from the city, their first encounter is in the summers when they are put up in Wilson College and the evening meal is at this hole in a wall establishment. If you have seen it, you would know but for those who haven’t it wouldn’t be surprising if you didn’t register its existence as you drove past Girgaon Chawpatty on Marine Drive. It is difficult to describe the place from inside. It is as if someone had pressed the Pause button sometime in 1953, and the place froze. There were (yes were!) around 5 tables on the ground floor, and may be another 6 on the mezzanine level. The two were connected through a wooden staircase, which could test any back. The waiters looked as if and probably were there since the beginning – they all were in their late 40s/ early 50s and old world in all ways. The music on any given day would take you back to the Black and White era of Madan Mohan and O P Nayyar. My memory of the music is frozen to one night when I had come after watching a play called The Blue Mug, about some psychologically disturbed people and the song Zindagi pyar ki do chaar ghadi hoti hai was nostalgic to one of the characters . That evening, when I was returning from NCPA, I ate at Crystal and the same song was playing. It seemed as if it had been playing for years.
The food was drop dead awesome, especially to anyone who has grown up in North India and misses the home cooking. It is difficult to describe how brilliant the dishes were at taking you back to that cooking – and I am afraid it might remain a secret how the cooks managed to get that taste repeatedly. I am sure the secrets included home made ghee, masalas ground on a stone slab and possibly transported from Himachal where the restaurant staff and owner hail from. The owner, to spend a minute on him, was an almost static figure – it seems his job was only to count the money, and return the change – but I am sure he was aware of every single happening in the restaurant. He would sit, without displaying an emotion – except if you turned up just after lunch or dinner hour and he would sternly turn you away signaling there was no room for negotiation.
I have been visiting this place for almost a decade, of course with much lesser frequency lately. As a bachelor, it was almost a haunt, where I would take a taxi from my pad in Churchgate, and queue up for the mouthwatering Rajma, daal, alu gobhi or sukhe aloo. As life got busier and I got married and moved away to the suburbs, the visits became infrequent – though both the wife and I share the love for the place. We would drag every visiting friend to the place, who after their initial shock (at how the place looked) would settle down to enjoy the meal, and the stunning kheer that would follow. We used to have a challenge – to eat for more than Rs. 200 between two people – and I can assure you it wasn’t easy – even for gluttons like me.
Last week, coming back from the Kala Ghoda festival, we stopped their to satisfy a late evening urge for Crystal food. We were sitting in the car and got the friendly waiter to deliver the parcel to the car. He mentioned, to disbelieving ears, that the place might shut down anytime – as the building is being razed down. Today, I discovered a shutter on the place with the chairs lying awkwardly on top of the decades old tables.
There is a small ray of hope – apparently the cooks have moved to a new version of Crystal at Lower Parel, which is being run by the owners’ daughter. It would not be the same, it never could – but hopefully the food will be. I hear they have got an air-conditioned section. Wonder what the waiters at the old Crystal would have to say about that.
The other bachelor institution that has fallen is Just around the corner at Bandra. I would save that story for another day.