Like everybody who went to college in South Mumbai, I speak very affectionately of Kyani’s, Sassanian and B. Merwan’s, legendary Irani cafes the lot of them. The food was always cheap and wholesome, they had the Coffee House vibe that college students craved (this was before CCD and Starbucks wiped out the last dregs of Communism and became the new watering holes – this is obviously the Calcutta boy in me talking) and the spaces were friendly and had a personality of their own. They were unassuming, didn’t try to fit in, exuded an old world charm and held on to a slice of the city that was fast disappearing. You came back for the friendly old Parsi uncle, the sweet chai and most importantly, the food.
Kyani’s Chicken Cheese Bhurji with Maska Pav was the stuff orgasms were made of (I have personally been asked to moan at a lower volume on three occasions by the wait staff). I have dragged friends from Borivali and Thane to Kyani’s, promising to change their lives forever. The Chicken Cheese Bhurji used to be a cheesy-buttery-creamy mash of chicken, eggs, onions and tomatoes, pulped to perfection with butter and generous helpings of cheese and subtle pinches of spices and seasoning. It was divine. The Chicken Cutlets were fantastic, too. Have the Lagan nu Custard and the freshly baked muffins, I would tell my companions. Sassanian used to serve excellent Farchas and Croquettes and Merwan’s always ruled the Mawa Cake market. There was Britannia too, but that Berry Pulao was straight up weird – I don’t care if all of you gasp in unison right now, I am going to say it: berries and mutton don’t make a great combination – and it’s expensive. I was never a fan. Also, I am from Calcutta. We have Anglophilic old men talking about their love for the British royal family by the bucketful there.
All the great food and artsy vibe (“intellectuals” from Xavier’s, raise your hands) helped us ignore the fact that the wait staff at all these establishments was downright horrible. They are rude, disinterested, impatient, arrogant, incorrigibly lazy and walk around with a sense of entitlement second only to bureaucrats. You will notice how the food “was” excellent and the wait staff “are” assholes – that’s the crux of my rant. While I was a regular at Kyani’s during college, later, I barely found the time to chill there. But, at least a few times a year, I would find myself dropping in – and being increasingly disappointed. The last time I walked into Kyani’s was a year ago. I asked for my Chicken Cheese Bhurji and my friend asked for an omelette and a muffin. The Bhurji arrived – a dry mound of shredded chicken and scrambled egg with a cheese slice on top. The chicken-egg disaster was cold, the cheese slice was cardboard stiff, condensation collecting on it. When I complained about how cold it was, the waiter gruffly said “Yeh hi milega. Khaana hai toh khaao, nahi toh mat khaao.” The muffin my friend had ordered was as dry as sawdust.
Complaining about the quality of the food doesn’t work, because nobody cares. Complaining about the abysmal service does not work because, again, nobody cares. You will be left sitting for hours if you don’t frantically wave and yell for attention, before someone grudgingly comes over and slams a glass of water down on the table. You’ll have to wait for them to care enough to come over to your table to take your order, after that. Then you wait for the food to show up – hopefully hot, hopefully fresh. Once you are done eating, they want you out. They will come and forcibly start wiping your table top while you hurriedly shovel down the last few spoonfuls of whatever you are eating. They simply don’t care if you are pissed off. They don’t care if you don’t come back. The wait staff is not held accountable for anything; they know they won’t lose their jobs. They could literally dunk a bowl of gravy on your head, and would get away with a mild chiding.
All the Irani cafes in the city have descended into gloom, because they thought changing times would not affect them. Their arrogantly refusing to evolve is both infuriating and comical. Behaving almost like the last batch of zamindars in this country, they thought they would not have to improve the quality of food, hire trained, welcoming and hygienic staff and spend money on maintenance, because (at least till the Starbucks of the world landed up), they had been unaffected. Time would literally stop when you walked into one of them, but that has changed rapidly in the last five years. Outside their grimy walls and glass showcases filled with stale cream rolls and aluminium cups of tutti-frutti cakes, today, people don’t mind spending a grand on coffee, because they are paying for service and experience. Nostalgia isn’t that shiny a proposition for working millennials, who are focussed on bingeing, splurging and consumption. Why would I put up with poor food and service at Kyani’s, when I can lounge-work-read-chillunwind for hours at a Di Bella?
Where does this I-don’t-need-to-give-adamn-about-service attitude come from in today’s cut-throat hospitality space? The answer is as old as it gets: monopoly. Kyani’s has a monopoly over nostalgia. It is the mascot for Irani cafes in the city. Can they really not ask their wait staff to pull their socks up and behave properly? Can they really not pay more attention to the quality of their food? They can. But they refuse to do that because of the arrogance that is rooted deep inside the personality of the establishment. They believe they have a monopoly and hence, they can take their guests for granted. Gomantaks and dhabas are more hospitable, and that tells you that hospitality is not defined by how much money the establishment is making – it is what the attitude of the owners is towards their customers. Do they think they are better than their customers, or do they treat their restaurants as an extension of their homes and treat customers like guests? That is why a Thakkar Bhojanalay or Golden Star will always be memorable experiences, because of the love and humility the wait staff, managers and owners exude. If Kyani’s and co. want to survive, they will have to ditch their haughty attitude and understand that customer service is king. After all, when you serve good food with bad service, you always leave a bad taste in the mouth.