The glory of the mall as the hip and happening centre of a vibrant city has declined. The city has shifted its centre to the more posh and revenue generating areas. And yet so much still remains — important government institutions still remain routed in the area, surrounded by hosts of related private offices.
It is to cater to this that Kamran Sheikh, the man who brought us One Potato Two Potato (or OPTP), Gun Smoke and Veranda, opened Lahore Cafeteria.
Located at the corner of the Masson Narsingdas building, opposite the High Court, the entire décor of the cafeteria is done simply in the art deco fashion — a reminder of the past. This has been consciously done by Sheikh who says “This place needs a cafeteria, a place for people who cannot afford very expensive food but they should still be able to come and eat with respect.”
The Lahore Cafeteria is not a restaurant, let’s be clear on that. It has fulfilled its criteria of providing economical, hygienic food. One chicken dish on average costs Rs249 while a mutton dish costs Rs349. There are deals ranging between Rs300–600, offering different combinations.
People can choose from the ‘usual culprits’ expected at any desi joint including chicken or mutton qorma or karahi. Amongst the chicken dishes Chicken Achari stands out, while Mutton Karahi is also worth a try. The vegetables have a particular home-cooked flavour. Unlike at your regular dhaba, these dishes do not suffer from being soaked in copious amounts of oil but are made simply.
Lahore Cafeteria also offers dishes which are seemingly Chinese but desi in taste. Chicken Chowmein is perhaps the spiciest on the menu. For those interested in an even quicker lunch there is a range of snacks including burgers and sandwiches to pick from.
And after you are done with this much, there is a choice of three different types of desserts — shahi tukrey, kheer and fruit trifle. Also to the visitor’s surprise the actual food being served has more variety than the menu specifies.
While each table has a menu placed next to the salt and pepper shakers and a waiter politely comes over to hand you a larger menu card — there is not much point in looking at it. Despite your efforts to sit and decide what you want to order, the final choice will always be made at the food counter itself since the customers do not sit and order at the table. Each individual collects a tray at the food counter, takes a look at what is present and the server ladles your choice of food into a small dish. At the end of the line, your bill is aggregated at the payment counter.
This also changes the idea of fast food, previously reserved for western food chains. The food at Lahore Cafeteria is cooked and ready, the customer just has to go and point to what they want.
For most in the area, this is a different concept. People are not used to the concept of self-service even though other fast food restaurants such as Subway have functioned on this model before. Lahore Cafeteria is not wooing that kind of crowd at the moment. Once the college/university campuses open after the summer vacations, Sheikh is hoping for a wider crowd mix. “I want them all,” he says, referring to the purpose of the Cafeteria which is made to cater to people from all types of economic backgrounds.
Lahore Cafeteria offers a relaxed environment; an escape from the traffic and the crowd, while the chilled hall becomes a perfect respite in the heat. Yet, Sheikh is insistent, “it is not a restaurant where people should come and take rest. The idea is to let it function like a cafeteria, where people come, eat and leave. It is not made to linger.”
Interestingly, “there are no commodes in the bathrooms,” he adds, smiling.
For now, Lahore Cafeteria is open only for lunch, from 12pm to 5pm. During Ramzan, the plan is to open from iftari onwards for dinner. Kamran Sheikh’s eventual plan is to offer lunch, snacks and dinner throughout the day.
There is a hall upstairs also, which is available for booking private events. And eventually if the restaurant sees that kind of a rush they are already ready to expand.
The building originally housed the Grindlays Bank before partition and the restaurant has been renovated in a style that is reminiscent of the 1950s and the ‘60s — when the Mall was all in all. The theme of the restaurant, its interior, the way the waiters are dressed and even the music playing are all set in that time. The kitchen, on the other hand, is completely modern, with the only traditional thing being the huge tandoor.
Recent renovations to buildings on the Mall by the government seemed to have revived some interest in the area. New modern places opening up in the area is a rarity and here’s to hoping that the success of Lahore Cafeteria might attract more people and businesses to the area brining back glimpses of the Mall in its hey days.