7 reasons why you should eat at this Punjabi run restaurant that's a Bandra institution too. National Restaurant, Mumbai

Our lunch at National Restaurant on 19th May, 2017. 
A total of 6 rotis, 2 chhaas & 2 soft drinks, plus 1 alu gobi, 1 paneer rajma
1 liver masala & 1 chicken : Rs 460
  • National Restaurant is a 60 year old restaurant in Bandra
  • Bollywood legends have eaten here in their days of struggle
  • The food today remains very affordable and is of very good quality
  • It serves Punjabi food typical of North Indian restaurants but the food isn't too heavy or spicy
  • PS: This is a long copy post and not a listicle. It does have the 7 reasons listed at the end

We eat for Instagram

I am sorry that the picture above doesn't look perfect and that the rotis have been nibbled into and that the plates have been stained with  curry. 

We couldn't help it. The rotis were hot, we were hungry, the food looked tempting. 

To be fair, my friend who had joined me for the lunch was willing to wait for the alu gobi that was yet to come after the first lot of food was brought to us. He had gone out to eat with me before this too. He knew that I like to get all the food at the table at one go so that I can click it for Instagram, and then eat. 

This time I was the one who told him that we should not wait for the alu gobi and should start to eat instead. I justified it too. I said, 'this is a boys' table, a bit of a mess is fine.' I know this could sound sexist but I just wanted to dig into the food. Instagram jai bhaar main (Instagram can wait).

In this post I want to tell you about my lunch from last afternoon which had made me really happy. It was a meal where everything fell in place. The company was right. The place had a good story. There was nostalgia involved and the afternoon left me with a sense of gratitude too. 

Most importantly, and I say this without romanticising it, the food was very very good.

A dash of Bollywood and personal nostalgia on the side

National Restaurant, Bandra

We had the meal I am referring to at the National Restaurant which is located next to Bandra station in Mumbai. 

It is tucked into the ground floor of a building on the lane leading to Linking Road and looks smoky and sooty and dusty from outside. My first visit to it was 20 years back when I was 20 kilos lighter and had just moved into Mumbai. I used to stay as a paying guest (PG) in an apartment with a Punjabi family in the building opposite the restaurant. I would cross the National Restaurant everyday but never went in. 

Then I read somewhere that film actor Dharmendra went there to eat when he was new to Mumbai. I decided to go there for dinner myself one night. I don't remember anything about what I ate. This was way back in 1997. There was no Instagram then, no mobile cameras, or food blogs to record what one ate. I used to send letters home in inland envelopes and wait at 11 pm outside STD (phone) booths nearby to call my mother once a week as I didn't even have a mobile phone. Rates would be slashed to 25 per cent at 11 pm back then you see. I worked in an office where the bosses gave me no leave. When I quit it I bought my first mobile with the leave encashment money.

I didn't go back to National after my first meal. We had other favourite places you see. I later learnt that not just Dharmendra, but even other Hindi film legends such as Dev Anand and Shatrughan Sinha ate here before they became super stars as did film director Chetan Aanand. Apparently Dharmendra, popularly referred to as Dharamji now, still gets food packed from here at times and maybe you could too.

Twenty years have passed by. I call Bandra my home now and feel very grateful about this.

Bandra Station, May 2017

The pillars stand quietly while life goes on at the station
Bees saal baadh (twenty years later) as they say in Hindi films

I went to the Bandra station lane recently to get some photocopying work done. That's when I chanced upon National again and peeped in.

The place looked the same as it did twenty years back.  I saw that there were a few people eating inside. There was a young man sitting alone just as I must have done way back. Just as my cousin did recently when he lived in the same PG when he lived in Mumbai for a while.

Meals and phones go together today. Strangers sharing tables
is common in traditional Indian restaurants

The only difference from my trainee days was that the young man from that evening (not the one in the photo) had his phone plugged to a power point on the wall. It looked like he was watching a video on his phone. It was as if that table was in his drawing room and the restaurant was his home. 

This, to me, captured the welcoming spirit of Mumbai. It reminded me of my early days in Bandra when I used to go to Lucky on Sunday afternoons and settle down with a biryani and the Local tabloid, the Sunday Mid Day, for some gossip to go with my lunch .

The building opposite National where I once lived as a PG

I felt nostalgic on seeing the scene. I decided that I should go back to National for a meal and that's what I did a couple of afternoons later. I called up a friend and requested him to join me. We could try out more dishes that way. Thankfully, he readily agreed. 

Coincidentally, like me, my lunch mate Sid was from Kolkata too and has now made Mumbai his home. We got to know each other in Mumbai though.

