Older than India: How Delhi’s United Coffee House became a Part of India’s Freedom Story
Once the favourite European-style jaunt of Delhi’s elite, UCH strives to uphold the legacy.
It's a pleasant monsoon afternoon, on the lawns of India Gate, a gentle breeze blowing. A bunch of uniformed stewards are setting down tables and chairs, laying out plates and cutlery under temporary canopies. They are readying the food and beverages they have brought along with them in picnic baskets under the watchful eyes of a middle-aged man. By the lunch hour, guests, both Indians and a few Europeans arrive in their stylish cars. The cars itself are a statement since the tree-lined roads of Delhi hardly see any cars, and passers-by peek to spot the elite. The guests are greeted, everybody wishes each other "Happy Independence Day" and the party begins!
Sounds like a scene out of a period drama? Nah. This is exactly how the founder of Delhi's iconic restaurant cafe, United Coffee House, celebrated the day of freedom, August 15, at the annual Independence Day party for his family and friends, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Those leisurely parties were just an extension of what Connaught Place's iconic United Coffee House once began as, and was known for, in its first two decades of existence says Akash Kalra, the grandson of Lala Hansraj Kalra, who hosted the parties.
Although the practice didn't last many years; as the population of Delhi grew, more and more people would land up on the lawns of India Gate on August 15, to celebrate with their families, fly kites and spread out their picnic baskets, United Coffee House held on to its legacy.
The story of how United Coffee House came to be is equally interesting. Back in the early 1940s, Lala Hansraj had a flourishing business spanning Delhi and Lahore (now in Pakistan). Connaught Place (CP), with the idea of making it into the prominent central business district of Lutyens' Delhi, had just been thrown open to the public after its construction by the British Government in 1933. European and influential Indians were invited to open their offices and businesses, cafes and restaurants and Lala Hansraj saw an opportunity to expand into the hospitality industry.
Building upon the idea of a coffee house that was a melting pot for the intelligentsia and influencers of cities like Calcutta and Bombay in pre-Independence India, and which in turn were heavily influenced by the streetside café & bar culture prevalent in Britain, Lala Hansraj opened Delhi’s first café, United Coffe House or UCH as it is popularly known among Delhiites today.
To ensure that the crème-de-la-crème made United Coffee House their popular hangout place, Lala Hansraj personally ensured all the necessary elements were in place at his cafe. Starting with its cavernous interiors under a high ceiling, complete with a balconied-mezzanine floor, one could find a small yet interesting menu catering to both European and Delhi's Indian elites—good, strong coffee and English-style cutlets and sandwiches; a laidback ambience with slow-paced, understated and unobtrusive service by bearers—everything a guest needed to relax, and return.
Soon United Coffee House came to be known for its regular weekly gatherings where a fascinating crowd of English and Indian bureaucrats, journalists and authors, artists, poets and political leaders; essentially the city’s fashionable elite, congregated to dine and to linger over meaningful conversations over endless cups of fine coffee served by United Coffee House.
Akash Kalra says that from 1945 into 1947 and beyond, United Coffee House was the most popular rendezvous point, where people would congregate for discussions of all kinds. The politics of a nation about to be born, and then of its struggle at birth; the changing cultural landscape for the writers and poets, a platform for exchange of ideas, for new entrepreneurial collaborations in a city of freshly displaced people from Pakistan, United Coffee House took everyone under its wings.
Ever since Independence, each year on August 15, United Coffee House was the choice for a celebratory lunch for the who's who of Delhi. Located in the heart of CP, UCH was the choice for well-to-do families to walk in for a celebratory treat after visiting nearby movie halls like Regal and Rivoli, or having been part of the public celebrations in the the then central park of CP.
Akash talks about the 1960s, an era when United Coffee House evolved into much more than just a rendezvous for the 'social and financial elite'.
Post-partition, after the dust had begun to settle, CP was geographically at the centre of the Delhi residential colonies and places like United Coffee House began to have an 'aspirational value' for the new arrivals of the city, says Akash, as he recalls the journey through the 1960s, when UCH evolved into more than just a place for the elites to rendezvous. As the social fibre of the city changed, the food evolved too. People from all walks of life began visiting the cafe to celebrate special occasions, and the menu evolved with the times.
The pride in his voice is distinctly evident when Akash tells us about customers in their late 60s and 70s, who walk in with their grandchildren and share stories of how they had saved up for their first date or anniversaries at United Coffee House. It’s when you realise how this establishment has been part of the journeys of old and young Dilliwalas, for over seven decades.
Akash admits that in today's competitive culinary landscape—fast food and concept-restaurants—there is a lot of pressure on United Coffee House to change the menu or the unhurried pace and unobtrusive service that has been a hallmark of United Coffee House. While the outlet at CP remains largely untouched, they’ve now branched out with a new and swankier brand—UCH Rewind—that keeps the ethos of the original United Coffee House alive but is located in the more upswing locations of Delhi NCR. They’re present in restaurant districts in Punjabi Bagh in West Delhi, Noida and Gurgaon’s swanky Cyber Hub.
Yet, Akash, who calls himself the 'custodian' of his grandfather's vision and the United Coffee House legacy, says that they don't have to change to remain popular. There are enough and more of us Dilliwalas who still yearn for the Delhi of yore—the city that now exists only in sepia-tinted photographs and coffee table books, and a little part of which also breathes here, at United Coffee House.
Images courtesy United Coffee House/ Ramit Mitra
Ramit Mitra is co-founder, chief-explorer and lead walker of Delhi By Foot, a community of Dilliwalas who have been sharing stories of this ancient city with educational institutes and curious individuals.
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