Just saw PM Modi’s news regarding his fondness for coffee at Shimla’s Indian Coffee House. I couldn’t help reminisce about my time at the Coffee House in Gwalior.
Indian Coffee House or ICH for short is as integral a part of my memories as is the yearly trade fair in Gwalior. The trade fair brings with itself the smell of Russian Book Stall and popcorn and Haridwar shop of chaat and gajar halwa; and the Coffee House brings with itself the smell of plain white mica lined furniture and glasses made of glass. The clink of cutlery on chinaware was the sound that woke the taste buds up. And the waiters with their trademark headgear were a treat as well.
I hear they have done away with ceramic plates and are now serving food in plastic plates. I am not sure I feel good about that. A part of their charm was the cheap dosa served in expensive plates. And the dosa had cashews.
As North Indians, we consider the meal as done when the dosa is over. But here, the mandatory, “Sir, would you like some tea or coffee” after the meal was heard. I used to go there with my Nanaji who, when in his elements, would use the fork and the knife to eat his dosa. I used to watch with fascination as he gobbled up the delicacy with finesse and called for extra sambar and chutney. The waiters knew us by face and isn’t that what a coffee house is supposed to be? A house of coffee with its permanent residents serving its permanent customers with affection, of course in exchange of money. But money is an afterthought if the ambiance is just right.
The place was unique because it didn’t just serve south Indian food and coffee. It also had a separate restaurant for those who wanted their naans, butter paneer masala and pulao. And what pulao! It was served with raita and tasted heavenly for the first thirty minutes. If you were to take it home in a parcel, it would never be as good. Somehow, when cold, the pulao lost its magic completely. And so did the sambaar. It tasted like tomatoes gone bad. But the dosa and the idly kept well. Even when they were soggy and cold, they could be eaten, no problem. All that was need was some plain white coconut chutney to make things right.
The Coffee House wasn’t just a place to eat though. No sir. It was an airconditioned restaurant of goodness for the smoked, charred souls of Gwalior. It was a venue for heated political debates and intelligent conversations overheard and assimilated by the regulars and the new ones alike.
The waiters had their favourites and no matter where you sat, your waiter would come to you. It was beautiful. The romance of watching a waiter with a turban walking toward you with a glass of water. He would place the glass on the table and you would tell him that you needed a masala dosa. He would not look in your direction. It would appear that he has not heard you at all. You pick up the newspaper that a stranger had left on the table. Five minutes later, here is your piping hot dosa served with a smile. And then at the end, “Anything else, sir?”