Almost a century after they first came up, ‘pice hotels’ are still popular
'Pice Hotels'- so called thanks to their uniformly priced meal at six paise (an Anna) in 1930s- serve wholesome and tasty Bengali home food, freshly made from the catch of the day at dirt cheap prices
Restless and tired of being cooped up inside the house because of the lockdowns-un-lockdowns and re-lockdowns, and tired of eating food delivered by Swiggy and Zomato, I recently ventured out to look for homely food. Having returned to Kolkata after quarter of a century in Mumbai, I was longing for a typical ghar-ka-khana. A neighbour recommended an eating joint in the neighbourhood at walking distance.
I walked in and asked for the menu. The waiter gave me a quizzical look and pointed to a blackboard outside on which the day’s menu and prices were written with chalk. I decided to go by the waiter’s recommendation.
I had rice, a bowl of masoor ki dal, potato fry that we Bengalis call alubhaja, a portion of Rohu fish curry and a portion of chicken curry. The portions were not extravagant but adequate, the food was warm and tasty. I had a satisfactory meal and was mentally prepared to pay around Rs 500.Tomy astonishment the bill came to just Rs 205, despite having been served a slice of lemon, onions, condiments and an extra helping of rice as well. That is when it dawned that I had eaten in one of the ‘pice hotels’ of Kolkata.
If there are signboards at all, they are likely to call themselves Adarsha Hindu Hotel (Ideal Hindu Restaurant). It has however nothing to do with Hinduism or Hindutva; unlike the Vaishno Dhabas in the North, they happily serve meat, fish and eggs. The concept is just to serve wholesome meals at affordable prices. The food, very close to home-cooked food, and the warmth of service are their hallmarks.
These neighbourhood restaurants are known as Pice Hotels because when they first came up in the mid-1930s, a meal was uniformly priced at 1/16th of a Rupee, that was ‘six paise’ (Pice indicated an ‘Aana or Anna’, a monetary unit in undivided India).
They catered to students and officegoers commuting to the city and to the migrants flocking for work. These people looked for food they were used to eating at home; but at times they also wanted to eat more lavishly. The Adarsha Hindu Hotels quickly introduced a two-tier menu; a fixed-menu which offered basic fare – rice, dal, and a portion of a vegetable dish. The more lavish offering included a choice of fish, lamb/goat or a chicken curry. If budget permitted, one could have them all.
They never served beef or pork. They don’t even now. But that never deterred Muslims or Christians from flocking at these places for the fish curry. What they don’t serve are Kebabs, parathas or sweets, presumably because they were not part of everyday meal of an average Bengali.
In 2021, in a typical Pice Hotel, the cost for a single meal for an individual varies between Rs50 for the basic menu and Rs.270 for the extended menu. For Rs 270 one can have a fish curry, a goat curry, potato chips, chutney, papadams and sweet curd in addition to the basic menu of rice, dal and vegetable. Slice of lemon and onions are provided either free or at nominal price.
‘Balti Restaurants’ in the UK, especially in London, are the refined version of these Pice Hotels. Kolkata is still said to have a hundred or more such hotels. Though housed often in shabby, dilapidated and crumbling buildings (economics will not allow fancier rent, AC or interiors), they are reasonably clean and hygienic. They were often patronised during the freedom struggle by revolutionaries who met to exchange furtive information and recruit youngsters.
Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, the well-known author of Pather Panchali (made into a film by the same name by Satyajit Ray) wrote a novel in 1940 and the title was Adarsha Hindu Hotel, which too became hugely popular and was also made into a popular movie in 1957.
Shiv Sena had promised in Maharashtra to revive the Zunka-Bakhar food chain offering a full meal for Rs 10 on the lines of Amma Canteens or Amma Unavagamin Tamil Nadu. Pice Hotels however are not part of any poll promise or a government scheme.
They have stood the test of time for almost a century. Wholesome and tasty Bengali home-food, freshly made from the catch of the day at dirt cheap prices is their USP. Who can object to that?