Monday, October 26, 2009

Cafe Leopold

The first thing that strikes you when you walk into this venerable old lady of the Causeway is that she hasn't changed much over the years and that it appears to be a backpacker's haven! Only the colours appear to have changed, but the checked table cloths, a trademark of all Irani restaurants, remain.

A Cafe on Colaba Causeway, Leopold had evolved from being an oil store to a restaurant to a pharmacy and finally having found its true calling in the feeding people, has donned the avatar of a Cafe! The cafe, as an old Coca Cola Board at the entrance proclaims, been running since 1870s.. and it’s gained its share of fame (notoriety?) courtesy the novel Shantaram. I believe Gregory David Robert used to spend a lot of time here.

I remember when I first came to Bombay (apologies Mr Thackeray but that’s what it used to be in those good ‘ol days!), Cafe Leopold was one of the must dos on my list. A chequered reputation especially after dusk, added to the dubious charm of the place to an awestruck Delhite, first time in Bombay! Plus it was open and served food right up to midnight! But I must admit to being a tad disappointed when I first saw it. This is what everyone was raving about? But then you get used to Leopold, and it’s never changing decor and its laid back redolent atmosphere and the countless afternoons you can spend drinking beer, reading a book and munching its wonderfully oily snacks!

So it was not surprising that a walk on Colaba Causeway saw me heading to Leopold even though it was only 12 o’clock, a far cry from lunch time. Nothing much has changed – not the fresco on the wall, or the posters, nor the tables or chairs - only the colour of the table cloths, for I seemed to remember them being red. There is a very interesting poster with Presley and his ilk, which I suspect has been around for years as has the coke sign at the entrance.

The high ceiling adds to the old world charm of the place as do the long pillars. The slightly faded fresco on the drinks counter, the faded posters on the wall, the by and large Caucasian clientele (most of them backpackers) reinforce the sense of déjà vu! In fact, it is quite commonplace to walk in and find only foreigners / westerners thronging the place, some reading the paper while they enjoy their hot cuppa while others carry on animated discussions with local guides/ friends or simply enjoy their beer.

The bar and cafe has an air conditioned first floor which technically is the bar and a prominent sign that declares that you need to be a permit holder (Khayyam’s followers' contribution to the local exchequer) to be able to partake beer or even mild alcohol. But faith, the two lasses occupying the table next to me seemed too young to be holding a permit, but this is Mumbai!

Amongst its many other claims to fame, Leopold just added another albeit unhappy one last year. The Mumbai 26/11 massacre started at Leopold. If you glance up at the wooden partition that walls the first floor, you can see the telltale signs of the bullets shattering the glass, which have been preserved. It’s not the most comfortable feeling to know that you are sitting at the very place where it all started and where the floor was awash with red. I am not sure whether the management has preserved it as an attraction but they do say “those who forget history are condemned to repeat it”...a solemn remembrance of a lesson violently learned...

Since I wasn’t really hungry, just ordered a watermelon juice and a plate of chilly potatoes. They were not kidding when they said “chilly potatoes”! The dish had as many red chillies as potatoes and my mouth was on fire! Now I know why beer is the fastest moving beverage here, but for now the watermelon juice did fine. The Cafe has a Chinese and a Continental/ Indian menu offering a cross section of oily food which you thoroughly enjoy tucking into. A pitcher of draught beer will put you back by Rs 400 while a glass by Rs 110 which ain’t too bad. My chilly potatoes cost me Rs 175 and the juice Rs 80. Most entrees are around Rs 250 which doesn’t exactly make it cheap, but when you compare to how your salary has moved in the last 15 years, you can’t complain.

I have often wondered why Leopold is such a hit with its customers especially the Westerners since the food is decent but not exceptional. Be as that may, a trip to Mumbai is incomplete without visiting the Grand dame of the Causeway! Leopold is like your grand mom; she’s been around long enough to have seen any and everything and yet offer you the comfort of easy hospitality and non-intrusive familiarity.

Shop Number 5
Colaba Causeway
Shahid Bhagat Singh Road
Mumbai 400 039
Tel: 22828185

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