A visit to Bandra's iconic Lucky Restaurant

As they celebrate their diamond jubilee this year, Phorum Dalal meets the second and third generation owners to know how an Irani restaurant with just seven dishes on the menu has come to serve over a hundred items, and has now even replicated their success in Goregaon

Syed Mohsen sprints up the flight of wooden stairs, and it takes an effort to keep up. On the landing, the 46-year-old turns around and apologetically announces, “I have a habit to climb fast, sorry.”

Sayed Ali Akbar left the restaurant to his seven sons and two daughters. Today, only four survive. Lucky is actively run by Sayed Safar Ali (centre) and his son Mohsen (Left), along with Syed’s younger brother Syed Amrulla (right) and his son Abbas. Pics/Sameer Sayed Bedi

On the second floor, he leads us into his ancestral home, now used as an office, where 85-year-old Sayed Safar Ali, owner of Lucky Restaurant is seated on the sofa, engrossed in a newspaper, his alert eyes running through the daily news. Since the age of 10, Ali has worked at the restaurant, which his father Syed Ali Akbar opened on September 9, 1938. This year, the iconic restaurant at Bandra junction completed 75 years.

Syed Ali Akbar founded Lucky Restaurant on September 9, 1938

“My father immigrated from Iran in 1912 to Bombay, where he owned a restaurant called Bombay Restaurant in Bandra Bazaar. When Akbar spotted the building where Lucky stands today, he knew he wanted a restaurant here. That’s how Lucky Restaurant replaced a motor showroom that was faring badly on the same spot. Nobody bought cars in Bandra at the time,” says Syed, who would roll down the shutters of the restaurant at 5 am every day so that they could be ready to serve the mill workers who’d have their first shift at 6 am.

85-year-old Sayed Safar Ali, the current co-owner of Lucky Restaurant, started working here when he was just 10

“At that time, the menu had only seven things on its list -- Biryani, Kheema pav, mutton chops, vegetable, dal, coffee and chai. We also ran an Irani store that sold items from patent medicines to bread, butter and jam,” says Syed.

Syed Safar Ali still has a copy of the invitation card for the inauguration of Lucky Restaurant.A priest from Mount Mary Church had conducted the inaugural ceremony

In the evenings, the restaurant also served bheja and zabaan, which was bought from a slaughter house — which has now moved to Deonar — nearby. During the British rule, it was a thing below dignity for middle-class families to visit restaurants. During the Second World War, the restaurants even saw soldiers dropping in for meals during their breaks.

Over the years, the owners have perfected the taste of biryani. A cook prepares a take-away order. Along with biryani, the restaurant serves over a 100 dishes, including Chinese and Indian coastal cuisine

Syed remembers working with his father, who put up a strict front to ensure quality. “But inside, he was kind-hearted and soft. At the time, he taught me that a rupee was 16 anna and an anna was four paisa to carry out bill transactions. He wanted me to be a doctor, but a second-class score could not get me a seat here,” he recalls.

An old photograph of Lucky Stores and Lucky Restaurant. Mill workers and labourers used to be the early customers at 6 am

After the British rule, the standard of living of people went up and families started frequenting restaurants. In 1983, Lucky builta hotel on the same premise, till date boasting of 21 fully air-conditioned rooms. And, in 1991-1992, they opened the bakery. “But the difference today is like the earth and the sky. We haveover a 100 dishes on the menu. We never had tandoori chicken. After Independence, a restaurant called La Bella opened in south Bombay, along with A1 Grill, and they introduced Tandoori chicken, which we included in our menu.”

Following his father’s footsteps, Mohsen, joined his father at the age of 15, squeezing in shifts between school hours. A self-proclaimed workaholic, he introduced an A/C section, new crockery, uniforms and furniture, “Till date, I take advice from father, who is the best judge on all important matters. But I have contributed to the development of this restaurant. We now serve Chinese and seafood, too. In 1994, I headed a major revamp, as it was the right time to upgrade the place,” says Moshin, looking at his father with a grin. “He was not that happy, and was convinced only after the collections doubled,” he adds.

I turn to the senior owner for a comment. “I didn’t want to give away the beautiful Irani chairs!” he iterates. The biryani With the regular “poaching” that goes on between restaurants and kitchens, Syed is not worried. “Tomorrow if the chef is away, the patron will not notice it. I can guide any cook to create our signature biryanis without breaking a sweat. A Persian saying goes: ‘To do something right, you have to practice it.’ And that is what I have done,” says Syed adding that even if he were to give away the restaurant’s recipe no one could reproduce it. “Over the years, we have gradually perfected our dishes. Our chef functions like a software in a computer. He knows exactly what to do. In our biryani, the first thing that hits the patron is the aroma of masalas. The role of taste buds comes in just after. It is what allures an eater to take the first bite,” smiles Syed, who believes that cooking is an art. “We have mastered the art of infusing flavour into every grain,” says Syed, whose restaurant cooks around 200 kg chicken and 20 kg mutton every day. And, this figure is just a mere guess.

Memorable moments
Having run a restaurant for over 40 years, many memories remain etched on Syed’s mind. When we ask him to narrate a few, he says there’s something funny happening at the restaurant every day. “Lucky stands on an important junction of the city on SV Road, which used to be the route for all dignitaries to pass in their big cars. From the Pope to Mahatma Gandhi, all have passed from here. People used to gather on our terrace to get a glimpse. The Pope even blessed our building from outside. Mahatma Gandhi never came in, but I saw him pass by,” says Syed, who vividly remembers the 1947 riots. “While almost the entire city burned, Bandra was non-violent and peaceful. There was no threat here, and the Queen of suburbs maintained her dignity,” smiles Syed.

He also remembers the chaos on the streets when a cyclone hit the city in 1948. “But that was nothing compared to the deluge in 2005. People had parked their cars on the Bandra bridge and had waded into the restaurant that was in knee-deep water. People sat in our premises all night. We welcomed everyone that night to eat and even use the toilets.”

With the pain of seeing the Irani chairs moved out for more comfortable seating having faded with the success of Lucky Restaurant, Syed is satisfied. “We changed only with the mindset of our customers, one step at a time,” says Syed.

In 2010 that they opened a branch in Goregaon, with double the rooms. But for now, this is all the expansion on their mind there is. Syed puts it beautifully with yet another Persian saying: Who is at one place, he is everywhere; and he who concentrates everywhere, is no where.”  

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