A dry fruit businessman’s daring move from Rawalpindi to Mumbai gave the city one of its most popular versions of butter chicken. As the Dadar landmark turns 80, we look back at its glorious journey
The original signage of Pritam, which the restaurant will bring back
What’s in a name? The loving memory of a restaurant, it seems. That’s what Jaibir Singh Kohli — the great grandson of Prahlad Singh Kohli, the founder of the Dadar landmark, Pritam Restaurant and Bar — found out at a party, where he ran into a gent named after his family-run eatery. Turns out, when Pritam’s mother was pregnant, she didn’t want any hospital food.
Jaibir Singh Kohli. Pics/Shadab Khan
“Before her delivery, she showed up at her favourite joint, Pritam, for her last meal and then went into labour in the restaurant!” Jaibir regales us. It’s one of the many stories that abound behind red-and-black façade of the restaurant, where love, loyalty and laughter have brewed over bottomless bowls of butter chicken, polished off with pillow-y kulchas and guzzled down with whiskey. Today, Pritam — meaning, favourite in Punjabi — turns 80.
Rawalpindi to Dadar
Baingan ka bharta
A bangle-seller is setting up shop outside the restaurant when we drop by on a sunny Monday afternoon. The gola-wala is on his way, we hear, trying his best to keep the ice from melting, and a palmist greets us inside, ready to spill what’s written in our stars. But amid the hurried preparations for their anniversary, which coincides with Baisakhi, we settle down to hear about Singh Kohli or ‘bade daddy ji’, who changed the family’s fortunes. In 1942, Singh Kohli, then a businessman dealing in dry fruits in Rawalpindi, journeyed to Mumbai with his wife Har Kaur. In Dadar, they met a friend who ran a restaurant.
(From left) Chefs Sunil Bachulkar and Ramakanta Malik now carry the mantle of Pritam’s much-loved recipes such as butter chicken and dal makhani
An excellent cook, Har Kaur was quick to point out the food was nothing like their homely fare. Sensing an opportunity, Singh Kohli partnered with his friend to run Pritam Punjab Hindu Hotel. The two pillars between which our table is laid out, Jaibir shares, was where the original shop stood, catering to 15 to 18 diners. Over 80 years, they’ve acquired six such shops, with a capacity to host 180 diners.
Championing Punjabi fare
Back in the day, the terms ‘Hindu Hotel’ and ‘Punjab’ were enough to draw a crowd. This, coupled with the fact that Dadar was home to a large number of film industry workers — with studios in neighbouring Wadala — brought in the likes of Raj, Shammi and Shashi Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Dharmendra and Sunil Dutt. “Many were struggling actors then, who couldn’t afford to pay. My grandfather, Kulwant Singh Kohli understood their plight, and it blossomed into great friendships,” Jaibir recalls.
Long-time barman Chandrakant Rakant whips up Rekha
Several film stars craved home-style North Indian food, and Pritam served up Punjabi kadhi, rajma, tandoori chicken, baingan bharta and the works under the strict instructions of ‘bade daddy ji’. Chefs Sunil Bachulkar and Ramakanta Malik, who’ve been in the kitchen since 2003 and 1995 respectively, today, carry the mantle of Pritam’s iconic dal makhani and butter chicken.
One of the cocktails on their new retro beverage menu - a tribute to the film star
“We use the best ingredients, and slow-cook the dal for 14 hours to achieve the viscosity. Sunil Dutt even came to meet us after eating here,” they share, while Jaibir reveals that unlike other eateries, their dal makhani has no butter. For the anniversary, the restaurant is bringing back 10 dishes from their 1942 menu, including the comforting dal makhani, a yellow, smoky baingan bharta, and a tender, fragrant purani Dilli murg shaan au shaukat. Also on the menu are lasooni palak, murg methi bahaar, and chaiji di churi roti.
Raj Kapoor inaugurates the newly air-conditioned Pritam
For a muggy Monday afternoon, Pritam is having a busy lunch hour. Jaibir shares that if we look closely, we’re sure to spot families huddling together to fix wedding matches and toast to new beginnings. Is there something new for Pritam, too, we ask? “There will only be one Pritam Restaurant, but we will open another Pritam Da Dhaba at Juhu soon,” Jaibir signs off.
Pritam was a haunt for stars like (middle) Rajendra Kumar and Dilip Kumar (right); the family also produced a few films
At: 1, Swami Ganjivandas Marg, Dadar; 11 am to 12.30 am
Till : April 16