The people of Calcutta love to eat out far more than those of other cities in this area. Since the city is home to people of all strata of the socioeconomic spectrum, Calcutta has a wide variety of dining options, that suits all pockets and tastes. Indeed, from its pavements to palaces, Calcutta is a culinary treasure house that is bound to impress the most discerning gourmet.
In spite of its reputation of starving people on the streets that actually dates back to either the 1940s or during the days of the East Pakistan wars, it is Calcutta that sets the standards of fine dining in this part of the world. The stiff upper-lipped British aristocracy that established the tradition of dining and the French, Italian and Swiss chefs, patisseries and restaurateurs that arrived to give shape to what the stiff upper-lipped British aristocracy dreamt of as Calcutta's standards of entertaining may have disappeared with their Anglican patrons but they have left an indelible tradition that continues to flourish in the fine restaurants of Park Street and the Esplanade area.
Park Street replaced Dalhousie Square and Esplanade as the prime area for restaurants in the 1960s after Firpo's on Chowringhee Road and Peleti's on Old Court House Street closed their doors. If you start from the junction of Chowringhee Road and park Street, you would pass the Peiping Restaurant to your left, shortly after you cross the Asiatic Society building. Peiping is one of the finest Chinese restaurants in the Park Street area. Shortly thereafter, at the junction of the Park Street and Russell Street is the Park Hotel, one of the premier hotels in Calcutta. Park Hotel has several good, and expensive, restaurants that are worth mentioning. Zen is an oriental restaurant which specializes in Chinese, Filipino, Indonesian and Thai cuisine and the menu includes exotic delicacies like Chicken in Red Curry, Prawn in Green Curry, Smoked Lamb with Sesame seeds, Steamed Pomfret in Ginger wine sauce and Sankaya. Saffron is a restaurant that specializes in regional cuisine and the Saffron-flavored Charcoal broiled Jumbo Prawns, Steamed Hilsa and Gajar Halwa (Northern Indian Carrot Cake) are recommended. The Atrium Café is open round the clock and serves dozens of varieties of coffee besides Indian, Mexican and Italian food. Especially popular is their Italian lunch and dinner buffet. Someplace Else, also of the Park Hotel is Park Street's most famous nightspot. During the day it runs as an authentic English pub while after 9.30 p.m. it is a discotheque as well as a bar with a cellar endowed with quantity and variety.
The four restaurants of the Park Hotel apart, the porch of the Park Hotel nests one of the most famous restaurants from the Jazz era of the 1960s. Trinca's is still open with its live jazz band and the ambience of New Orleans in the 1960s. Usha Uthup the famous Indian singer began her career singing at Trinca's. The food has changed a lot since then, the typical American fare having been replaced by a menu that is more Indian every passing day, but the ambience is great and several loyal guest occasionally break into a swing making an evening at Trinca's even more interesting.
Across the road on the corner of Park Street and Russell Street is Big Maxx, a fast food joint serving mainly pizzas, and the adjoining ice-cream parlor Sub Zero. Further down Russell Street is Gangaur, a vegetarian snack shop with a menu from the Marwar region in Northwestern India, which is well worth a visit for breakfast. Opposite Gangaur is Suruchi, once the only authentic Bengali restaurant in Calcutta and further south is another ice-cream parlor by the name of Tulika's. Opposite Tulika's is Meghalaya House, a government guest house, that really should not be counted as a diner, but you might want to take back with you a bottle of pure, organic orange honey from Shillong. At the junction of Russell Street and Middleton Street is the Hare Krsna Café, selling Karma free or non-meat confectioneries.
Let us now resume our stroll down Park Street from Trinca's. Beyond the porch of the Park Hotel we come across three restaurants, again from the Jazz era, Blue Fox, Moulin Rouge and Tandoor. Blue Fox is essentially a cabaret while Moulin Rouge specializes in continental cuisine. The Tandoor is more of a Northern Indian restaurant. Across the road on the junction of Park Street and Middleton Row is the famous Calcutta institution, the Flury's Tea Room. Flury's is Swiss bakery opened in the 1920s with a British ambience. The food is excellent although the service is slow. Try the chicken patties, ham sandwiches and the vast variety of pastries, chocolates, puddings, pies and truffles. Flury's also brews the best Viennese coffee in town.
