Since food is closely intertwined with memory, Nirula’s was an integral part of our childhood. Growing up in Delhi, it formed a happy triumvirate with the old Moti Mahal in Daryaganj and Karim’s in Purani Dilli for most occasions that called for eating out. I remember being awed by the glitzy ladies who sang on special nights at Moti Mahal and would watch in rapt attention, the man in the impeccably white clothes, dole out mathematically precise portions of qorma from a huge degh at Karim’s.
Nirula’s, from the time it opened in Connaught Place (CP) in 1977, stole a march on these old family favourites for the sheer range of its offerings, the novelty of its menu and the cheerful uncluttered ambience of its restaurants.
Nirula’s: Paradise for the Middle Class
Being closer from our home in Nizamuddin East, the flagship store in CP soon became the go-to option for spontaneous family outings or hanging out with friends. And if it was a special occasion or if a visiting uncle was picking up the tab, we would go to the posher version “Pot Pourri” nearby.
The concept of a salad bar being still somewhat of a novelty, and the place being way more expensive than its more middle-class sibling, Pot Pourri remained largely beyond the ken.
Also, in an India that was surely but steadily leaving behind its Nehruvian idealism and its “Waste Not Want Not” philosophy while we no longer lived frugally, most middle-class families such as ours still believed in living within our means. Fortunately, an occasional outing at Nirula’s fell well within that category.
A Wide Range of Offerings
The burgers, shakes, pizzas, sundaes, sodas, hot dogs transposed us to scenes we had only seen in the Archie’s comics we devoured with great gusto. In fact, such was my fondness for Nirula’s burgers and such indeed, was my appetite for them, that college friends called me 'Lady Jughead!'
It wasn’t till many years that we wrapped our head around the idea of lamb or mutton patties in the ‘hamburgers’ and a chicken sausage in the ‘hot dog’ doused generously though it was with carmelised onions and a generous dribble of the pungent, nose-tickling house mustard. And, no, we never thought of flinching at the cutesie spelling of 'Hot Shoppe' taking everything about this pioneering eatery in our stride.
Serve It Hot or Cold!
And then there were the ice-creams… such a change from the rusty, roadside ice-cream vans and grumpy ice cream vendors who glared if you took too long to make up your mind. At Nirula’s, they let you choose (from what then seemed an incredibly vast selection) and even had little plastic spoons for tastings. And the names that were a far cry from the staid Kwality and Walls of our closed economy: Nutty Buddy, Jamaica Almond, Gulabo, Manhattan Mania, Delhi Delight, 21 Love, Rum n Raisin, to name just a few.
And then there were the two iconic ice creams reserved for truly special occasions: the Hot Chocolate Fudge (HCF) which was essentially vanilla ice cream topped with a gooey chocolate sauce and some roasted nuts; and the All-American Banana Split which I personally couldn’t ever understand comprising as it did of three scoops each of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, topped with a banana that had been split lengthwise (hence the name) and topped, literally and metaphorically, with a cherry on top!
Bringing Diversity in a Plate
But more than introducing tentative Indian palates of a pre-liberalisation India to western style fast food, Nirula’s scored over other stand-alone restaurants in the Delhi of the late 1970s.
There was something for every taste — South Indian Dosas, Thaali meals, mutton chops. For many Delhi families this was their first introduction to masala dosas and a fine one at that. The crispy dosa was slightly smeared with butter, giving it a nice sheen and the sambhar and chutneys were as authentic as they can be in fast food outlets.
The fact that Nirula’s survived the onslaught of big international players is a measure of its understanding of its core market and its steadfast commitment to staying true to the core values the chain came to epitomise.
DIY Approach, Free Sundaes Were Top Attractions
Nirula’s was also a pioneer in introducing Delhi to the concept of self-service, causing occasionally unintentional hilarity. While we would dutifully bring our own food, queuing patiently at the counter, older patrons found the idea of ‘no-waiter restaurants’ novel, to say the least. I remember Amma, our grandmother, signaling to a man in a white shirt and black trousers mistaking him for a serving attendant.
Nirula’s was way ahead of the curve in many ways--Introducing free sundae to any student who scored over 90% marks (regrettably, I cannot say I have ever claimed this), bakery items and later preserves, and the small details such as long-handled spoons to scoop out the good stuff from the bottom of your sundaes!
With time as more branches mushroomed across the city and CP became steadily more congested, other outlets soon became our favourites. The one at Chankyapuri had the added attraction of a movie followed by some serious bingeing at Nirula’s. Then there was the one at Defence Colony and later New Friends Colony.
In an oddly comforting sort of way, Nirula’s kept pace as I moved houses and changed addresses. There was always a Nirula’s to go to usually a short walk or drive away: comforting, familiar and cheerful. In a world of falling standards, Nirula’s spelt consistency, reliability and affordability.
Rest in Peace Mr Deepak Nirula for giving us what we most needed in the India of the 70s! And for a HCF that still tastes as fabulous to my middle-aged jaded palate as it did all those years ago!!
(Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)