KARACHI: A long-stemmed 1950s fan is whirring overhead. The banisters need dusting, the stairs are wobbly. But no one really cares. They’re all lounging on the rickety chairs and grimy tables as if they own the place. The drink is chai, the food is hot and the talk is whatever, wherever. Welcome to Cafe Clifton: You don’t need to fill in a feedback form – we already know we’re good.
In a way Cafe Clifton is a landmark because it’s close to other landmarks: Khayaban-e-Shamsheer, the Seaview McDonalds, the Arabian Sea. It’s conveniently located. People strolling on the beach pop in, eager for food. It hasn’t lost its charm, despite the surge of coffee shops and other chai wallay round the corner. “Koi hon gay,” shrugs employee Mehmood when asked whether these shops have affected sales. When your establishment has been building a reputation since 1986, there isn’t really any competition.
Not to say that Cafe Clifton is complacent. Construction work has begun on a family area on the first floor, and owner Zubeir Sharif wants to give the classic dhaaba a facelift. “Maybe in the next six to eight months. Who knows?” he muses, standing on the pavement and looking up at the absurdly bright yellow sign.
But no matter how much Sharif may stress that they provide a “family mahowl”, customers know better. The people sitting inside are all male. Women either don’t show up or stay very close to the men who accompany them. The better off ones don’t even bother entering the dhaaba but stay secluded in their cars, savouring the chai but never partaking of the environment. This seems to have commanded the respect of the servers who claim these customers get “cleaner cups”.
Forty-something Ambreen is one such example. “I call myself the martial law administrator, because when I visit I expect them to work properly,” she says. When asked whether she would sit in the new family area, she gestures to the milling servers and men in front. “Crowd,” she answers as if the one-word answer sums it up.
Customer Muhammed Ajmal isn’t as fussy. “Khuli jaga, achee hawa, you can come with your friends and have some gupshup,” he says.
The man in charge of making the tea inside isn’t too concerned with customers. Nazar Abbas is almost permanently affixed to the enormous kettle. What’s the most popular item on the menu? “Chai,” he responds proudly. “Sub sey pehlay chai.” Parathay, cholay, halwa puri are all secondary to the small cylindrical mugs. The chai is pale brown and foggy and the secret to its success lies in good ties with a certain multinational tea company and Nazar Abbas’s personal touch.
Peak times are from 10 pm to 11 pm but better testament to its popularity is the fact that they only time the café is closed is from 4 am to 6 am. As the crowd swells and spills on to the pavement soft drink crates double up as makeshift tables. The conversation – loud, fist-thumping and in many languages – will continue late into the night as cars honk for attention from all directions. “This place could be like BBQ Tonight one day,” adds Sharif wistfully. For now though, tea will have to make do.
reporting by MEIRYUM ALI
Published in The Express Tribune, July 24th, 2010.