Turn into Middleton Row and you would be greeted by the liveried doorman of the Peter Cat restaurant. Peter Cat specializes in grills and Central Asian cuisine. My favorite is the Chelo Kebab, with Chicken Marrakech running a close second. Peter Cat also has a well stocked cellar and its bartenders specialize in some of the best cocktails from the colonial times. Shortly beyond the Middleton Row junction, the road that leads off Park Street to the left is Free School Street. On the Park Street end of Free School Street are two historic restaurants, Mocambo and Golden Dragon. Mocambo was as much popular for its music as Trinca's in the 1960s, with Pam Crain, the lead singer. Pam Crain has returned to Calcutta after an illustrious career in London as a jazz singer and performs in the Grand now. The jazz bands have deserted Mocambo but the good food remains. My personal favorite at Mocambo is Prawn Cocktail for starters, the recipe of which is actually from the legendary Firpo's of Chowringhee, Fish a la Diane for entrée and Baked Alaska for dessert. Golden Dragon is a Chinese restaurant serving mainly Shanghainese food. Golden Dragon's date with history was made when its owner invented the now internationally acclaimed hot-and-sour soup. The food is superb though they do not serve any alcohol.
North of Mocambo on the junction of Free School and Kyd streets is another excellent Chinese restaurant, Hou Hua by name. Hou Hua has been recognized as one of the best Chinese restaurants in the world. It specializes in Northern Chinese dishes like jiaozi and chimney soup and would be willing to serve fairly exotic foods like pigeons, turtles, etc. on order.
Beyond the Free School Street junction of Park Street the most notable restaurant is Waldorf, which is actually a wonderful Chinese restaurant and not anything in the least bit from Manhattan as the name might suggest. I have dined very recently in this restaurant and the food and service continue to be commendable. On a balcony inside the Waldorf is its sister Thai restaurant, the Little Bangkok which is equally good. Waldorf used to hold, and probably still holds, little food festivals like the duck festival, the crab festival and the hilsa festival when they had special dishes on the menu card.
The restaurant district of Park Street begins to fade out at the next junction which is where Camac Street meets Park Street. The next major stop on our culinary tour is in Rawdon Street, the last southward offshoot from Park Street before it crosses Lower Circular Road. Here on this relatively quiet street is located a pastry shop by the name of Kookie Jar, run by a pleasant Anglo-Indian lady. It is a new establishment with excellent products, especially the strawberry shortcake and stuffed croissants. If you walk down Rawdon Street then make a left onto Theatre Road you would soon enough reach the junction of Lower Circular Road. On these crossroads is situated another famous Chinese restaurant by the name of Jimmy's Kitchen. The Theatre Road area has suddenly emerged as a shopping and eating area, something that it had not been since the Club 300, a Ukrainian joint stopped serving Chicken a la Kiev, Romanov vodka and Havana cigars in the 1960s. The junction of Theatre Road and Loudon Street has seen the opening of a large number of brand name clothes outlets and a good number of restaurants including Wimpy's, the British hamburger chain, the only international junk food company that has found favor with the people who prefer the old world ways of dining. Further west on Theatre Road is the Astor Hotel, another flourishing relic of the colonial period. The Astor has a fine open air restaurant that serves tandoori and barbecue dishes while a jazz band plays on.
South of Lower Circular Road on Lansdowne Road stands Hot Breads, a modern bakery with a vast variety of breads and other baked goods. The variety is good and most of the food is very good too. I was surprised to see kiwi fruit toppings during my recent visit, not my first surprise in this wonderful city and I am positive that it would not be the last one. However, their pizzas have really taken a nosedive.
Heading way south along Lansdowne, and you had rather take a taxi for it is a good distance to walk, is a good Italian restaurant with a rather un-Italian name, the Kurry Klub, which not only has wonderful fare but also piped Italian music to provide the ambience. On Lower Circular Road stands another of Calcutta's luxury hotels, the Hotel Hindusthan International, with its three restaurants serving Indian, Chinese and Continental cuisine respectively, a 24-hour café and a discotheque.
