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 D i s h oo m


Shamil, his cousin Kavi and chef Naved Nasir had recently opened the very first outpost of Dishoom in Covent Garden, London – a restaurant inspired by the great and democratic Irani cafés of Bombay (a colonial name which has stuck, despite the official change to Mumbai in 1995) and all of the history, gossip and cosmopolitanism wound up in them.

“A lovely story,” he says, leaning forward. “Immigrants from Iran, or Persia as it was then, coming to Bombay to escape religious persecution, set up these cafés. And then the cafés became places that everyone could come to: foreigners,

students, locals, taxi drivers, prostitutes and common people could all eat out, for the first time.”


From the late-19th Century onwards, the Irani cafés sprung up like little democratic refuges on Bombay’s street corners

which were superstitiously avoided by enterprising Hindus – serving people of all faiths, castes, creeds and kinds and allowing the city’s diverse populations to mingle, breaking bread together. “Gradually, over the decades, they become beautiful institutions in the city,” Shamil continues. “And then they disappear.” From zero to 400 Irani cafés,

to the 25 or so remaining today, all in the space of a single century. It’s a story of a warm welcome – tables groaning

under the weight of food, charismatic and wilful proprietors cajoling their customers – and a wistful goodbye.

These lovely bits of heritage are beautiful. They need celebration, they need preservation.


In the 10 years since, Dishoom has proven the power of the story of the Irani cafés (as featured above) 

and its co-founders’ multi-faceted means of telling it, time and time again. Each restaurant – there are seven, now,

having recently opened in Manchester and Edinburgh, as well as five London locations – is steeped in its own distinct narrative, channelled recently into a cookery book. They all serve the aromatic, oozy dishes that cry out to be shared, savoured, eaten with your hands and remembered longingly later. But the interiors, artwork, tableware and music

of each are all conceived in connection to an imagined main character, with an individual raison d’être.


This is “design as storytelling” at its most potent. Take, for example, the King’s Cross restaurant – and the proprietor behind it. “In essence, we imagine a young Irani man who comes into a goods shed near Victoria Terminus, in 1928,”

Shamil explains. “Victoria Terminus is a bit like Bombay’s St Pancras – this mad Gothic building filled with Italian marble and cherubs and flying buttresses. It was just so extravagant. We imagined that this guy sees these men and machines

and commerce and horses and languages and says to himself; ‘I can sell them some chai.’ So he bribes the guards,

and sells them some chai. Then later he comes again, and bribes them some more, and brings some pots and pans.

A few weeks later sets up a little seating area. And then 20 years later, he’s taken over the whole place.”

The predominant event of that period, from the 1920s until the 1950s, was Indian independence,

which ended the 90-year rule of the British Raj in India.


The Dishoom universe, which is something like an immersive theatre experience for every restaurant-goer, extends

far beyond the restaurants themselves. The Carnaby restaurant – which was created in the fictional image of a dapper

Indian adolescent who spent the 1960s in London “tripping on Primrose Hill at sunrise, dancing with Jean Shrimpton

and David Bailey” and returns to Bombay to run his father’s Irani café upon news of his death – inspired a record.

“Bombay had a great rock scene in the 1950s and ‘60s,” Shamil says. “Kids who had listened to The Beatles and

The Stones picked up a guitar and started playing. The restaurant is a documentation of this scene and of all the people

who were around.” Real people, he clarifies – among them songwriter & actress Asha Puthli, a friend of Dishoom.


The interior is painstakingly designed to reflect that. Every inch of the restaurant is decked out in posters, paintings,

graffiti sourced from archives in India and the British Library – every colour, typeface, expression and interior detail drawn from research. He shows me a design guide, shared with every new member of staff, which documents the name and

back-story of every person in every photograph, illustration, advertisement on the restaurant’s walls – each one taken either from the era, or from the staff’s own family albums. Every door handle, floor tile, post and piece of signage is

shown next to the Bombay original which inspired it. The guide is 50 pages long. An equivalent exists for every

individual restaurant. The attention to detail is akin to that of a Wes Anderson film.


This dedication is central to Dishoom. The idea for the restaurant was initially born out of a frustration with the

two-dimensionality with which modern British culture has viewed India – an enormous country with an even bigger history, so often reduced down to tikka masala, elephants, cricket. Born in Uganda, Shamil spent some time in India as a child

– his first birthday was celebrated at Irani café Koolar & Co., he learned not long ago – before moving to the UK, and

has returned often ever since. But the Bombay of his memories from the 1970s and ‘80s is almost unrecognisable now.

“A commercial tsunami has swept over the city and modernised it,” he says. “But the city is so damned inefficient with

its rent regulations and planning that this tsunami has left things sheltering, protected, in the niches. These lovely bits

of heritage – like the Irani cafes, that just kind of exist there – don’t really make sense in a free market economy.

But they’re beautiful. They need celebration, they need preservation.” Which is where Dishoom comes in.

“We can’t physically preserve them, I think they’ll disappear, but at least we can document them, share love for them.”

Source & Original post: WePresent

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