Coffee & old world charm
Before the mall craze took over the Capital and most of India, Connaught Place used to be the ultimate shopping hub. Roaming around from one block to another, eating some good food and then heading towards the central park for a lazy evening was a weekend well spent with friends. Walking around the inner circle made me pass through the United Coffee House, but I never made it past its entry doors (even though I wondered how it must be from inside). I was always looking for fast food joints and other casual restaurants to hang out with friends. But during my recent visit to Connaught Place, hunting for good food, I once again crossed the United Coffee House and finally decided to give it a try.
As you make your way through the doors, it feels as if you have been transported many decades back. The only thing that this place is missing is frequent jazz band performances. This would give this two-storeyed restaurant a finishing touch of being a classic. With beautiful floral designs on the walls, huge Venetian chandeliers hanging from the roof, a vintage looking bar and soft music playing in the background, you wouldn't believe this place to be 75 years old.
The seed of inception for United Coffee House was sown way back in the early 1930s when the undivided India had Delhi, Lahore and Sialkot under the same canopy. It is during these fortunate times that Lala Hansraj Kalra, an affluent liquor baron, used to travel exclusively to these places to manage his various business interests. During one of these visits to the Lutyens' Delhi, he discovered the wondrous Connaught Place - a new circle thronged by the affluent crowd of the British Raj. Fascinated by the motley crowd that the Capital was drawing and sensing that the place had immense potential for business, he started the United Coffee House, Delhi's first café, where the city's fashionable elite went to dine well, and to linger over laughter and conversation over endless cups of cona coffee. The restaurant's balconied mezzanine floor was a place where various political decisions were taken under the high ceiling.
75 years since its inception, this iconic restaurant has gone through various changes in its menu. But, it's USP of being a classic, retro restaurant established during British Raj times continued. The coffee house has managed to remain unfazed by the changing times and preserve its old world charm, and the staff in colonial club steward uniform. At a time when quick service restaurants were gaining popularity, Akash Kalra, the third generation hotelier from the family constantly worked towards maintaining equilibrium between old and new to keep his legacy alive. Not only did he archive the rare recipes from his grandfather and father's reign but he also sampled these as per the palatability of the present diners. "When we started off with the United Coffee House, our main motive was to open up a place where people can just come and have conversations. Due to certain political scenarios and movements in 1942, Delhi did not have its own social life. Connaught Place at that time was only about British officer's wives having their drapery showrooms, bakery showrooms, or anything to do with a product which would be imported from the UK and sold here. And in those times, the word 'coffee house' was only a rendezvous. So, we thought about coming up with a coffee house that would attract intellects, diplomats and every good community," said Akash, the Managing Director of UCH, who took over the restaurant at a time when quick service restaurants were gaining popularity among people.
"When we started off with the United Coffee House, our main motive was to open up a place where people can just come and have conversations. Due to certain political scenarios and movements in 1942, Delhi did not have its own social life. Connaught Place at that time was only about British officer's wives having their drapery showrooms, bakery showrooms, or anything to do with a product which would be imported from the UK and sold here. And in those times, the word 'coffee house' was only a rendezvous. So, we thought about coming up with a coffee house that would attract intellects, diplomats and every good community," said Akash, the Managing Director of UCH, who took over the restaurant at a time when quick service restaurants were gaining popularity among people.
"When I joined the business in 1991 the popularity of coffee house was at its peak with people and expats and all the major tourist guides of the world had featured us as a must go place if you ever come to Delhi. And at that time, the trend of dining was changing to quick service restaurant. We faced some troubles due to the gradual rise of quick service restaurant and this made us change and revive our menu apart from the signature dishes."
Progressing from decade to decade, UCH gained popularity and in the 75 years of this institution, their menu gained inspiration from world cuisine. The menu evolved, imbibing the signatures and highlights of every passing era.
Inspired by Delhi cuisine with Mughlai, Northwest Frontier, Punjabi and Kayastha dishes, British club food classics from the various CCIs and army clubs across the country to the likes of French food palette, the United Coffee House was an amalgamation of the heart and soul of popular world cuisines, at that time not known to many. Not only did the European cuisine become popular and famous, Asian, Mexican, and QSR (quick service restaurants) recipes became a part of the UCH menu as well. It now comprises of 600 items of world cuisine including a mix of its own classic signature dishes which were famous decades ago.
Akash Chopra, a member of All India Congress committee has been a frequent customer of UCH for the past 50 years and still enjoys his espresso. "It was during my college days that I used to come here to have espresso coffee with my friends. But with the changing times, the menu also changed with Rakesh Chauhan joining as the manager. Now, you can get anything from simple coconut water to Rogan josh. From the top to the bottom, every managing person is generous. Except for the amalgamation of world cuisines in their menu, everything is same. The taste of the signature dishes, the interiors and even the uniforms of the waiters have remained the same. I applaud Akash Kalra for his success in retaining the old world charm of this place."
First timers to UCH can find a good mix of the old and the new. In addition to 20-30 dishes that have been there since day one, like Fungi Ragout, Coqau Vin, Changezi Murg and Nargis ke Kofte, you can find every popular dish from any part of the world. "The versions can be many but nothing can beat the originals. And since we have a lot to offer, we don't need to modify it. If I need to modify something, I'll take it back to the archives, introduce something new and revive it whenever needed," says the Managing director.
Dr Ashok Kaushik who first visited the coffee house in 1964 with his uncle for a snack was dumbstruck. "Ever since I joined college I have been a regular customer at United Coffee House for cona coffee, which off-late I have switched to Darjeeling tea because it's so good."
It is evident from Dr Kaushik's words that UCH has an ambience that cannot be matched by any other restaurant, "The moment you enter, it feels as if you have come to a palace. No other restaurant has a 20 feet high ceiling with huge chandeliers. Not only this but the service provided is personalised for every customer here. The waiters are educated, they listen to every query and the presentation of items is also attractive."
He added, "I must give credit to Akash Kalra for making these fantastic changes to the place. Previously, the chandeliers were small which were not very impressive but now as soon as you enter, your eyes are attracted to these beautiful Venetian chandeliers hanging from the top."
Like every other customer who has been there, Dr Kaushik was also of the view that one can get any cuisine they want at UCH, from paneer pakodas, Bengali food to Chinese preparations. "I know that the place could get a bit costly for a common man but it is all worth it."