Aurora Magazine

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IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES...

Published Apr 05, 2018 10:48am
If confessions from Karachiites in the fifties and sixties are to be believed, food fetishism achieved an all-time high.
This effigy of a rotund chef once greeted the patrons of Mexicano, a continental restaurant located where Zainab Market is situated today. Mexicano was very popular in the sixties and the ‘chef’ was accompanied by a ‘butler’ who welcomed visitors as he held a domed-dish upon a tray, with a certain panache. He rather resembled Cadbury, Richie Rich’s butler. Mexicano closed down after several years. Like Mexicano, many of the restaurants people remember fondly from that era no longer exist. (photo: Arif Mahmood/ Dawn White Star)
This effigy of a rotund chef once greeted the patrons of Mexicano, a continental restaurant located where Zainab Market is situated today. Mexicano was very popular in the sixties and the ‘chef’ was accompanied by a ‘butler’ who welcomed visitors as he held a domed-dish upon a tray, with a certain panache. He rather resembled Cadbury, Richie Rich’s butler. Mexicano closed down after several years. Like Mexicano, many of the restaurants people remember fondly from that era no longer exist. (photo: Arif Mahmood/ Dawn White Star)

It may be the past; but it wasn’t that long ago. Karachi was the capital of a new country and boasted of streets that were washed every night. The city was peaceful, street crime was unheard of, life was gentle and the nightlife vibrant. There were no malls and Saddar was Karachi’s vibrant heart, drawing crowds from across the city. It was to Bohri Bazaar that citizens went to buy fabric and crockery and have their children’s school uniforms made. Bohri Bazaar was famed for its plump jalebis, spicy bhel puri, chaat (at the original Nimco store) and colourful sherbet stalls. Empress Market (a lot cleaner than today and worthy of its name) was the hub for fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and poultry. In the vicinity were several coffee shops, which acted as crowd pullers for the ‘intellectuals’ as well as a few ‘toddy’ shops, establishments which sold low-priced alcoholic drinks.

The Centre Of The Universe

It was Elphinstone Street (now Zaibunissa Street) and referred to affectionately as ‘Elphi’, which was considered to be the ‘centre of the universe’ even before Partition. In addition to shops such as Ghulam Mohammad & Sons, which specialised in men’s clothing and Bliss & Co, the chemists, there were several stores selling imported goods. Of these, English Cold Storage was a favourite; it was there that cold cuts, Swiss liqueur chocolates, cereals, and cheeses, be they of the Danish or Dutch variety, could be sourced. Incidentally, the first cheese to be made in Pakistan was called Amson’s; it was made by Amson’s Dairy and instead of being available at a retail store, one had to go to the owner’s flat located in an impressive stone building, on the corner of Inverarity (now Sarwar Shaheed Road) and Victoria Roads (now Abdullah Haroon Road) to purchase it, where it was packed in paper like butter, which Amson’s also sold.

Give Us Our Daily Bread – And Butter

For people who wanted to buy imported butter, the selection included American brands such as Clearavall or Sylvester; both were available in tins. Otherwise, butter was mostly purchased from small bakeries, such as PF Pereira (housed in a restaurant of the same name and specialised in Goan cuisine) and United Bakery. Another hotspot for freshly-baked bread was the Monastery of Angels on Ingle Road (now M.R. Kiyani Road), where European nuns made and sold fresh loaves at 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. daily. In addition to white bread, they made raisin bread and peanut and almond brittles, all of which would be sold out within hours.

Foodie Trails

Eating out was equally popular then as it is today, although the number of restaurants was limited in number. For desi food, there was the Pioneer Coffee House, which was especially crowded on Sundays and primarily patronised by people who had spent the day at the horse races or at the nearby cinemas. In addition to a vegetable thali on Monday, Pioneer served khichra (a variation of haleem) and dhansak (a Parsi delicacy) and Bombay kulfi and falooda. Then there was Bundu Khan, which was famous for its flaky parathas and succulent kababs and tikkas. Qaiser Hotel, which is still located on Pakistan Chowk, was best known for palak gosht and raan. Although western food was not as popular as it is today, Shezan, one of the first restaurants to be air-conditioned, served chicken sandwiches and later at Shezan Ampis, ‘chicken flying saucers’ made with plenty of green chillies for extra zing. Shezan also made birthday cakes, which were a rarity and only available at a few other places such as Metropole Hotel. The most commonly available cakes were the yellow pound cakes, which are still found at many bakeries today.


