A stone's throw away from the Gateway of India, stands one of the oldest and most iconic synonyms for luxury in Mumbai. A favoured haunt for generations of foodies, Cafe Royal in Colaba has been known for repeatedly reinventing itself.
The land on which the eatery stands used to house a shed for parking horse-drawn carriages for the Maharaja of Mourvi till the early 20th century. In 1919, Cafe Royal began life as a tea-and-snacks joint, much along the lines of most Irani cafes in the city. With time, it evolved into a fine-dining restaurant, complete with a live orchestra at one point in its history.
Even today, the restaurant remains true to its fine-dining credentials. Functioning as an all-day cafe, it has expanded its scope to include a variety of cuisines; along with the sizzlers that are its mainstay, there are also pizzas, pastas, tandoori dishes and a host of other continental delicacies on offer.
The decor speaks of a certain quaint, old-world elegance, be it the arched columns framing the staircase to the left of the entrance or the well-varnished furniture. A touch of contemporary playfulness is brought in by elements like a panel on one of the walls, which features a reworking of The Last Supper, with Biblical figures at the supper-table replaced by Indian and American movie stars, like Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Angelina Jolie and Tom Cruise, at a bar table.
Yet another poster, featuring a collage of old-world Bombay and American elements like the Gateway, a mariner's compass and Marilyn Monroe, forms the backdrop to this setup. One of the faces on this poster belongs to one of Cafe Royal's most well-known clients. In 2000, Bill Clinton dropped in and held a meeting here, with prior notice, of course. Proprietor Manpreet Singh recounts, “The entire area within a radius of three to four kilometres was cordoned off. Nobody was allowed to enter the restaurant. Their people [US presidential staff] were here. Only a few members from among our kitchen staff were involved in preparing the meal and they were allocated batches.” Red-carpet welcome done, Clinton and those accompanying him were served sizzlers, tea and coffee. “It was a 'wow' moment for us and for him as well. He was happy and so were we,” says Singh.
Cafe Royal draws its clientele from the city's corporate elite, who sometimes drop in from the adjoining business districts of Fort and Nariman Point for a drink at the end of a long day. Families, tourists and groups of young professionals frequent it, too. Even as new-age eateries spring up across the city, Cafe Royal continues to hold its own as a monument—to quality dining for the young, and to good old nostalgia for the young at heart.