City Hangout – Café Lota & Other Such Places, Around Town
Delhi’s artsy cafes.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
There is acres of space between the restaurant tables, making each one its own little universe — art students economize by sharing a few snacks, the NGO activists bemoan the general state of powerlessness over lazy power luncheons, and well-heeled Europeans in cashmere stoles and white pearl necklaces quietly enjoy the Delhi winter.
Though it is inside the National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum on Bhairon Marg, far from malls, markets and offices, Café Lota has become a talking point among Delhi’s artsy circle since its opening in October 2013.
The Delhi Walla wasn’t surprised. The outdoorsy place is flooded with light that streams in through the bamboo-slatted roof propped on an iron frame. The table covers are set simply but smartly. No other museum or gallery in Delhi can boast of such a stylish yet casual restaurant.
The privately-run café is inside a handicrafts museum but there is no attempt to overcrowd it with artworks. There’s no bamboo garden and no Laughing Buddha. The steel pendant lamps, a few terracotta figures, the ethnic mirror art on the walls, and the Bengali alpana design on the iron poles feel easy on the eye. Each table has a yellow dahlia as its centrepiece. The setting looks upscale, but the prices are not very high when you scan the menu, its loose yellow pages held together on a clipboard.
Managed by the Union ministry of textiles, the crafts museum is worth repeat visits for its stock of more than 30,000 artworks, but this day, everyone seems to have come just for lunch at the café — a rarity for a Delhi museum.
Take the nearby National Science Centre. Its café is so hideous that there’s no point writing about it, while the basement canteen at the National Museum — one of India’s largest and most important museums — is a national shame. The walls have the white tiles that you see in public urinals and the misspelled menu consists of samosas and dal-chawal. The National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) has a gloomily bare canteen that serves bread pakodas on some days, and samosas on others.
Delhi does have boutique cafés dressed up in arty themes (the wall sketches of Smoke House Deli outlets, for instance), but the city lacks eateries in exciting art spaces that have mastered the blend of great ambience and good food.
A few newcomers are trying to make a difference. In 2012, two cafés opened in south Delhi’s Shahpur Jat village. These are not in galleries, but being within inventively done-up stores, they stand out.
The cozy Le Café is in Les Parisiennes, a vast junkyard of dresses, lampshades, linen, shoes, glasses, and an in-house tailor. Almost everything in the store is black: floor, ceiling, shelves, tables and chairs. Even the little piano is painted black. The coffee shop is in the middle of the store. The menu is jotted down on a small black slate. Although the madeleine teacake was disappointingly dry and the cappuccino was less than great (too milky), the café itself, surrounded by dresses and mannequins, was so charming that the quality of the snacks didn’t matter.
The Mad Teapot café is tucked deep inside The Wishing Chair, another wildly popular store among the Shahpur Jat faithful that has a wide range of quirky stuff, from washable synthetic flowers to jazzy lamps and a turtle-shaped cushion. The café is as eclectic as the store. Every chair has a different design. The wooden shelf on the counter holds colourful ceramic teacups. Teapots are painted on the walls. The vegetarian menu is largely non-fattening, and you might end up spellbound by the Enchanted Forest Salad. The rocket leaves, the juicy French beans and orange wedges feel as beautiful to the senses as the store’s long-stemmed lamps. Even the café’s washroom is lovely — it has a chessboard floor and dozens of black and white portraits of famous French women of the Belle Époque; one seemed to be of the legendary stage actor Sarah Bernhardt.
Not all stores can get it right. The café at MoonRiver, a multi-floor design shop in Defence Colony, is finely laid out with hard-bound volumes and a wall-to-wall poster of bookshelves, but its menu comprises nothing more than masala tea, black coffee and cappuccino.
The white-themed Three Windows in Khirki village is closer to our ideal of an arty café. It opened in 2013 inside the gracefully-designed white building of Khoj, a workshop that annually hosts residency programmes for international artists. The coffee shop is small and minimalist; the tables are angular, and the three windows look down to a rutty lane. A typical guest is accessorized with long hair, carefully worn-out sandals and an Apple Mac laptop. A staffer says the regulars include dancers from the neighbouring Gati Dance Forum. Though the banana shake was excessively sweet, the hummus was delicious, and I could hear laughter, arguments and shuffling of feet from adjacent rooms—the artists were at work.
Actually, the ambience of Three Windows resembles that of the breezy Tea Terrace of Triveni Kala Sangam. With its galleries, theatres and dance classes, the art complex at Mandi House pulsates with extraordinary creative energy. The porch where people sit down to eat looks out to an amphitheatre. While not stylish, the café has atmosphere, especially on rainy days. Every weekday afternoon, it is invaded by office-goers for lunch; the shami kebab is much loved and the carrot walnut cake is poetry.
The Cottage Café at the Central Cottage Industries Emporium on Janpath, too, used to have its distinguishing appeal. It served filter coffee, cucumber-tomato sandwiches of white bread cut into little triangles, and sprout salad, the kind that you make at home. During the day, wealthy foreign tourists shopping in the emporium lounged on the café’s wicker murahs; in the evening, the space was taken over by day-jobbers of Connaught Place who would share office gossip over tea and coffee. In 2012, the emporium handed over the cafe’s charge to a chain. The Barista Lavazza outlet offers a wider selection of coffee but the original laidback atmosphere is gone. The consolation is the west-facing windows that look out on to the melancholic, weather-beaten Pyarelal Building on Tolstoy Marg.
Fortunately, the rundown canteen at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in Teen Murti Bhavan, the home of our first prime minister, is now cheery. Renovated in October, it is characterized by plastic roses, panoramic windows, dim coolness and a resident black cat. The porch faces starfruit and wood-apple trees; elegantly attired academicians step out of the adjacent library to settle here quietly for tea, which is served in a kettle, with sugar in a separate caddy. While having your thali, you can see the scholars working inside the library.
However, the ill-polished charms of Teen Murti’s canteen are no match for the pleasures of the more cultivated Café Lota. The dishes are a selection from various Indian cuisines, and every item, even the aloo-methi, is presented aesthetically. Stuffed with scrambled paneer, the dal chila was neatly rolled and sliced, ready to be eaten with silverware. The Konkan fish curry was showcased attractively in a white bowl — despite being the main event, it was pleasingly light. The bhapa doi cheesecake would impress a discerning Bengali. The M.S. Vienna coffee made for a sublime end to this agreeable meal.
I was finally ready to take on the museum.
See and be seen in Café Lota