“Karachi of the early fifties [was] a city that was safe and peaceful and where nobody ever seemed to be in any kind of hurry. People were also very tolerant, especially in the coffee houses where it was fashionable to hold left wing views and to express anti establishment sentiments. What a pity those lazy, carefree days are gone forever, like picture postcards, yellowed with age, stored in a half forgotten trunk, never to be opened again.”

Anwer Mooraj


The French Connection

Le Gourmet was one of the high-end restaurants of the time. It was located in the Palace Hotel (Mövenpick Hotel today) and specialised in French cuisine and possibly introduced Chateaubriand and Chicken A la Kiev to Karachi; it was also reputed to have the best wine list on offer. Le Gourmet was also one of Karachi’s first nightclubs and introduced cabaret to the city. Here is how Anwer Mooraj, in a chapter of Karachi: Megacity of our times, describes the restaurant: “Le Gourmet had the usual ingredients which made for a successful night club – good food, a well-stocked cellar, wonderful music and a congenial atmosphere. Everybody who was ‘a somebody’ wanted to be seen there. Le Gourmet, however, introduced a new element – cabaret. Besides the usual assortment of heavily rouged Can-Can girls, who threw their long legs into the air while the Italian orchestra played a selection from Orpheus in the Underworld, there were also sophisticated magic shows, experiments in levitation and solo performances by a sensational local classical dancer called Panna.”

The China Factor

In terms of food, the China factor was apparent way before the CPEC. ABC, which was established after World War II, and stood for America, Britain and China, was one of the most popular Chinese restaurants and was predictably located on Elphinstone Street. For less than five rupees (considered pricey in those days), one could dig into a plate of egg fried rice and sweet and sour chicken, as well as noodles and fried prawns in a crisp batter. Another popular Chinese restaurant was the South China Cafe near Paradise Cinema. Here, the flavours were more Cantonese. There was also Canton adjacent to Happy Book Stall on Inverarity Road and Hong Kong on Victoria Road. Soon, Chinese restaurants opened in Tariq Road and included Tung Nan and Yuan Tung, which was initially located near Bunder Road (now M.A. Jinnah Road).

The American Influence

For young people, there were two trendy ‘hangout spots’. Topsy’s, near Rio and Rex cinemas, which served a wide variety of fizzy drinks (soft drinks were not stocked at home in the quantities they are today and going out for a soda was an outing), including Coke, Pepsi, Vimto, Canada Dry and Pakola (available in raspberry, orange and lemon flavours) and a brand called Rogers, which no longer exists. Nearby was the Manhattan Soda Fountain, which specialised in American-style sundaes such as Knickerbocker Glory, Green Goddess, Purple Prince and Hangman’s Blood. The first burger that came to Pakistan, was of the desi variety – Hanifia’s hunter beef burger, accompanied by the sharp mustard sauce that is still relished today. For the longest time, it was the closest thing to a burger people in Karachi could have, and the first outlet in Nursery was jam-packed at all times. The real western style burger was introduced by the InterContinental Hotel in their coffee shop The Demi Tasse. An eight-ounce cheeseburger would set people back five rupees.

Looking Back – With Rose-Tinted Glasses?

Although there is a tendency to look back at the past with rose-tinted glasses, given the vibrant nightlife Karachi was known for in the fifties and sixties, not to mention the multitude of cinemas, coffee shops and restaurants, one cannot help but think that despite the progress that the city has witnessed over the decades, the Karachi of the past was, in many ways, a better place to live in. As Mooraj states: “Karachi of the early fifties [was] a city that was safe and peaceful and where nobody ever seemed to be in any kind of hurry. People were also very tolerant, especially in the coffee houses where it was fashionable to hold left wing views and to express anti establishment sentiments. What a pity those lazy, carefree days are gone forever, like picture postcards, yellowed with age, stored in a half forgotten trunk, never to be opened again.” 

Mamun M. Adil is a leading advertising and communications expert at Aurora. mamun.adil@gmail.com

First published in THE DAWN OF ADVERTISING IN PAKISTAN (1947-2017), a Special Report published by DAWN on March 31, 2018.