Kolkata’s iconic Coffee House no longer serves those with an appetite for long addas

At the iconic Indian Coffee House on Kolkata’s College Street — the birthplace of several political, literary, and cinema movements in Bengal — some things have changed and some things haven’t.

For example, what’s not changed is the number of people sitting there with coffee and fish fry; what has changed is that it is not the same set of people sitting there for hours, as they did once upon a time.

These days, most customers, pressed for time, come for a quick bite and make way for new arrivals. The change serves both the customers who get to bask in the glow of history while eating modestly-priced snacks, and the Coffee House gets more paying customers, rather than the people who endlessly lingered on over just a cup of coffee.

Brisk business

As a result, the institution, which was established in 1876 and whose future looked uncertain only about 15 years ago, is now seeing better days. Not only has it increased its seating capacity in the historic College Street building, it is also set to open a branch in Berhampore, its first outside Kolkata. The inauguration will take place on Poila Boisakh, which falls in mid-April.

“Things are certainly better. Earlier, on the lower floor, we had 44 tables and now we have 52. The upper floor had 37 tables and now has 42. All this has happened in the last two years. But in terms of the Coffee House culture, nothing much has changed — only the generation has changed,” said Mohammad Javed, the present chairman of the Indian Coffee Workers’ Cooperative Society Limited, which runs the place. This is his second term — each term runs for five years — as chairman, a role he was given after spending 35 years as a waiter.

Changing culture

“Even the work culture has changed,” interrupted a staff member, who did not want to be named. “There are more young people running the show. We no longer encourage customers to linger with just a cup of coffee. If you want to spend time here, you need to place orders. You cannot endlessly occupy a table just to have adda,” he said.

Such firmness was hardly visible even a decade ago; in a Kolkata that is now heritage-conscious, even the Coffee House, with its liveried waiters, has possibly begun to realise its worth and is not very inclined to serve as a venue for long addas (discussions) over just black coffee that cost only ₹20 a cup. Also, with social media firming up its grip on society, physical adda sessions are themselves on the decline.

“During my college days, the early 1980s, there were times when we would spend the entire day here. Literally the entire day. I have seen them all sitting here — Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Shakti Chattopadhyay,” said Asim Kumar Chakrabarti, a retired bank employee who still periodically visits the Coffee House with old friends to relive their college days.

‘No time to waste’

“Yes, the place is no longer as noisy as before, and they don’t smoke here like before,” Mr. Chakrabarti said. Even though smoking is legally barred, customers still have the liberty to light up here because the management — perhaps for old time’s sake — turns a blind eye to the practice.

Qabool, a waiter who has spent over three decades at the Coffee House, said he is busier than ever as the constant stream of customers keeps him on his toes. “People hardly have the time these days. They come, eat and leave. They have no time to waste,” he said.

When asked about his most memorable phase at the institution where he spent over 40 years, once as a waiter and now as the chairman of the cooperative society that runs it, Mohammad Javed said: “The COVID period. That was the best time, because one didn’t have to come to work.”

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