“Bhau, CAMP chalo (Take me to Camp),” I say, plonking myself in an autorickshaw and making my way through Pune’s breezy cantonment area, lined with avenues of flowering trees on either side, dodging two-wheelers zooming out of nowhere. Soon we reach Hulshur area in the Camp locality. George Restaurant is one of the first restaurants to come into view on East Street, which runs parallel to MG Road, both dotted with eateries new and old.
“The British cantonment was here, in this part of Pune, which is called Camp but should be called Cantt. I don’t know why, maybe we are chic. The Christian, Parsi and a popular Muslim community stayed here and the city was on the other side, where the Marathas lived. Now that the area has exploded, all this has become one,” says George’s third-generation owner Reza Aryaei, 37, even as he instructs the ustad to check the rice while sniffing his fingers. He is making the dry biryani spice mix for an order to be dispatched to Solapur, around four hours from here. Their restaurant, says Aryaei, and their cousin’s Blue Nile is known for biryani in the city.
George was started in 1936 by Aryaei’s maternal grandfather, Hassan Jafari. The seventh-generation migrant remembers tales of his ancestors entering India via Karachi. Jafari had two daughters so his son-in-law — Aryaei’s father, Mansoor Aryaei (now 69) — took up the restaurant business. “Somehow, the Parsis were in the good books of the Britishers as they had oil contracts in Iran but they wouldn’t get jobs in the service industry. Food business was a natural option — chai, bun maska, and bakery goods — apna Indian public ko chai peena hi peena hai (Indians loved their tea) and they produced the best leaves. The Britishers gave permission and funds to open restaurants,” says Aryaei, over butter toast, akuri (scrambled eggs) and Irani chai, describing the tradition of brewing tea in the copper vessel, Samovar, for nearly an hour which gives it its iconic lingering taste.
In 1980, a fire burned down the restaurant. It was reopened a year later and can now accommodate 230 guests, from about 40 earlier. George started with a limited menu — mutton biryani and mutton masala with rotis, besides the regular Parsi fare of dhansak, patra ni machhi, etc. “We had dishes like grilled lamb chops and steaks, which were discontinued because of no sales. Nothing sells like our biryani (mutton Rs 350, chicken Rs 300, besides fish, prawns, chicken tikka, and a vegetarian variant),” says Aryaei, adding that they make their own garam masala, “Don’t ask me about it because I won’t tell you,” he says with a smile, “You know it’s cooked to perfection when, after removing the handi lid, the first aroma makes you hungry,” he says.
If not the biryani, try the Persian dishes — chello kebab (Rs 320), jujeh kebab (Rs 300), chello murgh (Rs 300) — and end the meal with the mandatory caramel custard (Rs 90).