Shutting chai! Iconic south Mumbai tea house, Tea Centre, shuts down

Updated: Dec 16, 2016, 20:41 IST | Hemal Ashar |

Churchgate's favourite tea house, which has been standing since the 1960s, continues to stand shuttered. It's promoter, the Tea Board of India, is tight-lipped, but landlord says vintage cafe violated rules

A file photo from 2010 of a steward serving the guests iced tea at the Churchgate cafe
A file photo from 2010 of a steward serving the guests iced tea at the Churchgate cafe

Churchgate’s crazy commercial pace slows down instantly when you step into Resham Bhavan, a building that houses government offices and the elegant FE Dinshaw Commercial & Financial Refrence Library. On the ground floor, inside Tea Centre — once a refuge of the 'intellectual' — a solitary yellow light glows in the dark. Round tables that served chai and samosas when guests tinkled a bell to flag a waiter, are gathered in a corner . The cafe, resurrected by adman and hospitality entrepreneur Prahlad Kakar in the late 1990s, has been shut for months although staffers you meet claim it’s under renovation.

Art Deco building Resham Bhavan housed the café on its ground floor.
Art Deco building Resham Bhavan housed the café on its ground floor. Pic/Shadab Khan

While a Tea Board employee said it was "under renovation", a visit to the Art Deco building that stands opposite Gaylord, showed no construction activity. A security guard at the building said, "there has been no work on here for months".

Guarded response
Tea Board India refused to elaborate on the goings on, with officials saying they were not authorised to speak. BP Yadav, Mumbai-based Tea Bo­a­rd India development officer, directed us to officials at the Kolkata headquarters, but they too refused to comment; as did Amaya Das, deputy chairman of Tea Board India. Chairman Santosh Sarangi was not available to speak to mid-day.

According to new reports from January 2011, the building built in the 1960s, its ownership rights and the top floor that was until then occupied by SASMIRA (Synthetic and Art Silk Mills’ Research Association) were bought for Rs. 27.63 crore in October 2010 by real estate major DB Realty.

According to a spokesperson from the realty firm, Tea Board India, which has 40 years more of its 90-year lease left, violated the terms of tenancy (see box).

Ex-handlers in the dark
Adman and hospitality entrepreneur Kakar, who was roped in by the Board to renovate the cafe, said he didn’t know of the shuttering. "It [the shutdown] is a tragedy. We revamped it from the khandar (ruins) that it was. An intrepid official from Tea Board thought they were not doing anything with it. So, he and some others went looking for somebody to revamp it. I think they went to Jiggs Kalra (pioneering food columnist J Inder Singh Kalra), but came to me to help change it. We (Kak­ar and team) thought, 'Chalo, karte hain. It will be fun.'"

prahlad Kakar
Prahlad Kakar, adman

Kakar recalled that the interiors were done on a shoestring budget. "Guess what we discovered when we ripped the linoleum from the floor? Pure Burma teak. It was so idiotic that someone had covered it up." With a new look came a new menu. "I am married into a tea family; my in-laws are tea plantation owners, and I grew up in Dehradun, so I know my teas," Kakar said. "We served the best finger chips in town. We added a piano and put little bells on tables so guests could flag a waiter with a tinkle."
He, however, fell out with Tea Board. "The end was acrimonious. There were financial issues. The Board also thought I was becoming more popular; the media started calling it Prahlad Kakar’s Tea Centre. I am not surprised it has shut. You need to have a passion for food to run such places," said the maverick.

deepak purohit
Cafe’s former handlers Deepak Purohit

The cafe was then run by former Doordarshan and Star TV chief R Basu. After him, stepped in Deepak Purohit, proprietor of Tea Centre’s neighbour, Indian Summer restaurant. "I won a tender to manage the place and began work in October 2008. I was a consultant to Tea Board India and managed the café on its behalf," said Purohit. Purohit’s contract ended in 2015. "I haven’t seen any activity in a year. Tea Centre was iconic and it brought a balance to a city engulfed by the coffee boom," says Purohit.

Celebrities Soni Razdan, Ishita Arun, Ila Arun and Anu Ranjan photographed at the re-launch of the cafe in the 1990s
A file photo of tenor Anando Mukherjee entertaining guests

Not ready to say bye
When informed of the closure, loyalists were befuddled. Sunil Merchant, Chairman of Western India Automobile Association’s Motor Driving School, housed in the adjacent building, said, "Time seemed to stop there. Westerners loved it too. The food was easy on the pocket. It’s tragic if it has shut forever. A part of Mumbai will be gone; it was for the artsy, kurta-pyjama-jhola type."

For Churchgate’s urban renewal activist Nayana Kathpalia, it is the "death of tradition". "I remember it as a place that served simple fare. Then, some private agencies did wonders to the place. We had breakfast meetings there and I saw the place evolve," she said. Theatre director Alyque Padamsee brainstormed for ideas for several plays at one of the cafe's tables. "Tea Centre was a refuge of the intellectual. An arts and culture patron must try and keep it alive," he suggested.

celebrities at the cafe
Celebrities Soni Razdan, Ishita Arun, Ila Arun and Anu Ranjan photographed at the re-launch of the cafe in the 1990s

Sources told mid-day that DB Realty is keen to earn a fat rent in line with current market rates from a new tenant.

'Violated terms'
DB Realty representative
DB Realty has filed legal processes to evict all ille­gal tenants or tenants who have committed breach of the terms of tenancy or tenants who are govern­m­ent or statutory entities [who no longer enjoy] protection of rent prote­c­tion law, as per the law. Tea Board is one such sta­tutory entity, which is not entitled to protection under the rent law since 2001. They also violat­ed the terms by sub-lett­ing it to a third party. Once DB Realty as landlord gets possession of its premises back through court proceedings, it can use the space as it decides.

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