The SodaBottleOpenerWala restaurants stay true to their eccentric Irani Cafe inspirations; offering you an eclectic cuisine they leave you hungry for the good old days.
The charm of old Bombay lies in its historic buildings, Victorian facades and eccentric Irani cafes. Much has been written about these quirky eating establishments, with their serious yet rib-tickling rules, their iconic décor and art, and of course the delectable food. With an increase in rents and a reduction in the community’s numbers, these family-run restaurants are fast dying out, leaving a hole in the city’s cultural legacy.
Step in any one of the SodaBottleOpenerWala (SBOW) restaurants, though, and you’ll be instantly transported to another era. The SBOW chain is part of the Olive group of restaurants’ “tribute to the dying legacy of a Bombay Irani Café”. There are five SBOWs including the latest in Mumbai’s Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC) and a sixth in progress in Noida.
“SodaBottleOpenerWala is a concept restaurant with a bar. For my wife Sabina and me, Mumbai is an integral part of the journey of our lives. The Bombay Irani restaurant is a rich part of the Mumbai tapestry and, sadly, a dying legacy. We delved deep within its unique world to bring alive the nuances – both for cuisine and its atmosphere. The familiarity of an Irani restaurant is key to the experience. Architect Clement DeSylva and Sabina brought that canvas to life,” says AD Singh of the Olive group.
Architect Clement DeSylva has been associated with Olive for many years. To design SBOW he called upon his own years growing up in Bombay (before it was Mumbai) where long hours were spent at Irani cafés with friends, having long discussions over tea and biscuits.
The memory of that time has served him well, for SBOW has all those elements – clutter enough to make it unpretentious, food authentic enough to make you want to linger and a vibe safe enough for you to sit back and relax for a while.
The overall design is old world and authentic to the glory days of the Irani café. The walls are lined with vintage photo frames and bric-a-brac. These were sourced from Chor Bazar in Mumbai and also from old houses belonging to families who had migrated to foreign shores, leaving behind a lot of their personal items.
“It is tragic to see these old photos just lying about and destined to be sold. One feels sad to think that these framed photos have such little value for their family members and that they choose to discard this legacy, this reminder of a family member, rather than keep it,” says Clement.
The vintage photos get a new lease of life here and sometimes, clients are even delighted to recognise their family members on the walls; all this adds to the nostalgia and emotion of the place. Many of the accessories are old, salvaged and restored elements. The attention to detail, however, shows in the newer additions.
The furniture, for example, was made for the restaurant. “Traditional armchairs didn’t fit into this space in the way we wanted, so we had to design new ones.” Some tables have traditional red and white checked tablecloths while others have special wooden frames with glass inserts that have a layer of ‘chai’ glasses underneath. A jukebox plays retro music that keeps you company while you munch on the traditional Parsi fare served in steel tiffins.
The playful atmosphere is further enhanced with graphics, large menus, and signs that read out the Irani café riot act to you: “No laughing loudly. No Singing. No Childish Tantrums.” Unlike your neighbourhood ‘Irani restaurant’, you can safely ignore these rules in SBOW.
“You won’t find something similar elsewhere. We don’t do run-of-the-mill concepts,” says Clement. Indeed, each SBOW restaurant follows the Irani café concept but is a standalone space with additions made depending on the layout and location. This can sometimes prove to be a challenge as Clement found out. “Over the restaurant is a jewellery shop, so we had to work only at night as we couldn’t risk any diamonds or precious stones being dislodged during polishing!” he says with a laugh.
Thankfully, the team has the concept down to an art. It takes an average of two to three months for them to put things into place, which is pretty efficient by most standards.
“Our designs are an emotive experience; we plan every last detail in collaboration with our team. From the fashion designer who designs the clothes for the restaurant staff, to the design of the valet ticket, every little detail is looked at.”
SBOW resurrects a dying era, the glory days of Bombay. “I would love to do a SBOW in an existing Irani restaurant,” says Clement, but those are understandably hard to come by. Until then, get your fix at an old-meets-new SBOW near you.
Text By Chryselle D’Silva Dias
Photographs Courtesy The Architect