Cafe Matunga

Relax. The ever-growing breed of hyperactive restaurant scouts and the food Twitter mafia needn’t have to go around in circles — lest this clan believes the column’s title to be the name of the newest Udipi cafe to have opened shop in this central suburb.

Class apart: Café Madras

Recently, one was able to spend good time in this warm, charming slice of South India with enough of hours to take note of the transformation of its streetscape, the food-scape in particular.

Back in the 1990s, as a Ruiaite, one was familiar with signboards of these South Indian restaurants that ruled the palate and the pocket — Mani’s, Café Madras, Café Mysore, Rama Nayak’s, Sharada Bhavan, Rama Ashray, Relax and the flashier DP’s. At any given hour of the day, collegians would be seen wolfing down crispy dosa after another, over bowlfuls of sambhar, not without the mandatory filter kaapi or one of the several ‘lunch’ items on their compact, inflation-proof menus. It was a dream trip to authentic culinary paradise, at half the cost. Who needed college canteens!

Till date, the term ‘value for money’ never made more sense than during those five years of college thanks to the lessons that were served out from these eateries. Collegians and local residents shared space at these venerable eating houses that served the tastiest, most hygienic comfort food in town.

Nearly two decades later, as one walked down the same lanes, it was comforting to note that the most of the old icons (Relax is now Arya Bhavan) were still standing strong; the waiting crowds on a Saturday night bearing testimony of their seemingly undiminished popularity. But there was an addition to the picture.

These cafes were facing stiff competition from the sea of hawkers who were dishing out all kinds of street food, from omlettes pavs to pav bhaji and horror of horrors, even the Holy Grail – Udipi fare. Crowds miraculously appeared from every gully and beyond and looked content indulging in the piping-hot fare.

Eating out was never debated in this part of the city, but we hadn’t anticipated such an even contest between the veterans and newbies. Even the most lethal mulagapudi (aka gun powder) didn’t cause this kind of an eye-popping realisation.

“It’s not the big-ticket or continental cuisine restaurants but the street side hawker that has emerged as our biggest concern, currently,” was the candid admission that a third-generation owner of one of these iconic cafes told us during one of our post-edition quick dinners. He was right. In front of our eyes, and a few metres away, along the popular Kings Circle roundabout, scores of patrons were feasting on riotous pav bhaji, seated on makeshift chattais; others were seen using the bonnets of their cars as temporary tables.

It was 10.30, and the night was still young for these new-age kitchen kings who had the junta eating out of their hands, literally. Another example of this emergence of changing taste buds was a newer South Indian café that had played the adventurous card – while it had the usual (read: dependable) suspects on its menu, it had also included other fast food items; in fact, when we had anonymously reviewed this restaurant a couple of years back in The GUIDE, they fared poorly with the non-Udipi fare.

This inexplicable coexistence of food choices left us wondering whether a day would arrive when the later wins this war of tastes. It would be an irreversible loss. After all, how many suburbs can boast of such a passionate spread and mix of authentic South Indian food that extended to the availability of traditional condiments, including chutneys, pickles, snacks and even veggies in the nearby market that catered to these simple yet fascinating styles of cooking; you’ll still spot nondescript yet utterly delightful stores that sell South Indian knick-knacks and necessities for daily use, albeit in fewer numbers now. It’s a micro-community and a sub-culture that has prevailed and made this area their own with seamlessness, subtle character and warmth, rarely visible in most of commercial Mumbai.

Let’s hope Café Matunga never has to shut shop.

— The writer is Features Editor, MiD DAY 

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