Kolkata clutches its heritage and culture close to its heart and one of the ways by which it keeps it alive is the oft-heard word adda. You'll find adda, a spirited and mostly intellectual debate, thriving on street corners lit by a single bulb. You’ll find it amidst a game of carrom, in old coffeehouses shadowy in a haze of cigarette smoke, on cha corners with steaming earthen cups of sweet tea and spilling out on doorsteps in clusters of friends tempting each other on to stay awhile with another cup of cha or a bidi. Kolkata loves its adda and it's even better when there's a hefty amount of greasy food, cigarettes and numberless cups of cha or coffee involved.
It is no secret that the city dishes out the most drool-worthy food to hungry palates at prices which sit comfortably on your purse. Now, with the turn of the century, there are swanky, colourful pubs and restaurants cropping up thronged by an increasingly young hipster crowd looking for an adda session of their own.
However, for authentic and soul-sating greasy food (which may require a digestive) you must take yourself to these heritage eateries.
Indian Coffee House, Kolkata
Tucked away amidst the many bylanes of College Street, heaving with bookshops that threaten to spill out on the road, is Indian Coffee House. Climb up a narrow, discoloured staircase to come upon quite suddenly into a cavernous hall with crowded small tables and the hum of numerous conversations.
Waiters scurry between tables with their trademark cockatoo-like turbans as the sunlight streams in, in long shafts on people gesticulating amidst billows of cigarette smoke. The Indian Coffee House has long been a hotbed of intellectual debates.
With erstwhile customers such as Rabindranath Tagore, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Satyajit Ray, Amartya Sen, Mrinal Sen and Aparna Sen, the Coffee House is now thronged by students of the nearby hallowed colleges, eager to carry on the tradition of highbrow tete-a-tetes with watery coffee. Several freedom movements were birthed here amidst plates of mutton cutlets and Fish Kabiraji.
Cold Coffee With Cream, Chicken Afghani Cutlet
Cost for two:
15, Bankim Chatterjee Street, College Street, Kolkata
2. Mitra Cafe
One of the few remaining cabin cafes in Kolkata, the Mitra Café, established in 1920 still holds heady sway over people with a hankering for their Fish Diamond Fry or fowl cutlet. In the 1920s, when the people of Bengal had started discovering the pleasures of dining on succulent fare outside, Mitra Café like other restaurants which cropped up around that time had created ‘cabeens’.
Small cubicles were separated from the outside world by a curtain so that ladies may dine in privacy. With the growing progressiveness of the middle-class intelligentsia, the original purpose of the cabins was discarded. Since then, many romances have blossomed over plates of brain chop in the confines of these cubicles.
Make sure you’re here early for their tender mutton chop or brain chop for the more daring because their specials run out before you can say the word ‘chop’.
Mutton delicacies, brain chop
Cost for two:
47, Jatindra Avenue, Shobha Bazar
3. Anadi Cabin
This unpretentious eatery has seen personalities like Uttam Kumar and Victor Banerjee sample its sinful Mughlai porotta (paratha). With the exiled family of Wajid Ali Shah leaving behind Mughlai cuisine as a legacy, Kolkata has taken these flavours to dish out more than just kebabs and biryanis.
A thick paratha is filled with a layer of meaty keema and crisped on the outside. Served with spicy potato curry and delicately sliced onions, it isn’t hard to see why Anadi has been thriving for over 94 years now!
Come lunchtime and the cooks flip parathas frantically to meet the rush of the oncoming customers. Make sure you’re in the queue too for a meal you’ll keep going back for.
Mughlai paratha, Kabiraji cutlet
Cost for two:
9, Jawaharlal Nehru Road, New Market Area
4. Allen Kitchen
Allen Kitchen has become synonymous with its melt-in-the-mouth prawn cutlet. The signboard outside says 'the taste of heaven' and with 138 years of culinary expertise under their belt, nobody can fault them for their boasting. The eatery is now run by the fourth generation of Mr Jibon Krishna Saha who is credited with the success of the glorious prawn cutlet.
If you want frills, you won't get it here but you'll get some seriously good fish Kabiraji and mutton stew that'll keep your cutlet company. You might have to bide your time before your cutlet is served to you, fried golden in pure ghee and wonderfully crispy with moist prawn inside. Pair that with kasundi (Bengali mustard sauce) and salad to understand why their stock gets sold out two hours before closing time.
