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End of an era as Chacha’s Hotel downs shutters

2 July, 2022 16:58:17
End of an era as Chacha’s Hotel downs shutters

The ‘Crowning Glory’ of the British Empire, the ‘City of Palaces’ is undergoing rapid changes. So much so that even old roads and streets look alien when familiar landmarks suddenly disappear and are replaced by swanky structures. Although it is absolutely natural and true that the old must give way to the new, yet as the sun sets and shadows grow longer, the heart yearns to look back and hunt for fond memories of bygone days. Chacha’s Hotel, one of Kolkata’s vintage fast-food (in those days, the word had not been coined though) destinations on Vivekananda Road in North Kolkata, has downed its shutters for good and with that, a glorious chapter of gastronomic history has come to an end.

Till recently, ‘Chacha’s Hotel’ written in big, bold alphabets in golden colour against a large bright crimson display panel hung above 42, Bidhan Sarani (formerly Cornwallis Street), bang opposite Swami Vivekananda's ancestral house (which was turned into a museum and cultural centre by the Ramakrishna Mission authorities in 2004. The billboard was a familiar and comforting site for all passersby and was taken for granted as a permanent joint for tasty, quality snacks at an affordable price. The area around the shop would be infused with the whiff of fresh cutlets and fries emanating from the restaurant. But alas, all that is gone forever now and what remains is a deep sense of loss and memories dipped in nostalgia. 

On May 11, 2022, this 165-year-old heritage ‘hotel’ in the heart of Kolkata, closed permanently. The restaurant was set up by Gosaidas Patra in 1875. He bought a plot right beside Vivekananda’s ancestral home at the crossing of Vivekananda Road and Bidhan Sarani from a man who sold tea from a kiosk. The tea seller was popular in the neighbourhood and people called him ‘Chacha’ (uncle). Despite the property changing hands, Chacha’s name stuck on and Gosaidas did not change it, perhaps for old times’ sake.

Gosaidas revolutionized the snacking habits of the conservative Bengalis with introduction of such delicacies as fish fry, fowl cutlet and sheek kebabs which became instant hits. In fact, the mutton sheek kebab was conceived at the Chacha’s. In those days, chicken was taboo in Hindu households but fowl cutlets at Chacha’s were hot favourite with the Bengali foodies. The restaurant boasted of numerous patrons including Narendra Nath Dutta aka Swami Vivekananda, who in his boyhood years, loved fowl cutlets prepared at Chacha’s. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s favourite was the sheek kebab and Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy loved the light yet flavoured chicken clear soup. Even Tollywood stars like Chhabi Biswas and matinee idol Uttam Kumar loved the fare offered at Chacha’s and headed to this restaurant in North Kolkata from the studios of Tollygunge, located in the southern part of the city, whenever they could make it during shooting breaks. 

Renowned author of young adults’ fiction, Professor Narayan Gangopadhyay was also a die-hard fan of Chacha’s fowl cutlet. He created the iconic ‘Chaar-murti,’ a brigade of four teenagers and ‘Teni-Da’ their leader, and based many of his humorous adventure stories around these youngsters. In those novels, ‘Teni-Da’ often bullied the boys, especially Pyalaram (who had a weak constitution and suffered from stomach ailments perpetually) and ordered to get Chacha’s fowl cutlets for him or face dire consequences. 

After Gosaidas Patra’s demise, his son Ramdas sat at the helm of affairs. He too, was an astute businessman and a brilliant cook and during his tenure, the fame of the restaurant spread far and wide. After him, his progeny Pradyut Kumar Patra took charge of the hotel. This was a time of transition in the society and people were gradually getting accustomed to eating out, experimenting with food and savouring new dishes. This prompted Patra to bring in changes in the menu as well to suit the needs of the changing times. 

Pradyut Kumar’s sons and present proprietors of the establishment, Gautam Patra and Anuj Patra initiated a full makeover of the hotel and in addition to the existing menu, they initiated catering service. They also introduced Chinese and Thai food to their existing menu. In 2007, the hotel relocated to its present site, opposite Swami Vivekananda’s house since Ramakrishna Mission authorities had requested them to vacate their earlier plot next to Vivekananda’s house for expansion of the Mission’s project. 

The closure of a heritage restaurant like Chacha’s Hotel raised many eyebrows. Patrons of the shop still cannot figure out the reason why a successful restaurant decided to close down so abruptly.  The restaurant owners did try to move with the times and modernize the hotel but it was growing a bit difficult for the ageing brothers to keep pace with contemporary style of functioning in the food industry, which included online ordering and home delivery. The problem was compounded by the death of Anuj Patra’s wife in 2018. His expatriate son too, is not willing to take over the business and carry the legacy. 

The pandemic was the last nail in the coffin that compelled the brothers to take a tough decision. Despite the emotional attachment and family memories, they decided to let go and retire from the fray. The front exterior of the hotel has a deserted, ghostly sight. The sidewalk adjacent to the restaurant has been taken over by a group of chattering homeless people who sit and squabble and cook on earthen stoves.  Their kids play and seek alms from passersby and the superannuated hotel stands a mute witness to the constant flow of life.  Why should all good things come to an end? The question hangs heavy in the air with none to provide an answer. 

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