(A piece for Mumbai Mirror's 'Relative Value' section, as Gaylord Restaurant turns 60.)
It may be hard to digest for die-hard Bombaywallas, but the credit for what might be one of the city’s most iconic eateries goes to a Delhi-based family.
Established in 1956 by the late Pishori Lal Lamba along with his friend and brother-in-law Iqbal Ghai, Gaylord was the second offering from the partnership that had already given India the Kwality brand. “My grandfather and his brother-in-law were living in a crowded dwelling with 20 people in Connaught Place. They had no background in food,” says Divij, “To make ends meet, they started a little outlet selling chips and eggs to people that came out of Regal Cinema (in Delhi).” From that single cornerstone of British working-class cuisine, the Ghai-Lambas (as they were known until they split in 1978) graduated to a more varied menu. The first Kwality Restaurant came up in the same spot as the shop, and was also where the duo first began selling ice-cream (often whole bricks of Cassatta and Tutti-Frutti) to Delhi’s population of American GIs: private soldiers in the US army stationed in Delhi during World War II, whose non-fighting duties afforded them both time and money for the pleasures of 1940s India.
The Gaylord brand was launched in Connaught Place in 1952, followed by Churchgate in 1956. It was pitched a notch higher than Kwality in style and expensiveness. “It was almost 5 to 6,000 square feet, it had that grandeur,” remembers Sunil. In both cities, it swiftly became the place to be seen for the sophisticated Indian diner, and it was only a short step to the creation of a Gaylord’s in London. The London branch served only the Indian menu, but its huge popular cachet — with visitors ranging from Peter Sellers to Ravi Shankar to George Harrison — soon produced an international Gaylord network, with outposts as far-flung as Trinidad and Kobe. “They didn't want us to invest money — which in those license raj days was impossible anyway. Just the name. And the recipes. And our chefs were sent,” says Sunil.
In Gaylord’s heyday, there weren’t many fine dining options. “So Gaylord was the gathering place for people in politics, business, arts and film, and for family events, the arranging of marriages, and so on. Also, it was a breakfast, lunch, teatime and dinner-time place, plus a nightclub — all bundled up in one,” says Divij, who handles the company’s Bread & More chain of bakeries.
“Nowadays, in the daytime, people probably don’t want to spend more than 300-400 rupees,” Sunil points out. “And there is also this idea of not eating rich food, especially in the day.” The Bake Shop, started about two decades ago, is the attraction for a younger crowd, but innovation in the direction of healthier, cafe-style dishes is essential, even with Gaylord’s loyal customers. “We go through our menu every year, remove nonsellers, and add on new innovative dishes,” says Dhruv, who handles Gaylord Mumbai in conjunction with its longtime Mumbai-based staff – CEO, AN Malhotra and General Manager, Noel D’Souza.
But Gaylord’s list of most popular dishes is still topped by the Butter Chicken (“North Indian food is less easily available in Mumbai than in Delhi; a lot of our Parsi customers come for that,” says Sunil). Continental classics like the Chicken Chasseur (chicken in a demi-glace sauce with mushrooms and green pepper, which happens to be Sunil’s staple order), the Pomfret Meuniere (a fillet of pomfret with lemon butter sauce, which is Divij’s favourite) and the Roast Lamb (serves with mint sauce and potatoes) also retain their loyal customers. Unlike many others of its ilk, Gaylord proudly retains its cream-based sauces (like the Chicken Cecilia), its baked cheese dishes (like the Lobster Thermidor, beloved of the legendary columnist Busybee) and the Chicken a la Kiev — whose delicious sinfulness has meant its unceremonious removal from more timid 21st century menus. Dhruv is currently excited about the 60 Year Nostalgia Menu, with popular favourites from the last six decades, including a Tawa Kheema Kaleji and a Banana Split that takes us right back to the GI era.
“We’re also launching a special 60 year label for Gaylord wine — a tie-up with Fratelli,” Dhruv says. “When the restaurant began in 1956, we didn’t serve liquor. It was only in the 70s that we could get alcohol licenses,” remembers Sunil, who returned from Cornell in 1974 and married his Bombaybred wife soon thereafter. “I didn't know this!” exclaims Divij, who trained as a sommelier alongside an early career in public policy. “Imagine all these people dancing to the Spanish band without alcohol. Conversing over coffee and patties! It’s amazing that an era like that existed.”
The cosmopolitan clientele to which Gaylord originally catered was an Indian elite that had come of age in a colonial moment, plus a generous sprinkling of foreigners who frequented what was then Bombay. “[Gaylord] was always this mix of Indian and Continental. Earlier there was also Chinese on the menu,” says Sunil, whose own youthful tastes ran to East Asian food (and who was later involved with the company’s Chopsticks brand). The restaurant’s Continental menu was meant to recreate colonial club food: in Divij’s words, “what the British would have had in gymkhanas all over India, stuff that reminded them of home, yet adapted to the local cuisine.”
Now, the company’s catering business (overseen by Dhruv) runs the kitchens of several old-style clubs: the Delhi Gymkhana, the Vasant Vihar Club and the naval officers’ clubs. The subcontinent has come full-circle.
Published in Mumbai Mirror, 13 Nov 2016.