In London, Indian curry houses are about as ubiquitous as double-decker buses and royal wedding tea towels.
So when a team of restaurateurs called on London-based designer Afroditi Krassa to help them develop Dishoom, an unconventional Indian eatery, all parties agreed to ban any and all curry house clichés — from “’70s flocked wallpaper to pink tablecloths.”
The group “decided to throw out the book and start from scratch,” Krassa says.
Instead, the design inspiration for the popular Covent Garden eatery became the Bombay cafés that founders Shamil and Kavi Thakrar and Adarsh and Amar Radia recall with nostalgic fondness.
“We wanted to introduce Londoners to something very real,” Kavi Thakrar says.
The open-all-day cafés, introduced by Persian immigrants, reached their peak in the 1960s when an estimated 400 dotted Bombay (now known as Mumbai). Now fewer than 30 remain, made obsolete by Western cultural influences and left with no one to run them as their immigrant owners’ progeny have gone on to become doctors, lawyers and accountants.
During their heyday, the beloved gathering spots attracted affluent businessmen, working stiffs, poor university students, romantic couples, families and others.
“They were very democratic spaces,” Thakrar says. “These places were open for everybody to come.”
And the group wanted to bring this easygoing, democratic sensibility to Dishoom (Bollywood-speak for “ka-pow!”), which opened in July 2010.
Krassa traveled to Mumbai with the Dishoom team to intensively study the look and feel of the Bombay cafés, which she describes as “an Indian version of a European café.”
The eateries had elements associated with classic Parisian and Viennese cafés: decorative dark wood paneling; stained mirrors; brass railings; bentwood chairs and patterned tile floors. But they also featured “a crazy mixture of things,” from exposed wiring and cables hanging from the ceiling — widespread use of electricity came late to Bombay — to a hodgepodge of photos on the wall, Krassa says.
“You’d have a picture of the mother and father of the owner behind the till, blessing it, next to a famous body builder, next to a god or goddess.”
Krassa took what she saw and put her own spin on it as she mapped out a masculine yet playful, two-level space in a recently rehabbed building.
Although wood flooring is not generally associated with Bombay cafés, Krassa used rough-hewn oak planking — along with more traditional ceramic floor tiles — to add warmth to the 140-seat eatery. And although she chose a classic white, black and gray cube tile pattern, she greatly enlarged its scale.
“We blew it up, and made it bold and graphical in design,” Krassa says.
The tiles also dramatically front the base of the restaurant’s big and busy open first-floor kitchen. Above the kitchen, among a row of wood-framed mirrors, Krassa popped in a meticulous replica of the iconic clock from Bombay’s Victoria train station.
The designer interspersed rich wood paneling on the walls with painted bricks, which “prevent [the room] from looking far too stiff and serious.”
The cafés also “feel very humble,” and the simple bricks are a nod to that humility, says Krassa, who painted them a pretty pale blue. The muted color — which is a wink to the sun-faded hues Krassa noted during her time in India — is one of just a few gentle color pops in the otherwise monochromatic café.
Also keeping the room from becoming overly serious are a 200-piece collection of vintage Indian magazine and album covers, advertisements, product packaging, family photographs (some belonging to the owners themselves), and more.
“There’s something very fun and happy about them,” says Krassa, who scanned and manipulated each piece to create an overall evenness in color and tone.
Unlike in true Bombay cafés, the lighthearted artifacts — which fill the eatery’s walls and also line the staircase that leads to the lower-level bar and dining room — were thoughtfully and carefully positioned around the space.
Krassa was looser when it came to lighting, as she attempted to capture “the really awkwardly done” setups she saw during her Mumbai trip.
“It’s all really ad hoc and bizarre,” Krassa says. So dangling from the high ceiling of Dishoom’s upstairs dining room are a striking cavalcade of Indian-inspired glass and brass pendants strung at varying heights from draped electrical cords.
The fixtures hang over an assortment of marble-topped dining tables, mix-and-match bentwood café chairs and classic and “gentlemanly-looking” button-tufted upholstered booths.
The lights are also interspersed with slow-moving fans that were rigged so they rotate without actually moving air.
Krassa used the fans “to convey the idea of heat in a country like England that is cold and wet most of the time.”
Although the designer was unable to incorporate wacky lighting or fans in the low-ceilinged lower dining room, she took several steps to tie the upstairs and downstairs areas together and add visual interest to the basement space.
Krassa used many of the same elements from upstairs — such as the dining tables and chairs — but added other unique features to make the lower level equally inviting.
These include a lovely wood-based, marble-topped bar, metal “trellis” partition screens that create a dining space within the downstairs dining space and funky semi-private booths.
The booths, which were built in existing cellar alcoves, are linked together by undulating seating that snakes around from niche to niche.
Diners sitting in the charming booths can have a sense of privacy without “becoming islolated,” Krassa says. “It’s a cool feature.”
And just one of many that give Dishoom its ka-pow!
12 Upper St. Martin’s Lane
London, WC2H 9FB, England