It is a little white signboard. It hangs on a rough, brown string that might have come straight from a sack that delivered the batata this morning. Just about eye level, right above the sort of tiny wash basin where you have to aim as you spit out the water, stepping back to make sure you aren't splattering your shoes.
"The owner of this restaurant also eats here" it says.
I appreciate the absence of an exclamation mark. Signboards in cheap establishments (and I don't mean 'inexpensive') often make up in exclamation marks what they lack in content. Not here. 'The owner of this restaurant also eats here'. Very matter of fact. A little sign over an overgrown spittoon and an overused hand towel.
I am at Ramanayak's, a small, very crowded South Indian eatery in Matunga. This is the first leg of a little quest - to find the best small restaurants in Mumbai. Now, this is glamour city, the home of Bollywood. No dearth of fancy joints here. If you wanted to spend as much on a meal as an average Indian family makes in a year, you wouldn't find the task too onerous in dear old Bombay. But that isn't what I am after. I am looking for the iconic small eateries. The old, familiar, hole-in-the-wall eateries that amchi Mumbai wears on her sleeve.
My dad first visited Ramanayak forty years ago, when he was a sprightly young man, living away from my grandpa for the first time, trying to earn his first paycheck. And here he is now, all these years later, squeezed into the impossibly small space behind an incredibly narrow table, grinning wide as he asks for 'one more appalam' in a too-loud voice that shows he is excited. Ramanayak is likely much the same as it was forty years back. It is on the first floor, behind Matunga local station, which means one has to climb some slippery and rather muddy steps to get here this monsoon day. The crowd is probably even more than it might have been in my dad's youth. Food is still served on banana leaves, a tad too fast to take care of the massive throughput at peak hours, like those guys who serve at weddings - Tamil weddings at any rate.
A few weeks later, I find myself in a narrow street crowded with hundreds of pedestrians. Only, I am in a car that is inching forward ever so slowly. We get to a beautiful green and white mosque, sitting majestically at the junction of a T in the road. Aap yahan utar jayiye saheb, says the driver, yahin kahin hai. We step out gingerly, and start walking. There are street vendors on every inch of pavement. (And on most inches of the road). Selling pretty little kiddy things that are tailor made to catch a kid's eyes. I know they probably wouldn't last the week if I bought them, but I am tempted at every stall, as we make our slow trudge through the people. This is Crawford Market. Not the market building itself, which is a stunning piece of old gothic architecture of the kind that dominates South Bombay. This is the area surrounding the building. Somewhere in all this bustle is Rajdhani. Like many popular restaurants in recent years, Rajdhani has expanded its network, and can now be seen in many parts of Mumbai. (I saw one in Pune too, last I was there). But this is the original. One of the first places where Mumbaikars could go to taste a good thali of Gujarati food. Another true hole-in-the-wall, Crawford Market Rajdhani is a narrow storefront place that extends inside in thin rectangular fashion. The server washes our hands at the table with rose-scented water from a carved pitcher. ("Should I drink this water appa?" my daughter asks). Out come the dhokla, the patra, the bengan bhajia, the khaman, khandvi, samosa. "I am full appa" exhales the daughter, "I almost finished everything!" Yes sweetheart, you are a wonderful girl indeed, but maybe I should tell you - those were just the starters.
There are no such preambles at Lucky. Another old favorite that has since sprung up all over Bombay, Lucky believes in keeping things simple. Biryani. That's what they do. And boy, do they do it well! It is late at night, and the family is tired from a long day out. Not enough energy to cook at home, not enough desire to eat out. Lucky take-out to the rescue. It is an assembly line back here, behind the actual restaurant, in this lane lit up like a bride for ... is it Eid? Or Ganapathi? There are about twenty plastic molded chairs, for people waiting for their take-out orders. The man at the counter barely looks up, as he takes my order (one veg biryani, one chicken biryani, two papads). He doesn't seem to say anything to anyone, which puzzles me. How is anyone back there going to know what I ordered? The crowd in this waiting room looks surprisingly glitzy for a dingy place in the middle of the night. My jeans and open toe footwear are certainly doing their bit to pull the sartorial average down. Nahin madam, chicken biryani khallas, the guy says now, still not looking up, which is a pity because the woman at his counter has just brought the average back up. So I got the last one for the day. Suck on that, better dressed people. My wife stirs in the car when I get back in. Her eyes are still closed, but she is smiling. That smells good, she says.
I haven't been to all my favorite small eateries in Bombay yet. Crystal on Marine Drive is near the top of my list from days past. Its all-veg menu and 1950s music aren't exactly the wife's cuppa. Got to find a buddy. Come back Sri, why don't you? And then there is Khichdi Samrat, the hole to beat all holes in the wall. A joint dedicated to khichdi - now that is focus.
It is Thursday. Where could I go this weekend, I wonder. I hear there is a South Indian virundhu on at ITC. Fancy shmancy 'dosa creations'? Or dhansak from little Jimmy Boy in Kala Ghoda? ... Decisions, decisions.