|MENU MATTERS: The Coffee Corner in Howrah station. (Above): The new food plaza that opened next door. Pictures by Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya
For one, it is a beginning, wrought in blue-and-white neon. For the other, it is a push towards a future clouded by a question mark.
A glitzy food plaza opened at the old complex of Howrah station on Monday. With glass-panelled walls, standalone high tables and theme-based d'cor, it melds with the new look of the city's entry point.
Developer Switz Foods Private Limited claims to have spent more than a crore on doing up the place, with lamps modelled on the ornate old Calcutta streetlights, windows set under Roman arches, the gloss back on the carved cast-iron pillars that support the roof of the station' 'We have tried to give the plaza a heritage look,' explains Anjan Banerjee, communication officer.
If Foodplaza boasts designer heritage, Coffee Corner, the other eatery next door, is a relic of a past unchallenged by competition. A hand-written poster pasted above the entrance announces that South Indian food has been added to the menu.
The gloom within is a reflection of the despondency among the staff. 'Today itself, the customer flow has dropped by 25 per cent,' admits a worried face at the counter.
Yet, all was well a few decades ago. There were three eateries under the Eastern Railway Catering Service ' the Coffee Corner, the vegetarian room and the non-vegetarian room.
'We and our Mumbai counterpart were the best railway restaurants. Continental fare used to be served at Coffee Corner. You could take a pick of chicken roast and boiled vegetables, bread roll, fruit salad' recounts a veteran hand.
Breakfast boasted a spread of fried eggs, fried fish, vegetarian cutlet and corn flakes. 'Even 10 years ago, we were offering corn flakes, two pieces of toast, an omelette or a vegetable cutlet for Rs 7.50. As prices went up, we were asked to offer the items separately and now all that is left for breakfast is omelette and buttered toast.'
Popular cuisines have crept in now that the two other rooms are no more, but the bearers themselves admit 'it is not the same any more'.
Other than the food, what has dipped is the ambience. The mosaic walls do not 'reflect your face' anymore. The uniforms of the bearers lack the crisp, clean look. 'What can we do if we do not get a fresh set in three years' We feel bad having to serve in such state,' comes an anguished protest.
For those who have taken orders from Satyajit Ray, Kishore Kumar, Aparna Sen and George Fernandes in the same room, the fall is hard to digest.
Panic has been created by placing the three restaurants under a separate company, allowing the shutdown of the two adjacent eateries and, finally, letting off the area to private enterprise.
This is how the new chapter began. 'The place was a garbage dump when we won the tender for the food plaza last year,' Banerjee says. In came an oven to ensure fresh supply from the Monginis line, an ice-cream parlour from Kwality Walls, sweets from Ganguram, even a free charging station for cellphone users'
'The prices may be 5-7 per cent more than the other eatery, but I can pay that much for the hygiene,' says a man from Kerala, who regularly travels via Howrah to the Northeast, while polishing off a thali. At the next table is an aged resident of Burrabazar, back from Tarakeswar, relishing his ice-cream while gaping at the surroundings.
There is a group doing just the same from the outside ' the bearers from next door.