Centre of attention
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"Then I realised that the world I had lived in and whose continuance I had taken for granted had ceased to exist," writes renowned author and journalist, the late Khushwant Singh in his book Punjabis and Punjabiyat, while chronicling the last few days he spent in undivided India's Lahore. Among those, who along with Singh, left behind their lives and livelihoods in the form of scattered memorabilia that was too heavy, big or unimportant to be carried across the border was Ramesh Chona, who's fate led him straight to Bombay, the city of dreams.
Once from an industrious family, he arrived here in 1947 with few valuables and a vision — to build a life and legacy anew for the family that was to come. And that legacy, better known as Cream Centre, stands even today at Girgaum Chowpatty. The restaurant now appears a tad unrecongnisable due to its recent transformation into a modernesque eatery with chic lighting, sophisticated upholstery, Italian crockery and stylish wooden-finish walls with intermittent mirrors that boast paintings by celebrated artist Thota Vaikuntham.
That's not all; the logo that bore testimony to their 60-year-old legacy has changed, too. "We had to move ahead with the times," says Sanjiv Chona, second-generation owner. "People no longer want or need a huge sign board with loud colours to be directed to a place," Alisha Shah, Sanjiv's daughter
History of the past
(Left to right) Neil Shah, Rishi, Sabina, Sanjiv Chona and Alisha Shah
"I remember the stories my dadi, Lalita Chona, told me about migrating from Pakistan. 'One fine day I was asked to pack my bags, gather some belongings and leave,' she would reminisce. That was a scary and difficult time for her. But then she met my grandfather in Bombay and together they started afresh," Alisha shares.
In 1952, Chona senior set-up an ice cream factory, but by 1958 he acquired property and opened the restaurant he had always wanted to. "In those days, branding wasn't as important. So, when he asked his friends what he should name the restaurant they said, 'Just name it after the ice cream factory, no.' And that's how we got Cream Centre," Sanjiv reveals, explaining why a restaurant that serves an asymmetrical mix of dishes from multiple cuisines has an incongruous name. Happenstance has a way of becoming history.
Future of the present
Yet, why a Punjabi family would run a vegetarian-only restaurant remained a mystery. "My father signed the papers and later realised that it was a building for Jains only. So, essentially, he was stuck with a veg restaurant," Sanjiv discloses.
Pattaya babycorn tofu. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar
For 60 long years, the eatery has attracted committed patrons from the city's vegetarian communities, as also from industrialists like Rajiv Luthra and Dinesh Nair. And its identity is entwined with dishes like their original channa bhatura (Rs 375), American corn cheese balls (Rs 295) and a dish that they interestingly call the world's best nachos (Rs 450). So, while the new menu does feature preparations more in tune with today's culinary cognoscente, such as the Malabar banana leaf wrapped paneer (Rs 395), Pattaya babycorn tofu (Rs 275) and Italian classic rosemary fingers (Rs 225), the iconic ones remain untouched. "You do not mess with a working formula," stresses Sabina,
"We have been associated with value for money and consistently good vegetarian food for way too long. This facelift was a risk, too," she explains, adding, "We are all about nostalgia. I remember, 15 years ago, we used to have an office upstairs. One day, my manager said that an old couple wanted to meet me. They thanked me, gave me a small Ganesha statue and wished me luck. I was confused. And then I learnt that 30 years or so ago, the couple had met at this very restaurant. They returned for a meal every year on their anniversary. So, you see, we are not just a restaurant."
The restaurant today; (right) in its pre-2013 avatar
And that's perhaps the greatest thing about food — sometimes the only thing that makes it possible to take continuance for granted.
OPENS Today, 12 pm to 12 am
ON Fulchand Niwas, Chowpatty, Girgaum
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