Entering Chaakoo Bombay Cafe in Glasgow feels like stepping back in time to the Irani cafes of Mumbai circa 1950. The original bustling Bombay Cafes, or Irani cafes, were run by Persian and Iranian immigrants and visited by people from all walks of life, from students and taxi drivers to doctors and lawyers. Today the cafes may be a dying breed in India with numbers dwindling from 350 in the 1950s to just 25 today but in Scotland this is the first one to open. Chaakoo takes its name from the Hindi word for knife.
The stylish new restaurant from Paul Sloan and Mario Gizzi, the duo behind popular Mexican restaurant Topolabamba, has opened two doors down from its Mexican sister on St Vincent Street. With its detailed and glamorous décor meticulously crafted by IBDP, the interior design company behind Topolabamba’s colourful and funky aesthetic, Chaakoo is a delight for the senses, even before the food hits the table.
Owner Paul Sloan came up with the idea for Chaakoo before Topolabamba but decided to wait until he found the perfect venue. This finally materialised in a magnificent townhouse that reportedly dates back to the late 1800s and formerly housed Irish bar Fáilte. Paul Sloan said, “As a team we have waited so long to bring this venture to Glasgow. It is unique in a way that transposes you back to the Fifties in Bombay with a touch of glamour flung in. Our people are talented, dedicated and in love with the remarkable food and our bar menu that is beyond unique.”
IBDP founder Dominic Paul spearheaded the design for Chaakoo and worked alongside branding company My.creative under Paul Sloan’s guidance. Dominic said the building’s original features were the perfect base for a restaurant inspired by the Irani cafes that thrived in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) during the 1950s. In Glasgow’s glamorous version, customers enter through a set of green swing doors into a seated area, from which you can see the entire length of the 146-cover restaurant, past the bar to a newly installed mezzanine area at the back, created by the project’s main contractor Willow Rose Ltd. Despite the entire refurbishment taking just 12 weeks, Chaakoo feels like it’s been here all along. This is partly down to preserving as many of the building’s original features as possible. Dominic said, “We tried to stay as true to the original Irani cafes as possible. Fortunately we had this beautiful 19th century interior with these decorative ceilings.” A key feature of the Irani cafes was an abundance of mirrors on the walls to make the space seem bigger and create more light.
Dominic said, “We tried to stay as true to the original Irani cafes as possible. Fortunately we had this beautiful 19th century interior with these decorative ceilings.” A key feature of the Irani cafes was an abundance of mirrors on the walls to make the space seem bigger and create more light.
This has been replicated in Chaakoo, where the walls are lined with mirrors framed in dark wood panelling. Explains Dominic, “The first four mirrors on the front left-hand wall are the originals from Fáilte. We thought those were fantastic as they were in the spirit of the Bombay cafes so we replicated them throughout. The walls themselves are actually what used to be the old Irish newspaper pages that once covered the walls in Fáilte so all we did was paint over them to give it a rustic plaster look.”
A section of single tables extends from the front-facing windows to the bar, with banquette seating on one side and pendant ribbed white light fittings hanging above. To the right are a number of larger booths that face the bar. All the booth seating is upholstered by Ian Graham Upholstery in an aged brown leather sourced from International Leather Products Ltd, which adds to the vintage feel, as does the dark green paint used on the walls and four original pillars in the front section. More authentic nods to the old Irani cafes are the tables tops in white Carrara marble with brass surrounds and a mix of Rattan and Bentwood bistro chairs used throughout. Pairs of large white glass orbs set on black metal sconces (wall brackets) line the walls, and more hang above the bar on long chains, blending well with the 1950s style. “We managed to source these fantastic light fittings that are original retro cafe style lighting from the 1940s/50s and that was really effective,” said Dominic.
While the original flooring was in too poor a condition to be restored, Dominic used it as his inspiration and has replicated the herringbone wood flooring using reclaimed French oak, which sits alongside a repeating pattern of square cream ceramic tiles with olive green and grey frames. The large bar is made of dark wood, a metal pipe gantry with brass detailing at the front, more dark wood cabinets and mirrors behind, and a luxurious white marble top.
The bar is laden with old glass bottles with brown paper labels hanging from their necks giving the only clue to the spirits inside, such as whisky from Amrut Distillery in Bangalore, India. A selection of Indian beers is served from a line of large, brass taps. Beyond the bar lies the new mezzanine which seats 34 diners. The large staircase leading up to it in the centre of the floor makes this section a commanding design feature in itself and draws the eye up to a long triangular skylight, which the design team was thrilled to uncover. “It was actually completely painted over so we restored it to let the natural light pour in,” said Dominic.
The original ceiling, with its ornate cornicing, has also been restored to its formerly glory and painted white. Below the mezzanine section is more seating that extends behind the stairs and includes more comfortable booths along the left wall, partitioned by glass and mirrors to create an ‘infinity mirror’ effect. Right of the stairs lies a “Quiet” section of two booths which can be closed off, mirroring sections in the old Irani Mumbai cafes reserved for ‘upper-class’ patrons. Another nice feature is the countless framed posters, prints and black and white photos placed around the ground floor and mezzanine. Most are originals from the era imported from India. The photos depict several Irani cafes of Mumbai from the 1950s, their staff, and customers.
The walls of the staircase leading to the downstairs ‘wash rooms’ (which have the old high-level chain flush toilets in keeping with the theme) are lined with colourful American and Indian film posters. Dominic explained, “These were again traditional features in these old Irani cafes. Look at old photos of them and they seem to have pictures of patrons and maybe their families, along with Americana and Indian movie posters, so this pays homage to that.”
Chaakoo also retains a slight Glasgow edge thanks to its tongue-in-cheek take on some of the original features of the Mumbai cafes. Large blackboards placed along the walls list the numerous rules that would have been laid out in the old cafes, but with the addition of “No Tantrums”, “No Flirting with Customers” and “All Chai is Strictly Without Opium”. Signs written in a Hindi typeface on smaller blackboards hanging beside the mirrored walls are designed to make Chaakoo’s clientelle do a double-take.
Dominic explained, “The writing is reversed so you can read it properly in the mirror. We’re basically playing around with people’s minds so they might think they understand Hindi after a few cocktails. It’s not intended as offensive but as a fun joke that infuses old Mumbai with your typical Glasgow humour.” It’s that effortless fusion of classic India with a modern Glasgow vibe that promises to make Chaakoo Bombay Cafe a success.