Comfort canteens for city on-the-move
When tired of negotiating the city's streets, bus drivers and conductors tuck into sev bhaji and vada usal, pocket-friendly eating joints. If you haven't enjoyed a cheap snack at a bus canteen yet, here's a map of where to make your debut
Back in the early 1900s, employees of the BEST Undertaking, while drafting a petition for a pay hike and reduction in work hours, had also demanded for an operational canteen at the Dadar depot. Marathi writer SN Pendse later made a mention of this in his 1972 book, The BEST Story, published by the General Manager’s office of the transport company. "Many of these demands were met by the management," he wrote.
Little did anyone know then, that this modest demand, would lead to the creation of one of the most iconic eating destinations in the city. Synonymous with interesting and pocket-friendly meals, the BEST canteens are the go-to refreshment pit-stops for those on the move.
The BEST Company Limited was founded in 1905. The demand for a canteen was made two years later by a group of striking employees. The appeals continued till before World War 1 in 1914, but with a shift in priorities, the demand was soon forgotten. It was only post 1918, when the war had ended, that the BEST finally acquiesced.
BEST board committee member Sunil Ganacharya explains that since the transport service ran in three shifts, those working odd hours, could not carry food from home. "The Factory Act of 1948 made it mandatory for organisations having more than 100 employees to have canteens within the premises. They were expected to remain open through the day. The employees needed nutritious food, as they were involved in heavy duty work."
Though the canteens began as a welfare project for the BEST staff, they slowly opened to the public. While those located inside the depots are usually reserved for the staff, the ones at bus stations are open to everyone, says former BEST PRO AS Tamboli. Some are open 24 hours, and others runs late into the night.
Unlike other shops that sell snacks, the food available here is prepared at in-house kitchens. These canteens also boast of a seating area, which functions like an oasis for employees to converge. BEST’s deputy PRO Manoj Varade says that employees who live far away, make most use of the canteens. "If a bus driver or conductor has an early morning duty, he reports to work in the night to avoid delays. Thanks to the canteen, he can enjoy a hearty breakfast at a subsidised rate, before setting off on work."
Food enthusiasts, too, have fond memories. Actor Khurshed J Lawyer, 44, is a BEST canteen loyalist. He remembers spotting the BEST mobile canteen at The Oval Maidan in Churchgate as a collegian. "We hungry mortals would stop and grab some misal or a rice and gravy and share it. While we were told that it was exclusively for the BEST staff, we invariably got some chow."
The mobile canteens arrived on the scene in the 1960s. The iconic Leyland Tiger Cub bus was converted into a snack shack on wheels. "The unique feature of this bus was that it had a huge six-cylinder diesel engine located in the middle of the bus chassis," says BEST transport museum’s curator Yatin Pimpale. The layout of the canteen included a kitchen platform and a wash basin. Even today, BEST has a mobile canteen, which is usually stationed where permanent canteens do not exist, and has a dedicated patronage.
There are currently 69 canteens at depots and stations across the city. A different contractor is hired to run each one. The prices of items range from R5 to R150. Until June last year, 39,007 employees were availing the canteen facility, but the number dropped to 37,488 this year.
With the heritage department planning to change the look of the BEST canteen located outside the Prince of Wales Museum, BEST fans are now hoping for a revival of these famed dug-outs. We travelled to canteens across the city to bring you the seven best that topped our grub and nostalgia list.
Gurda kalegi with roti
More than 200 people visit this canteen for daily meals. Chicken and egg curry, and gurda kalegi are the most popular dishes. This canteen is frequented by BEST employees, but customers also stop by to have lunch or dinner. The canteen also offers misal, poha, sheera and vada pav. Ranjit Thakur, who works nearby, says he usually settles for a plate of dal khichdi. "I prefer a simple meal."
