In 1946, at a time when Indians were looking back at a rich past and forward to a promising future, Sudhakar Dikshit, a journalist with the newspaper, Indian Nation, opened a restaurant that would, besides serving good food, celebrate the best of Indian culture. “My father loved books and started this place as a cultural centre. It used to host book readings, poetry recitations and discussions of various art forms, and artists such as MF Husain, KH Ara and SH Raza were regulars,” recalls Chhaya Arya, managing director of Chetana Restaurant, who took over the business in 1985.
Dikshit didn’t know much about food. The initial thali offered at Chetana was basic, comprising a vegetable dish, dal, rice and chapati. Apart from this, snacks such as vegetable cutlets, and beverages, such as cold coffee, were served. The restaurant, which covered 2,500 sq ft, included a bookshop and a chess table where, Arya, 84, says, the first Indian Governor of Bombay, Raja Sir Maharaj Singh, could be found frequently, engaged in a game. The bookshop remains, separated from the restaurant now by a partition. A craft centre that sells Indian handlooms is also part of the business.
Located in Kala Ghoda, the heart of Mumbai’s historical art district, the restaurant is popular today for its various thalis, including Gujarati, Maharashtrian, Rajasthani and a special “health” thali, which features steamed dhoklas, salads, soups and other dishes made without any chillies and very little oil. The thalis feature seasonal specialties such as undhiyu (a Gujarati mixed vegetable winter dish) and aam ras, which is currently part of the summer offerings. Apart from the thalis, the restaurants also serves snacks such as samosas and Jaipuri tikki, which are available throughout the day.
There’s no shortage of thali restaurants in south Mumbai, yet Chetana remains a popular spot, drawing crowds all through the week. However, Arya is clear that the family is happy with this one restaurant that it runs. “We do not wish to expand as we are not commercially driven. We are just glad that there are so many people from different generations who visit us and have so many stories to tell,” she says, “Many people came here first when they were kids and now bring their own kids here,” she adds with a smile.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘ Families in food: Flavours of Nostalgia’