The Esplanade area had been the most famous nightspot east of the Suez at one time. Things took a downslide with the closure of Firpo's Louis XIV restaurant and the Venetian Bar and the fire that all but destroyed the Ritz hotel, but things have since got much better. On the junction of Kyd Street and Chowringhee Road is the expensive Zaranj and Seville restaurants. Zaranj specializes in Kashmiri and Northwest Frontier cuisine while Seville serves food from the Mediterranean, especially Italy.
Closer to Esplanade is the Grand Old Lady of Chowringhee, the Grand Hotel, plain from outside but opulent inside, and its wonderful restaurants. The four restaurants are La Rotisserie, a French restaurant, Baan Thai, an authentic Thai restaurant, Gharana, an Indian restaurant that features recipes from the erstwhile princely states of India on a monthly basis and La Brasserie, an informal café, besides the Pink Elephant discotheque.
The Ritz hotel which was destroyed in a fire has been resurrected as the Peerless Quality Inn and has three restaurants, Bichitra, a multi-cuisine restaurant, Nishidin, a café, and Aheli, Calcutta's first authentic Bengali luxury restaurant. Aheli is an absolute must unless you have managed to be invited to the Jamai Sasthi (Feast of the son-in-law) lunch at a North Calcutta rajbari (royal household). The décor is terracotta, the attire of the servers is authentic Bengali and the food, served in traditional bronze crockery, is traditional Bengali. Nowhere outside the kitchen of a traditional Bengali home would you find the plentiful meal and the wonderful dishes like chingri maachher malai curry (prawns cooked in coconut sauce) and sorshe machher paturi (fish marinated with mustard and baked in banana leaves).
Behind the Grand Hotel, inside the now derelict New Market are two interesting eateries well worth a visit. Nahoum's a third generation Jewish bakery specializes in Jewish food, chiefly bagels, sambusaks, matzo, chollah and the like. Needless to say, Nahoum's strictly adher to kosher restrictions. The second one is M.X. D'Gama, a Portuguese bakery and cheese shop, the last outpost for the once famous Bandel cheese. Outside New Market, on Lindsay Street, is Keventer's, a once famous dairy that also sells excellent pork products and you can have a hearty breakfast of eggs, sausage and bacon in their little canteen.
North of Dhorumtolla Street there are only two famous restaurants since Peleti's and Spence's closed down in Dalhousie Square and the Great Eastern Hotel deteriorated to its unspeakable nadir. The first of these is Amber, undoubtedly Calcutta's most popular restaurant. Its three floors and its sister facility, Sagar, across the street and the carryout place West End Takeaway cannot cater fully to the deluge of aspiring diners, who wait for hours to find a table in order to eat their famous Cream of Spring Chicken Soup and delicious tandoori chicken. My personal recommendation is that Amber is best enjoyed at lunchtime. Chung Wah is a Chinese restaurant on Central Avenue, reminiscent of Shanghai in the 1930s, famous for its Mandarin Fish, the last authentic restaurant north of Esplanade since the Nanking Restaurant (and opium den!) closed in the old Chinatown area around Sun Yat Sen Street.
The Alipore areas traditions in fine dining were generally known only to the selected invitees of either His Excellency The Lieutenant Governor of Bengal or His Highness The Maharajadhiraj of Burdwan until recently, but things certainly seem to have changed now. The Indian Zoological Gardens has of course had the Bijoli Grill Bar and Restaurant for at least two decades and more, though its quality keeps changing from time to time. Alipore and New Alipore have a number of good pizzerias and a few Chinese restaurants though I would really need more details before I can be more specific.
Alipore's crowning glory is the Taj Bengal, Calcutta's largest luxury hotel that has finally ended the monopoly of the Chowringhee-Park Street district as far as good hotels go. Taj Bengal has seven eateries, serving good food, which many believe are superior to the Grand's though I beg to differ on that issue. In any case, Taj Bengal's restaurants are Chinoiserie, a Shanghai-style Chinese restaurant, Sonargaon, an Indian restaurant, Chambers, a French restaurant, The Esplanade, a 24-hour café, The Junction, a pub set in the colonial era, La Patisserie, a cake shop and Incognito, the discotheque-cum-restaurant.
A new destination on the culinary map may well be the three eateries of the newly opened Radisson Hotel in Sarisa, south of the city, on the banks of the river. Although I have not been to any of these restaurants I would add them to the list anyway. Reflections, open round the clock and serving international cuisine, Parampara, a vegetarian Indian restaurant and Captain's Deck Lounge, a pub.