Ranjit Thakur digs the dal khichdi
Timing: Open all hours
We ordered: Chicken curry, gurda kalegi and rotis
The bill: Rs 140
Electric House, Colaba
Rashid Sheikh, who works at Bhendi Bazaar, visits the canteen twice a week
This is a popular choice in South Mumbai and barring an hour in the evening, it is open throughout the day. Rashid Sheikh, 25, a salesman at a footwear shop at Bhendi Bazaar, visits the canteen twice a week. "I heard about it eight months ago from a friend and have been coming here since. I like the misal and usal. It’s also very peaceful here," he says.
Timing: 6 AM to 5 PM, 6 PM to 4 PM
We ordered: Misal pav and special tea
The bill: Rs 25
Tourists throng the Regal Circle canteen for its vadas and samosas
Located right outside the gates of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, this BEST canteen is a mandatory stop for all tourists who are part of the Mumbai Darshan. This joint is known for its vada and samosa. "We serve hot and fresh food and our rates are lower than other shops nearby. We also prepare poha, misal and usal, against orders," said Nirmal Chaudhary, a staffer. Chaudhary, however, points out that a lack of seating and no-parking have led to a fall in numbers. "There was a time when we’d get more than 300 customers daily. We are down to half."
Timing: 6 AM to 10 PM
We ordered: Vada pav
The bill: Rs 12
Apart from regular snacks, this canteen also offers vada usal, which is a deep fried potato fritter served with a rich gravy—a distant relative of the South Indian dish, rasam vada. Chicken biryani is another favourite order. The canteen is open to all, but has some benches that are reserved for BEST employees, and customers get gentle reminders if they stray. Around 700 people eat here daily.
Vada usal, a deep fried potato fritter served with a rich gravy, is popular here
Timing: 5.30 am till midnight
We ordered: Chicken biryani and vada usal
The bill: Rs 125
This canteen is unique in more than one way. For starters, it has an outdoor seating. Then it serves Chinese, and is one of the few canteens to serve a variety of fish meals. The choices include pomfret, bangda and rawas. The canteen is also listed on food delivery apps. Tushar Gholam, manager, says, "We get 500 customers every day. People love the Chinese food here. We also make a good chicken sukka."
Timing: 7.30 AM to 1.30 AM
We ordered: Chicken fried rice and chicken chilly
The bill: Rs 120
The Santa Cruz canteen serves a mean chicken chilly fry(above) and fried rice
Kalanagar, Bandra East
Netaji Tukaram Khade
The lack of a seating area doesn’t deter patrons from flocking to the Kalanagar depot canteen. While it serves both vegetarian and non-vegetarian thalis, Netaji Tukaram Khade, a staffer for 30 years, says most of the customers come for their special lemon tea. A plate of papdi topped with freshly chopped onions, is the perfect accompaniment. And evenings are meant for ordering a plate of gol bhajji. Over the last 10 years, Khade has noticed the number of visitors drop. He says, "This is inevitable. There are so many stalls in the area now that offer similar dishes at competitive rates."
Who manages the Kalanagar canteen, says, customers enjoy the special lemon tea with papdi
Timing: 7 AM to 10 PM
We ordered: Two glasses lemon tea, one plate papdi, one plate gol bhajji
The bill: Rs 50
One of the largest in the city, the Ghatkopar East canteen staff is a cheery bunch. They work round the clock to make sure that fresh food is served at all times. "We get so many customers that we get tired of washing the plates. We only serve vegetarian meals, and they are cooked fresh after the order is placed," says Hemant Pujari, manager. He adds that most BEST employees bring their dabbas, and order an omelette or another side dish. The sev bhaji is a hit. The dish has a creamy texture and the grated coconut and freshly chopped coriander serve as the perfect garnish. The dish goes well with pav or chapati. This canteen is open 24/7. Pujari says that while four people work during the day shift, three work at night.
Timing: Open 24/7
We ordered: Omelette pav and sev bhaji
The bill: Rs 35
From the archives
An archival image of the 1960s Leyland Tiger canteen bus; the new mobile BEST canteen. Pics courtesy/ BEST Museum and Sanjay Rahra
Number of canteens currently operational
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