Where dining in today’s Karachi is a hotch potch of upscale eateries and coffee houses in which one has to empty their pockets to have a few cups of coffee or dinner, the Karachi of yesteryear had a thriving café culture at very affordable prices.
I speak of the 40’s and the 50’s where Pakistan was still a relatively new country and very attractive to migrants from all over the world including Iran. Iranis thronged to Karachi in those days to set up many café’s and bakeries here. I was not born to experience that era of Karachi but often delve into discussion with one of my uncles Farooq who along with the rest of this city was a frequent visitor to these restaurants, some of which he still recalls with a bit of awe in his voice.
Most Irani café owners that are still struggling to maintain their existence today concur with him that the first Irani café pioneer was Boman Abadan who set up Abadan tea shop in empress market as early as 1882. He was actually the one to make a small fortune from tea serving in those days and much more right after partition when the refugees from India arrived in the newly promised land. Tea drinking was a more popular pastime back in those days than smoking sheesha is today and my uncle whose total pocket money for the month used to be 7.5 rupees often wandered outside Café George (established in the 1940’s and the frequent haunt of the aristocracy at the post partition time) All the top businessmen and bureaucrats of the city would hang out at George’s where upon sitting one would be greeted by a smartly dressed waiter in uniform who would put a three layered steel carrier filled with pastries and pattice and such delights on the table before he would take your order. This was off course a much vibrant and economically sound Karachi and tea at George’s was nothing short of a small fortune of 1 rupees. Ginger ale was 4.5 anas and a refreshing drink of Nasarwanji lime would cost 4 anas. Obviously some of this fare along with tea was available at many other Irani cafes in the city but George’s was the place to be. In my uncle’s words as his eyes reflect of good times in his youth, “it was an honor to be seated there”, so much so that sometimes he preferred to walk home from school rather than take public transport to save up for this experience.
Another Irani café very popular at that time was Café Fredricks. Its popularity was established by the fact that it was the first “west open” cafe of the city with a garden up front for seating. It also had a proper wine bar on the first floor and was licensed to sell alcohol. Yes this was a time when this city was far more secular than it is today and people could have their drink when they wanted instead of standing outside permit shops in cars like we see today. A lot of things were tolerated in café culture at that time and most Irani restaurants were the hub of political and social discourse as everyone headed to them after a hard day’s work, comparable to the pubs one speaks of when mentioning the landscape of a city like New York or London.
At one time in the late 50’s there were a total of about 100 Irani café’s and bakeries thriving in Karachi. Other notables on this list included Khairabad tea house on chundrigarh road, Café Jehangir, Café Darakshan, Café Pehlvi, Café High Class, Café Iqbal, Café India, Café Eros and Café Momineen. Then came the 60’s and the sadder/downtown area which was the hub of the tea drinking and café culture started to become unfashionable as more and more people moved out to different residential societies in Clifton, P.E.C.H.S and so on. This was also the time when rents started going up, another major factor in the closure of many of these public haunts. The incident at Fredrick’s in 1968 when the wine shop was burnt down by students led to firm affirmation in many Irani’s minds that it was time to say goodbye to this city by the sea. Many left these shores to go back to the Yazd region of Iran where they had arrived from with dreams of a better life. Many were also forced to close down because their new generation was not interested in running old and rickety establishments with wooden partitions and tables as their ancestors who were simple farmers did. Education it seems can also wipe out culture as quickly as expenses can. The hyper escalation of property prices in Karachi’s downtown also served to play havoc with the fortunes of these establishments. As with the most of them being on the old “pugree” system landlords noticing the billions that their properties could fetch sold them to better clients like banks. I personally witnessed the death of Café Momineen on M.A Jinnah Road at the hands of a bank last year.
Still there are some Irani Café’s in operation today and along with George’s the Khairabad tea house on I.I Chundrigarh road is still a favorite for old hacks and wanna be new ones like yours truly to grab a reasonable lunch. The things to have are still the same as they were back in the day, namely a piping hot cup of tea/coffee and chelo kebab which you can still buy for a 100 rupees. Their owners are struggling with the demands of today’s customers for a much cleaner and air conditioned environment, however they cannot serve the food they do at the prices they have with all those extra expenses. Thus they are trying to survive at best, perhaps hoping that the cities youth will visit them when they hanker for a little bit of tradition along with their meal of the day.
As published in The Friday Times 25/9/2009