With fellow ex Kolkata boy Sid who gamely joined me for lunch

Lunch time at National seemed buzzier than the restaurant is at night. The place was packed. There were people of all ages eating there. Both genders men were in the majority. 

It's the sort of place where you have to share tables and eat as was traditional in eateries in India. It is not air conditioned but it didn't feel too hot. The restaurant was clean but the ambiance was rather basic. It is divided into two sections. The outside section was brighter in the afternoon thanks to the big windows. I preferred to sit there. It was full inside too. The staff keeps an eye on the table and seat you as soon as they can.

The kitchen is an open one. Curries were being poured out onto plates from there. Fresh rotis were being made in the tandoor.  

Turnover was fast. You eat. Move on. The staff wipes the table clean. The next person sits down. Though technically not a dhaaba as it is not located on the highway, National Restaurant looks and feels like a dhaaba. It sure does feed all the weary travellers who alight at the Bandra train station.

The service is prompt and efficient and they do not levy a service charge here. So do leave a generous tip if you.

The outside section is brighter during the day

This is the inner section. This is when we was leaving and
the restaurant had begun to empty
Good food and at great prices too

We placed our order. A mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. My lunch mate was of mixed Marwari and Bengali lineage. I had to convince him to order something in vegetarian too as the Bengali genes seemed to dominate his taste palate and he wanted meat. He drew the line and refused to go with my suggestion of ordering karela or a paneer dish.

Regulars know what to order. Or you can look at the board. They have menu cards too
The waiters can guide you in Hindi. Or go up to the owner at the till if English works for you
The chicken 'curry' here is sans coconut unlike in Malvani places in Mumbai

The chicken moglai and chicken liver masala were brought to the table first along with piping hot rotis. Then came the rajma paneer with the promised four pieces of paneer that the waiter said it would have. The alu gobi came last and rather lazily and made us wait for me to take the prized table top picture.

"See how non-vegetarian food is given priority and is brought first?" said Sid with a smile.

"That's because the curries are prepared and kept ready," I explained, "while the alu gobi has to be made afresh."
What's lunch without a good adda
Such posers we are!

Well, it was worth the wait because the alu gobi (potato and cauliflower tossed together with onions and a light spicing and served dry) was really delicious. It was very homelike. The flavours subtle yet full of character. I liked this a lot more than the oily and masala doused alu gobi that I once had at the famous Kesar da Dhaba in Amritsar. Even the texture of the potato and cauliflower was just right. Well cooked. Soft but not squishy, not too raw. I rarely like alu gobis in restaurants except in Bengali places. The Punjabi alu gobi at National almost gave me the same pleasure that a good Bengali alu fulkopi would.

Alu gobi, National Restaurant, Bandra

If the alu gobi was 'homelike, then the rajma definitely seemed like it was made in someone's home by a kind Punjabi Granny. It was very subtly yet diligently spiced. The rajma beans were not overcooked, nor hard. The dish smacked of diligence, sincerity and love that only a granny Kaur could bring. You could have a bucket of this if you wanted. Specially if you were missing home. 

The paneer in it was soft. I later learnt that they make their paneer here in house at National. You get rajma without paneer too here.

There are certain combinations which are classic. For Punjabis rajma goes with rice just as for Bengalis fish curries are eaten with rice. I prefer to eat rajma with rotis, and not rajma chawal, as that is the combination that I had grown up to in Kolkata. Being a Delhi girl, my mother introduces dishes like rajma and methi in our kitchen which she in turn had grown up on in Delhi.

Why go to a restaurant to eat what you can get at home, you ask? Well, Mumbai is full of people who have left their homes to chase their dreams or even just earn a living. Places which offer good food at affordable prices are God sent for them.

Rajma paneer at National with the chicken dishes standing guard at the back
Coming to the meat of it

If the vegetarian dishes were about restraint and delicate touches, then the chicken dishes that we ate at National were all about panache and pomp.

The gravy of the chicken liver masala that we had held nothing back in terms of taste. It was a riot of flavours and had a tantalising mouth feel to it. It was addictive and after each spoon you sat back, felt good about life, then had another mouthful. Yet, it was not spicy or high on chilli heat. For those who need a bit of fire in their bellies, there were sliced green chillies in the gravy. These were the lighter coloured chillies which are low in heat. The resultant mouthfeel was piquant but not overpoweringly so. The pieces of chicken liver combined very well with the gravy.

One thinks of Parsis and Muslims while thinking of offal in Mumbai restaurants but Punjabis do a good job of it too as the chicken liver masala showed. As do the Malvani and Gomantak places.

