Mahabaleshwar restaurants like Bagicha Corner, Imperial Stores, Elsie’s Dairy & Bakery and others serve old world charm to your plate.
Food Friday is about some hidden gems around the country, forgotten cuisines and simple dishes with a twist. So if you are a foodie and savor what’s on your plate. This is the space to watch.
Summer , for most Mumbaikars, is a journey into the winding mountains that lead to Mahabaleshwar. It’s a different world once you climb Pasarni Ghat and take those quick turns in the road, with the lush greenery, the scent of mountain air and the serenity that will soon make you forget all thoughts of the city. It’s the hill station that conjures up happy faces as you savor strawberries and cream, sweet blackberries, freshly baked corn tikkis and hot bhutta, brushed with masala and butter! But there’s also so much more to this hill station that was once the summer capital of the Bombay Presidency during the British Raj. A few family establishments here for several generations, serving deliciously charming cuisine. Come in, sit down and savor it all in unhurried conversation, like I did…
If you enter the Mahabaleshwar market from the Chowk end, the brick-walled imperial shops appear right from the start. “French Fries” simply says the sign, but there’s more to it. It houses a pharmacy, a wine shop and a café called Country Corner. “How old is the restaurant?” you wonder and the affable owner Zavare lrani laughs: “How old? We have stopped counting! The cafe also has a slice of history, as it dates back to when they supplied supplies to the British Army. Zavare reveals, “We were contractors for the East India Company and my great-grandfather, Sorabji, provided rations for the British garrison – meat, fish, vegetables and more. They were stationed at what is now MTDC Mahabaleshwar. There was nothing fancy about this place then, it was like a godown; it’s totally changed now.
The cafe always has a nice seating area. A brightly lit wall with artwork and framed signs, including one for jazz legend Louis Armstrong (Zavare has a fondness for jazz) also advertises pizzas, burgers and shakes. He says, “Before, we only had nimbu pani or Chai; the sandwiches were then considered too sophisticated. You can still get the keema-pao, cutlets and bread mask. Of course, for today’s generation, we started fast food like burgers and pizza.
Like most establishments, the pandemic must have affected their operation, as it is a place dependent on tourism, but he says: “Slowdown of the pandemic? I was a happy man at that time! Our house turned into a pharmacy and the villagers left their houses early and went up to the end to buy medicine. And everyone who passed by received bread butter and tea at home, prepared by my wife Shekufay. While the two run the cafe, Zavare has passed the baton to his son Raiomand Irani, who runs a Continental-Parsi restaurant, Grapevine, near the nearby Irani Petrol pump. “Raiomand has taken over and he has some very good ideas. If it’s the head of the rhinoceros, the rest of the animal would be there; his coffee is a must, especially for the lamb shank and soft-shell crab burgers,” he smiles.
Elsie’s Dairy and Bakery
Rumor has it that if there’s a birthday in these hills, the cake has to be ordered from Elsie’s! The 173-year-old bakery is iconic, true to family recipes and tradition. When you enter the bungalow vibe, two things instantly grab you, the old world charm with its wooden and glass cupboards and the unmistakable aroma of fresh cake, courtesy of a Goan family’s well-kept secret. Joanna D’Souza, who runs this place with her sister Judith, is carefully folding date rolls onto a plate. In the other neat trays, carrot cake, jam pies, banana-date cake, toffees, donuts and apple and fig pies share space with plum cake and mixed sweets. It’s a late morning and still quiet, before the hill stationers arrive around 4pm to have fun at the market. “All you see are recipes passed down from my mother and before that, my grandmother. My brother ran this place after mom died. He died in January; we are the fourth generation here. My sister and I do everything even though we have helpers,” says Joanna. Elsie wasn’t on their way to work, initially. She worked for several years as a flight attendant with Air India, while Judith was a teacher at St Mary’s School, Mazagon, Mumbai. She recalls: “For us, Mahabaleshwar was synonymous with holidays and reunions with family. They were different days for sure. It was simple and beautiful. Even my mother’s staff had been there for 40 years working for her. Where do you find that kind of loyalty today? »
Business is good this summer, so they get up at dawn and she says, “Some people also come to the hills for a romantic proposal and want a cake made for that. It’s nice to see the public again this year. It was very difficult during the pandemic, we lost two years and last year the monsoon was bad, also with landslides and heavy rains. At the moment they cater to happy and hungry tourists and it’s all about cooking savory and sweet delicacies. We know each recipe by heart with its ratios and proportions, but we have also written everything down for the next generation,” smiles Joanna.
Do you crave the taste of home cooking Khana on holiday ? Bagicha Corner serves just that. Located on the corner of the main road as you drive from Mahabaleshwar to Panchgani, this open style restaurant prepares dishes using homegrown vegetables. Thali is a permanent fix on the menu, with one or two vegetable dishes that change daily. Comes lunchtime and they can’t serve these steaming bowls of dal, pitla-bhakri, but sabzi and rice, pretty quick. For a lighter bite, corn frankies and tikkas are essential, whatever the season. This is the land of strawberries and cream, which is why desserts are made of them as well as “bomb specials”, which are elaborate delicacies made from fruit. But the owner, Kulsum Mulani, who started it all on the family land, started with just one flavor of Ice .
About 60 years ago, she set up a makeshift table selling strawberry sancha ice cream to passersby on foot or in cars. “There were no restaurants or shops back then in Mahabaleshwar. I also made pattice makkai with maize and potatoes from our kheti,” she reveals. Today, his grown-up sons, an engineer and a corporal, accompany him.
Bagicha Corner has four branches, two here and two in Pune. And the place has seen many well-known names. “Ambanis came here, as did Kumar Mangalam Birla with his family. Dev Anand had paid a visit. Jackie Shroff, Aamir Khan, Salman Khan bhi aaye,” she adds. The menu has old favorites, but also lots of new items for the tourist crowd. “People call and reserve the jambhul juice, it has no sugar and they like to buy frozen packets to take home because it’s healthy,” she says. For now, the hot sale of the summer is ice cream and strawberry juice. In the monsoon, when the restaurant is open with lush green hillside views, it will be a different bite with garma-garam pattice and chai.
Ismat Tahseen is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about food, trends, culture and lifestyle for over a decade now.