Prawn cutlet and chops
Cost for two:
40/1, Jatindra Mohan Avenue, Shobha Bazar, Kolkata
5. Oly Pub
Christened Olympia Bar and Restaurant in 1947, the name was shortened to the better-known Oly Pub in 1981. The watering hole still thrives on thirsty youngsters, steaks which are nothing like actual steaks, loud slurry conversations and unlimited amounts of chanachur mix.
With alcohol at cheap prices, many youngsters have been initiated to their first hesitant beer here. And they always come back for more.
The tables are speckled with dubious stains which you wouldn't want to wonder too hard about. It wouldn't be Oly Pub without the plumes of cigarette smoke with a whiff of whiskey in it.
Mixed grill platter, Chicken A La Kiev
Cost for two:
21 Park Street, Park Street Area
6. Fern Hotel and Restaurant
Fern Hotel and Restaurant is a celebrity in its own right, having featured in Bengali movies such as ‘Kaal Purush’ and ‘Saheb, Bibi, Golaam’. Luring people in with authentic Bengali cuisine and tidbits since 1938, Fern Restaurant is another famed cabin eatery.
While many cabin restaurants have done away with the secluded nooks due to couples necking behind the curtain, Fern Restaurant has retained their booths for people to dine in privacy with 'Ladies' nailed to the entrance.
Come lunchtime, this is where you should head to after a bout of bargaining at the Gariahat market nearby, to dig into their spicy Mutton Kosha or Fish Afghani. As evening approaches, the air hangs heavy with the aroma of snacks being prepared to meet the mob of people calling out for the crunchy fish fry or a filling Mughlai porotta.
Mutton delicacies, fish fry
Cost for Two:
193, Rash Behari Avenue, Fern Road Intersection, Gariahat, Kolkata
7. Niranjan Agar
Nobody here will look at you askew if you invoke the devil here. The Dimer Devil, which is Bengal’s version of the scotch egg recipe, has a fried exterior that is broken open to a shiny boiled egg with minced meat. When the side of kasundi (Bengali mustard sauce) nudges the devil shyly, the scene calls for a bout of sinful gluttony.
The cabin has lost its vigour since being established in 1922. With a loyal client base, however, it recalls its star-studded past when famous personalities like Aparna Sen used to drop by for a bite of the succulent snack. It was also responsible for catering for the Raj Bhavan in the 1980s.
Cost for two:
239/A, C.R. Avenue, Girish Park, Kolkata
8. Basanta Cabin
Hiding amidst countless book stores with tottering piles of books is the ancient Basanta Cabin, stripped of pretensions. Studded in a dilapidated building like a picture from the lost years, the 129-year-old cabin looks almost startled to find itself in the modernism of the 21st century.
The place is supposedly the birthplace of the Kabiraji. There is an interesting story that runs behind the claim. When the Poet Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore who had strolled in for the snack, found his kabiraji coated with biscuit crumbs, not up to his palate, he took it up with the head chef. The head chef took the criticism as a challenge and dropped the breadcrumb coating in favour of an egg-based batter. Thus, the glorious kabiraji was born with its golden and crispy covering with the soft, glistening white fish inside.
Many cafes since then have started whipping up their own Kabiraji but as manager Amarnath Roy says to The Better India, “…places like ours sustain based on years of love and the relationships built over food and conversation. Our recipes could be replicated, not the love we pour into our dishes!”
Chicken Kabiraji, fish fry
Cost for two:
53, College Street, Kolkata
Prominent in their heyday, the heritage eateries in Kolkata now lie dank and dilapidated with peeling paint and forlorn air of one wistfully looking back at their glorious past. This doesn’t mean that their repute has diminished with time – you'll still find people thronging the place during mealtimes with cooks deftly turning parathas on monstrous tawas and hot-footed waiters sliding heaped plates on the table which come to a smooth stop right before you.
In the rushed pace of life, take an hour or two to pause and sample some delectable food while participating in a sparkling conversation and rounding the night up with a dose of nostalgia.
Tell us which eatery is your favourite in the comments below!