Cafe Culture & the City

The Country House, on Allenby Road, is 115 years old. It was originally a residential building — with two bedrooms, French windows and high ceilings — inspired by Edwardian architecture, says its owner, Vikas Chowdhury, who admits it was love at first sight (for him). Now, it is one of the many cafes in the Elgin Road-Lansdowne Road belt, drawing millennials and Gen Zs who, somehow, do not look out of place in the Edwardian architecture.

Kewpie’s, deeper inside Bhowanipore and housed in a striking green-and-red building, started off as a cafe 25 years ago. The building, however, predates the establishment it houses by 125 years. Owner Deep Chakraborty’s family came to own the property 90 years ago. “The architecture represents a mix of Bengali and European motifs, the pillars giving structural support are of European descent but the arches and curvature of the walls are distinctly Swadeshi,” Chakraborty says, adding that the property even had an angan, which was covered up to extend the eating area.

Chowdhury and Chakraborty are part of a growing young demographic of cafe and eatery owners trying to blend Calcutta’s colonial history with young Kolkata’s aspirational lifestyle. The buildings draw on the city’s rich history and architecture and use them as props to draw in ever more youthful crowds, many of whom savour the “experience” as much as the caffeine served in tasteful mugs and cups.

Evening joggers and pedestrians of south Kolkata are well familiar with the sparkling cafes glimmering across lanes and bylanes with a nostalgic concoction of pop and rock songs of the last decade, lively chatter and the aroma of coffee beans. Beyond just the southern part of the city, the whole of Kolkata is rapidly joining the ranks of cities with a diverse cafe scene. One thing that distinguishes Kolkata’s cafe culture from other Indian cities is the restoration of heritage buildings as cafes. The blend of a century-old architecture with contemporary-themed decor and youthful banter makes Kolkata’s cafe culture unlike any other. The further south one travels, cafes begin to line the streets and alleys with increasing frequency.

Since just before the pandemic, hundreds of cafes came up in Southern Avenue and Deshapriyo Park. The majority are built into relatively smaller spaces, like occupying the first floor of a heritage home. A case in point is Bunaphile, running for two years at the ground floor of the historic home of late writer and academic Nabaneeta Dev Sen. The cafe serves the vintage look of any heritage home, with oldworld windows and high ceilings, packaged into just over a 1,000 square feet area. For over a decade, heritage buildings-turned-cafes has been a predominantly south Kolkata enterprise, until the northern part of the city started catching up with a vengeance thanks to social media vloggers sharing glimps- es of cafes serving a distinct north Kolkata aesthetic. One example is Baithak Khana, nestled in a lane near College Street. It features a large bed and cushions which occupy almost half the room, in what appears to be an ode to traditional Bengali adda. The property is over 350 years old. The family-run cafe hosts an array of inexpensive finger snacks suited to the budget and tastes of college students. “This home was once owned by Reverend Krishna Mohan Bandhopadhyay, a member of the Young Bengal Group, a movement of free thinkers from Presidency College, then Hindu College. They would hold meetings in this very room along with historic figures like Derozio,” said Banibrata Nath Khan. His sister Archita added, “The relationship we share with our visitors is heart-warming, the atmosphere is very casual and we treat each other like family. ”

Deep inside a residential lane in Hatibagan, one can find a property with wall art painted in acrylic hues of yellow and blue reminiscent of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’. “The Rowak’s” is painted across one corner of the wall in a playful font. The cafe’s name plays into the distinct cornerstone of north Kolkata architecture. Rowak (pronounced ‘rock’ in Bengali) is not unlike the wraparound verandas encompassing heritage Kolkata residences and temple architecture. Its purpose is simple: an outer space for adda. Its owner, Arnik Basak, has become viral on social media because of the uniqueness of his cafe. Located on the porch of his ancestral home, Basak started the cafe to encourage adda and to create awareness on the fading architectural heritage of the “rowaks”.

With more and more heritage buildings being lost or repurposed every year with no trace of their original form or history, arguably some of the biggest contributors to holding on to memories of heritage architecture and hundreds of years of family histories are Kolkata’s cafes restored from these buildings. Teleporting new generations of visitors to at least a hundred years before their birth, the cafes unite a growing community of youngsters who get a chance to experience a zeitgeist of a historic adda culture from past eras of the city.

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