COMFORT MEETS QUIRK AT CAFE UNIVERSAL
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY KRUTI DALAL
Take your pick from an endless food menu and chilled beer at Cafe Universal in Ballard Estate.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that nobody does tea better than the Iranis (though Jane Austen herself may have begged to differ). When freshly baked buns, slathered with lightly salted butter, are dunked into piping hot, highly sweetened, milky chai, it creates a combination so compelling it puts Earl Grey and scones to shame. Reams have been written about the fast-fading Irani cafés in Mumbai, but as I discovered (regrettably rather late in life), not all of these crumbling institutions are propped up by the legendary brun maska. Walk away from the business district, past the dramatic Asiatic Library steps, down the road from the Reserve Bank of India and you will find yourself outside Cafe Universal. This one is all about beer, burgers and thick, fatty French fries.
The café has been around for nearly a century, and back in the day, dockyard workers would flock to Universal by the dozen to enjoy their daily chai and khari biscuit. But the clientele has altered dramatically since then. At lunchtime, you’ll find businessmen dividing their attention between two phones, one tablet and a plate of fish fingers. Colleagues split a bottle of beer and then step outside for a smoke. Tourists soak in the atmosphere and pen down their thoughts while waiting for the meat-laden OMG burger. The owner doles out instructions to her army from behind the counter and takes stock of the day’s grocery purchases, lined notebook in hand. Evenings usually bring along a bevy of bankers, brokers and corporate honchoes out for a post-work drink and spicy office gossip. Girls in heels and dresses drop by after fancy launch parties for steak buns and Kingfisher. Weekends at Universal can be a crowded affair, with youngsters setting up camp at the tiled tables and wooden benches in the centre, while families debate the right ratio of sizzler to person. Nobody at Universal is in a hurry to go anywhere, not the customers and certainly not the servers. Even the vintage wall clock that chimes every hour seems to do so slowly, softly and rather reluctantly.
Cafe Universal feels like a time capsule, one crammed with souvenirs from different parts of the globe. Mustard walls, sculptural windows, doorframes made of wrought iron and Tiffany-esque chandeliers reflect the Art Nouveau aesthetics popular in Europe at the cusp of the 20th century. Posters of New York and Toronto refuse to blend in with Mughal paintings, Iranian landscapes and Zoroastrian gods and a row of golden Chinese cats wave at customers from behind the counter.
The menu is just as eclectic. Chilly cheese toast, chopsuey and curries of all sorts jostle for space on the menu and the wooden tables. Chilled beer demands the presence of some fiery beef chilly (and paneer chilly for the vegetarian in the group). Parsi and Irani specialties struggle to stand out on pages bursting with burgers, sizzlers and tandoori items. Standouts in the “snacks” section include Cheese Cherry Pineapple (best remembered from Catholic weddings back in the ’90s) and Boiled Chana. The options are endless.
Stepping into the cool confines of Café Universal assures you a quirky culinary journey like no other. You can take a virtual trip to a Parisian café and eat medium-rare steak while sitting at Cochin Street in Mumbai. Just as well. You can’t move a muscle once the last drop of beer has been drunk and the dhanshak licked clean off the plate.
Café Universal, 299 Shahid Bhagat Singh Road, Adi Murzban Path, Ballard Estate, Mumbai 400 001. Phone: 022 2261 3985