Kolkata: “Pice Hotels” Beat Pandemic and Rising Prices, Stay Affordable | Kolkata News

Kolkata’s ‘pice hotels’ – most of them over a hundred years old and steeped in history – continue to brave the pincer attack of the pandemic and rising prices and still serve hearty meals at affordable prices to the city’s hungry workers, shopkeepers, students and office workers.
To stay afloat, they cut costs, changed prices by 5% to 10%, added and subtracted dishes from their menus, but kept the price of the basic rice-sabzi-fish thali at around Rs 50. Changing demands of the city and the lockdown have brought down a few like the Simla Hotel in Bidhan Sarani and the Hatkhola Grand Hotel in Sovabazar, but the rest carry on the tradition.
The “pice hotels” take their name from “paisa”, the smallest denomination of the Indian rupee. Dozens of “pice hotels” sprung up in Kolkata in the early 1900s to provide healthy food at a cheap price to workers and students who lived in messbaris or low-cost housing for workers and students. These restaurants served meals on banana leaves to customers seated on floor mats. The price and menu changed daily, depending on what was available in the market that morning and the items and prices were handwritten on blackboards.
The over 100 year old Jaganmata Bhojonalaya on Kailash Bose Street is perhaps the only “pice hotel” where they still have the floor seating arrangement with the usual table and chair. They continue to serve meals in bronze utensils topped with banana leaves and water in earthen bhanrs. Eggs and chicken are still not allowed inside the restaurant.
“Despite soaring prices, we are still serving basic rice-sabzi-fish (rohu) meals at Rs 45,” said Umakanta Mishra, one of the owners, adding that “the rising prices and low attendance after the pandemic” have hampered business.
Another restaurant, the Jagannath Hotel on College Street, was once frequented by writer Mahasweta Devi and singer Manna Dey. “We have not changed the prices of rice, vegetables or Rohu fish, which cost less than Rs 100 and are always requested by regular customers. The prices of other items have been increased by 5% to 10%”, said the third generation. owner Manas Mondal.
“The restaurant is not just a business, but part of our heritage”
Tucked away in the alley behind New Market, the Sidheshwari Ashram Hotel has been serving guests since the early 1900s. Sisters-in-law Rita and Debjani Sen are the current owners of the place which was once visited by comedians Chhabi Biswas and Tulsi Chakraborty.
“My father used to say that those who come to the hotel for a meal should not go home hungry. Here they can get a hearty meal at Rs 50,” Rita said. “We have temporarily stopped kobirajhi jhol, a light fish and vegetable curry and one of our specialties, because there are hardly any takers. Over the years, the office crowd has thinned out as many government offices have moved. During the pandemic, many have moved to digital delivery platforms,” she said, fearing “luxury hotels” may be lost forever.
The Tarun Niketan Hotel near Rashbehari Metro Station is another century-old establishment that continues to be popular. Business has suffered during the pandemic, but YouTube videos and vlogs have helped them recoup some of the losses, said Arun Deb, one of the owners. “Young people frequent our house and often refer to food vlogs when ordering,” he said.
Founded in 1927 by Man Gobind Ponda, the Swadhin Bharat Hindu Hotel, originally known as the Hindu Hotel, was both a hiding place and a place of clandestine meetings for the revolutionaries. “Previously the hotel was on Bhawani Dutta Lane behind the Presidential College. Many stalwarts including Netaji were regular visitors,” said Arunansu Ponda, who now runs his grandfather’s business.
“The restaurant is not just a business but part of our history and heritage. We want to carry on the legacy,” he said. Steeped in history, the Young Bengal Hotel in the Kidderpore area has been open since the 1930s. Tarapada Guha named his hotel after the radical movement launched by Henry Louis Vivian Derozio to reform society. Pritha Ray Bardhan, granddaughter of Guha, said:
“Rare dishes cooked by mothers and grandmothers are available here. But unfortunately, we are running at a loss. I still run it because of my love and nostalgia for the place, but I don’t know how long this heritage restaurant will stay afloat.”
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