The teeming bazaars of the old city, in the midst of which stands the 400-year-old Charminar, the restaurants, modern shopping complexes and ultra-modern malls in the newer areas of the city add to the charm of Hyderabad. The Golconda Fort, capital of the kingdom by that name, is today very much part of the city, as is Cyberabad (means Cyber City), a new local area created to keep pace with the zooming Information Technology & Tourism sector.

Chairs that creak the moment you sit on them, marble-top tables that look smudgier after someone has cleaned them, plywood walls and mirrored interiors, may not be everybody ’s cup of tea, but to all of us who have spent many evenings brooding over a broken love affair, how Sachin scored a hundred, or the latest Chiranjeevi flick for your review, while the ever solicitous agent offeres you cups of thick milky tea and a plate full of Osmania biscuits, there is quite no place like the Hyderabadi irani restaurants (Alpha Cafe, Blue Sea, Niagara, Shaam, Madina, Zam Zam, Rush-In to name a few). The new bred of kids, and those of the liberalised era may wriggle their noses at the Irani restaurant, not even daring to enter one, but to the hardcore Hyderabadi the Taj Krishna, and the Banjara may be alright for a bit of space and status, but when he wants to get his teeth into real Hyderabadi Biryani, Mirchi and tamatar cut, it is to Bawarchi, Madina or Garden he will take his secondhand car to. Really, where else can you scream at the top of your voice, and stub your cigarette into a saucer, without someone raising a quizzical eyebrow at you?

As far as Irani restaurants go, Hyderabad is on par with Mumbai in their numbers and popularity, and is as peculiar to the city as its kaiko, nakko and parson lingo. Mumbai, is of course the home of all Irani restaurants, the first Iranians having migrated there, and only later some of the families moving into Hyderabad. The Irani chai of Hyderabad is famous the world over (how many so-called software professionals, NRIs worl over, thirst for this sweet tea from the Alpha and Blue Sea even today). But by establishing these restaurants, the Iranis were only popularising a beverage brought into the country by the British. Parisian cafes may have been the intellectual hub where Freud, John Hopkins, Nixon’s Plocy can be debated, but Irani cafes in Hyderabad are no less. Marxism, Madhuri Dixit, Chiranjeevi and Telanagana have all been dissected and demolished here, never mind, if the frequenters all went on to IITs, IIMs, the Stanfords, the Yales, and plush jobs as investment bankers after that.

Whatever the number, each one has his favourite though minor battles that have been fought over the relative merits of chai served in Alpha, Blue Sea, Niagara, Sham and Madina as against Zam Zam and Rush-In. All Irani restaurants have their peculiarities. Girls rarely visit them, there is no music, and always a broken cup for tea, and murky, oiled glass tumblers for water. The chai is always sweetish and for some reason, only Assam tea leaves are used. To get people addicted to the tea served here, something called Hafim tea with opium seeds was served in the beginning of the Irani era (around 1940s) but it is no longer available now.

For an outsider interested in getting a slice of the Hyderabadi way of life including the allah-jaane-kaunsa-tel-main-pakaa Hyderabadi Biryani, Madina near Charminar, is one of the oldest and best examples. It was opened in 1947, and was situated on the premises of the Alladin Wakf. At one time, when Hyderabad was richer than Saudi Arabia (the oil still not having been discovered there), the proceeds used to go to Saudi to help poor Muslims there! There is a place called Advocates Hall in there, frequented by Advocates from the close-by High Court. The place still proudly displays a photo of Osman Ali Khan, the Seventh Nizam of Hyderabad. Closely followed by the recent fads at Paradise at Paradise, which was an erstwhile cinema hall, Bawarchi and Astoria at Golconda Chaurasta, Bahaar at Himayat Nagar and Ameerpet, to name a few. Another old place is Cosmopolitan in Narayanguda and Olympia in Abids.

Irani hotels are not just what they used to be. At one time, no one was allowed to even touch the food which was being prepared in the kitchen except the ustad, the expert cook. And usually the owners took what was left of the food.

Originally all Irani restaurants in Hyderabad used to have their own bakeries attached to them that produced those wonderful specialities which are still popular like the famous Osmania biscuits, so named after the Nizam, Osman Ali Pasha or the tie biscuits, literally so called because they are in the shape of bow tie, fine biscuits large and flat and studded with sugar, and of course, the ever popular, chotte samosa, the basic filling of which is made of onions.
Now most of these items are supplied from outside, and Irani hotels no longer have their own bakeries. Another old cafe is the Bombay Bakery at Gunfoundry which has the distinction of being patronised by the likes of the painter, M F Husain and actor, Suresh Oberoi. The tandoori rotis are famous all over the city. The Iranian Consulate often places orders for them. In fact a traditional Irani breakfast of paneer and roti is always in great demand for the old timers.
The place to go for a good Hyderabad Biryani is Shadab opposite Madina. Shadab is one of those Irani restaurants, like Paradise, which has opened a fancy new restaurant above the original hotel where you can dine in air-conditioned comfort. But for this you have to forego the heat and ambience of Irani cafe (an amateur astrologer predicting the future and always the hum of conversation at the back). One Irani hotel that has retained its original interiors is Grand in Abids, with mirrors on the walls, woodwork and traditional furniture. For a large bustling hotel there is Garden in Secunderabad which probably sells more tea than any other hotel in the twin cities, or Embassy which occupies a strategic location on the Basheerbagh crossing or Alpha in Secunderabad opened in 1950.
Apart from the original Irani restaurant there are the Deccani hotels which are similar in every way to the Iranis, but for the fact they have been started by local Hyderabadis. One such cafe is the Rainbow on Abids, started 20 years ago which is the only hotel outside the Old City which serves haleem, a traditional Hyderabadi dish made of ground wheat and mutton, throughout the year, and not just during Ramzan when it is traditionally eaten. Haleem takes at least three hours to prepare. The cooking starts at around 11 a m and its almost 2 p m before its ready. Like many things that are vanishing in Hyderabad, the Irani hotels too are being demolished or their place taken by new style of C grade restaurants which have tiled or marble floors and dining style long benches, instead of the old cane chairs called, obscurely for some reason, “welcome chairs, ” probably as a tribute to the easy and laid back pace of life that Hyderabad was once famous for.
But those were the balmy days of growing up in Hyderabad, when unlike the young of today you didn’t have to rush from computer to Eamcet to GRE classes, and you had all the time in the world to brood over the meaning of life in an Irani restaurant, even while an overzealous waiter swept cigarette butts and biscuit crumbs all over your trouser leg. And if the die hards were to confess that some of the happiest moments of life were in these Irani restaurants it would be a hard thing to comprehend for someone who has not lived the life of the Irani restaurant in Hyderabad!