The millennial population seems to have taken the 80s as an inspirational era, thanks to Netflix and several major recent Hollywood movies. And one recurring prop from 80s America that has caught the young imagination is the trend of diners. One serving counter with some booths in a greasy, dimly lit restaurant serves as a perfect backdrop for a heist plan or a cheap date. But before the advent of the internet or even the 80s, these diners have been present in Calcutta, some for about 150 years, and they go by the term ‘cabin’, pronounced ‘Kay-Been’ in colloquial Bengali. These cabins are usually smaller booths in a restaurant separated by a wooden panel or mostly, curtains. Naturally, such a private seating area attracted secret dates, extra-marital rendezvous sessions, and long
addas, or so we may think. Long before the fine dining scene
The cabin culture in Kolkata was a thriving business within low-hanging ceilings and greasy walls. They flourished during the 60s and 70s, with hot-blooded communists and Naxals frequenting the booths. Kathi rolls and mutton chops kept coming, as the tables banged and smokes piped out of cigarettes. The cabins witnessed many secret meetings, anti-establishment organisational gatherings, and freedom fighters laying out heist plans. The men and women enjoyed their fruitful discussions and their deep-fried and delectable
dimer devil with kasundi. Many cabin restaurants in Kolkata were also used as a backdrop for romantic dates in old Bengali movies.
Strangely, these cabins in Kolkata were actually set up with a view to promote family dining in an urban space, at a time when women were not seen or imagined to be dining outside the home. The use of the booth structure, separated by wooden panels and curtains gave the woman privacy to be hidden from prying eyes and to enjoy fast food with their families, a concept so far grasped only by the middle-class working male. The modern women also came with their friends, and some with their beau, held hands and shared a private romantic afternoon with fried food, away from meddling conservatives. It could be accurately pointed out that these Calcutta cabins gave birth to the concept of fine dining in the city.
Popular haunts of popular figures
Cabin restaurants in Kolkata gave birth to many poets, authors, and freedom fighters. Calcutta, a city synonymous with the love for food and literature, has seen its cabin restaurants make lovers turn into poets, students turn into revolutionaries and artists into visionaries – all over some lip-smacking cutlet and
moglai porota. The erstwhile 70-year-old South Hall restaurant was renamed Bonophool after the great writer Bolai Chand Mukhopadhyay’s celebrated penname, who used to frequent the cabin. Favourite Cabin in College Street is a tea and toast shop that was once a literal favourite of the revolutionary Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, often seen with his friend Netaji Shubas Chandra Bose. Evolution
Apart from classic Bengali fried snacks, these cabins have now included a more all-inclusive menu to serve the modern crowd. From Chinese fast-food items like dry chilly chicken and chowmein to pav bhaaji and chhole bhature, the cabins are trying their best to sustain in Kolkata’s highly competitive inexpensive food market.
By the 80s, a lot of the cabin restaurants had gotten rid of their partitions, but kept the names intact. These cabins now refer to greasy pots of a bygone era serving old-school Bengali snacks such as fish chop, fish fingers and mutton cutlet. These inexpensive cabins, mostly operating in North Kolkata, can be seen as keepsakes from the last century that serve as a testament to many revolutions – social, political, and artistic.
A dying trend dipped in nostalgia
These cabin restaurants in recent times are doing away with their booths/cabins and are resorting to the takeaway culture. The 117-year-old Dilkhusa Cabin near College Street, a hub of fried food and ideas for students, closed its cabins some years ago. Once frequented by superstar Uttam Kumar and singer Manna Dey for its ever-popular
kobiraaji, Dilkhusa decided to turn the private booths into open seating options due to “indecent activities”.
A culinary trend that is almost dying out, these cabin restaurants usually had surprisingly great food, which explains the long-standing, loyal customers buzzing in and out of the cabins on a regular basis even today. Most of these men and women still come here for good food in a great price, and they never pay attention to the sophistication or comfort, since they rely in the comfort of company. The popularity of the cabins in the modern age rests on the taste of food alone. Nostalgia plays a big role, no doubt. But, deep-fried food served on porcelain dishes, with a side of
kasundi, ketchup with some sliced cucumber and beets, tastes glorious. This is why even today, many Bengali movie stars, directors, revered artists, and authors can be spotted at some of these cabins. The best of the lot
If you find yourself roaming the streets of North Kolkata, which is the northern part of the city, make sure to let go of your fancy inhibitions and pay a visit to some of the best cabins in the city. The 80-year-old Sanguvalley, famous for its Afghani Chicken or the 100-year-old Niranjan Agar, renowned for its special jumbo vegetable chop and devils made of duck eggs are special mentions. The heritage ones are the 94-year-old Anandi Cabin, a must-visit for their epic mughlai porota, and 125-year-old Allen Kitchen, famous for their batter-fried prawn cutlet. Basanta Cabin and Mitra Café are also popular joints, celebrated for their mughlai porotas and g
ondhoraj lime chicken pakoras respectively.
Stripped of anything that may appear posh, the very look and feel of the cabins in Kolkata may repel a lot of faithful dieters, but the very USP of these cabins is their sinful cutlets and the delectable