Calcutta has some of the finest traditions in Moghlai food, the foods from the Moghul courts, thanks to the royal families of Murshidabad, Mysore and Oudh who came to live in Calcutta, willfully or otherwise, after their domains were usurped by the British. As the descendents of these illustrious families became increasingly unworthy of the titles they inherited from their ancestors, their retinue left them to sell their own wares by themselves. Thus the cooks established themselves in various parts of Chitpore, Tollygunge and Kidderpore in restaurants serving foods the fame of which has by eclipsed the décor of the rooms they are served in. I would warn yet again that you should venture into some of these restaurants only if you intend to taste authentic Moghlai food. My favorite Moghlai joint is Royal Indian Hotel on the junction of Lower Chitpore and Harrison roads. I have never eaten anything other than the famous Royal Chaap (lamb ribs), roomali roti (bread of the thickness of a handkerchief) and firni, and I can tell you that each one of them is the best of its kind. The biryani at Aminia on Bertram Street opposite Chaplin Cinema is about as famous as the ribs at Royal, as is the rezala at Shiraj on Park Circus. Not exactly Moghlai, but a close cousin, is the famous and devilishly delicious kasa mangsho of Gol Bari at Shyambazar's Five Point Crossing at the junction of Cornwallis Street and Upper Circular Road.
Calcutta is reputedly the home of the best Chinese food in the world, since many of the great chefs of Shanghai had fled their homeland first fearing Japanese invasion and later to save themselves from communist persecution. The best Chinese food however, is to be had in the new Chinatown in Tangra, in the eastern part of the city, not the cleanest nor the safest part of the city. As with the Moghlai joints, if you are really in the quest for the best Chinese food, it pays to go to Tangra.
While the contribution of the Bengali community towards restaurants, in any way other than patronizing, is extremely limited, since Bengali food was, until Aheli, and probably even now, best eaten at home, the Bengali sweetmeat maker has given Calcutta some of its most famous foods. For thousands of miles outside Calcutta, it is known more for rossogollas, the delicious cottage cheese dessert. The best sweet shops are located in the northern part of the city, the Shyambazar and Bagbazar areas especially. The most famous is Nobin Dass of Bagbazar, arguably the inventor of the rossogollas and makers of sweetmeats by appointment His Excellency Governor-General of India, The Marquis of Canning. It is said that Nobin Dass concocted a dessert in honor of Lady Canning, the wife of the aforementioned officer, and the name has stuck to this day, albeit in the bastardized form of Lady Canie. Nobin Dass' fame increased with the opening of his son's shop in Esplanade, by the name of KC Das, and it is said that P&O liners once carried cans of rossogolla to England for the officers who had just returned to England and still craved for the Calcutta dessert. KC Das' quality is certainly not the same any more, although the Nobin Dass shop still makes excellent sweets, and the cravings have suddenly stopped abroad since the rossogolla cans that I see in various Indian stores across America are usually from the Burrabazar sweet shop, Haldiram's. Bhim Chunder Nag on the intersection of Bowbazar and Wellington streets is famous for the other legendary sweetmeat of Calcutta, the sandesh. And for those who have not been blessed with the sweet tooth, each of these shops sell kochuri, radhaballabhi and singara, mouthwatering savories that are just as enticing as the sweets.
A table at a Park Street restaurant.
The hallmark of fine dining in India.
The magnificent façade of
the Grand Hotel, with its opulent ball room and four of Calcutta's best
The liveried doorkeeper stands sentinel
in front of the Belgian double doors of the Grand Hotel.
Taj Bengal: Alipore's answer to
the Chowringhee area in matters of fine dining
Bengali sweets are to Calcutta what the plum pudding is to London or crepe is to Paris. Sweets are regarded as the most divine of all foods, fit for an offering to the gods, as is the case above. The black stoneware plate holds seven varieties of sandesh, while the little silver plate to the right holds three more. The bowl to the left holds payesh, a rich rice pudding typically flavored with date palm molasses and laced with raisins and nuts. The silver bowl on the top left holds rossogollas and the one on the top right holds rajbhog, a variant of the rossogolla with a cream filling.