At 10.30 on a Tuesday morning, when we land up at the Dorabjee & Sons Restaurant in Camp, Pune, Darius Dorabjee is in the kitchen fretting over the mutton biryani he has just made — he wants it quickly off the chulha lest it is overcooked. He is also shooting off instructions to the staff, who are moving the food from the oversized kitchen to the large pantry. Business begins at 11.30 am — as it has for the past 140 years.
His great-grandfather, Sorabjee Dorabjee, started the restaurant in 1878. Back then, the Pune Cantonment area had one place to eat out, El Moretos, an Italian restaurant and bar, meant only for British officers and their families. “It had a strictly no-Indians policy. My grandfather seized the opportunity. He took up three adjoining houses on rent and started a bun-maska and chai stall. Soon, customers demanded he open a restaurant. In those days, Poona’s moneyed class had no restaurant to go to. That’s how Dorabjee & Sons restaurant started. Since my great grandfather knew only how to make Parsi food and we had no cooks or help, the restaurant automatically started serving only Parsi food,” says Darius, the 47-year-old fourth-generation owner, or “working partner” as he puts it, since the family is quite big and all members are “shareholders” in the restaurant.
Back then, the family bought a house across the road, so the women of the family could grind masalas at home and sift the rice, while the men cooked in the restaurant. “The women still don’t cook, the men do the cooking. Our entire family eats all meals at the restaurant till today. See, that’s how good the women have it,” says Darius with a laugh.
Sometime in the 1950s, folding metal chairs and wooden tables were brought in — until then, patrons sat on the floor and ate. A photo of a young Bal Thackeray in his early teens eating at the restaurant, seated cross-legged on the floor with his family, is a reminder of that era. Today, marble-top tables and plastic chairs are used but that is probably the only change the restaurant has seen in the last one-and-a-half century. “We are pretty archaic in our ways and we are proud of it. Our customers love it, they ask us never to change. I am a lazy fellow, so I am happy to oblige,” says Darius.
The food is still cooked on chulhas and the masalas are still added by a family member. Darius, who has manned the kitchen since he was 15 (when he was asked by his late father, Marzaban, to work for pocket money), says there has never been a day when a family member wasn’t in the kitchen. The menu has withstood change as well — it ranges from chicken and mutton pulao or biryani to dhansak, salli boti, farcha (chicken fried in eggs) and akuri on toast for breakfast, and desserts like lagan nu custard. In fact, the restaurant remains one of the few places in Pune to serve Ardeshir raspberry soda drinks, a legacy fast fading out.
But the prices have changed. The menus of the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s still occupies pride of place on the “wall of fame” at the restaurant entry. The 1940s menu has mutton chilly fry priced at two annas, today it is Rs 250. Back then, the chicken items were priced double that of mutton, the latter used to be the “poor man’s food”.
“A young man once came in and said that his father, a retired defence officer, wanted to meet me. He had the 1940s menu, but he lived in Chandigarh and would give it only to me. So I packed food and went to meet him. He gave it to me and told me so many stories of his association with us,” recalls Darius.
Spend an hour at the restaurant and it’ll be clear that it is this “association” with regulars which is at the heart of Dorabjee & Sons. From 80-year-olds throwing birthdays for the grandchildren at the restaurant, to a 96-year-old customer bringing his 94-old-wife on a bi-weekly date, these are the stories that make the restaurant a true icon of the old city of Poona.