Folks on the internet are celebrating #MasalaDay today to promote Indian foods on social media. While writing about the chicken liver masala at National, it struck me that for us in India, 'masala' is an idiom and not just about the spices. In this case masala refers to a type of preparation and a spicy one at that. And then there are 'masala movies' too if you go beyond food and a lot more. In fact in my trainee days there was a midnight programme on MTV or Channel V called Midnight Masala which showed raunchy song sequences from South Indian films. So you could say that the word 'masala' symbolises a way of life for us. A spicy and lively one!

Come to think of it, none of the food that we had at National that afternoon was too heavy. Despite the heat outside, I didn't have any heartburn or acidity later, nor did I have a bad stomach or feel bloated after the meal. This was good quality stuff. Trust a Bengali to factor this in.

Chicken liver masala, National Restaurant

Sid and I both looked at the chicken moglai in front of us and exclaimed, 'chicken bharta.' The latter is a dish popular in Kolkata and involves eggs added to the gravy. In Kolkata this could be sliced boiled eggs. Here in National, the egg was beaten into the gravy in which the chicken moglai was cooked. A bit like in the the egg tarka dals of the dhabas of Kolkata and in the kheema ghotalas of the Irani cafe of Mumbai. 

There was one of leg piece of chicken in our dish and it was evidently from a small bird. This a good sign as the bigger the chicken is, the less tasty its meat is. I got the drumstick and found it to be tender. Sid found the thigh piece that he had to be a bit chewy. The gravy had a certain creaminess that came from the egg beaten into it. 

'Moghlai' in Indian restaurants is meant to connote food that is royal and special after the Mughals. There's no fixed formula to it as Indian cooking is not templated unlike the way the Hollandaise and Bechemel driven classic French cooking is. The moglai at National lived up to its billing and sure did taste special. 

Once again the gravy was not high on chilli or oil levels. The spicy quotient came from the green chillies chopped into it. An addition which reminded me of the niharis of Delhi which are garnished with finely chopped green chillies and slivers of fresh ginger. 

Sid, who bit on the chillies and can't handle chillies, found the chicken dishes spicy.

The chicken Moghlai of National in the foreground
The rotis that we had with our food were piping hot and delicious and were served fresh from the tandoor (oven). 

The only weak spot was the chhaas or buttermilk which I found was a bit smelly. Sid finished his glass and said that the odour possibly came from the cloth it was strained in. He then moved on to have a Thums Up like a good Kolkata boy. I am possibly the only Kolkatan who doesn't like Thums up. I find the taste too strong and tad sour and you should have seen his shocked face when I said that. I settled for a Sprite. These are not brand plugs by Coke!

They don't offer desserts here. A Malvani restaurant owner had once said that they don't keep desserts as it affects the speed of turning tables at places like these. That could be the reason here too I hazard.

Eat and move on is the mantra here

A slice of Bandra history with your meal

Amit Sigh Gulati, current generation co-owner
of the National Restaurant. If not comfortable in Hindi
you can speak to him if you want place your order in English

I went up to a gentleman sitting at the counter, once our lunch was over, to find out about the history of the restaurant. Turned out that I was in luck. He was the grandson of the founder of the National Restaurant! His name is Amit Singh Gulati. He runs the restaurant along with his uncle Mr Harbinder Singh Gulati. 

Amit told me that me that his grandfather, the late Kartar Singh Gulati had founded the National Restaurant in 1959 along with his grand uncle Jaswant Singh Gulati (brother of Kartar Singh). Mr Kartar Singh had come to Mumbai from a place called Sanghli (Amit wasn't sure of the spelling), in what is now Pakistan, way back in 1901. Kartar Singh used to go from house to house selling clothes from a bag that he slung over his shoulders. He was able to open this restaurant based on his savings after fifty eight years of hard work in Mumbai. Sometimes dreams take a while to come true but when you stick to them they do come true. Especially in Mumbai, the maya nagar or the city of dreams.

Mr Kartar Singh and his brother are no more today. Nor is his son and Amit's father, Jasbeer Singh Gulati, who ran the business after him. Amit took up the the job of running the business along with his uncle (Harbinder Singh) after his father passed away. 

Amit, like his father before him, is a Bandra boy. Family is important to him and he made it a point to tell me twice that he and his uncle and he both own the business lest I thought that he is in charge alone.

Gulati is the surname of those who run Punjab Sweets at Bandra's Pali Naka too. Their founder had come from former Pakistan as well. His descendants, like Amit and his father and uncles, are Bandra boys. Amit tells me that the Gulatis of Punjab Sweets are their distant cousins.

Fresh rotis being made at National

Meals being put together as orders are placed
It's a clean and open kitchen here

Amit told me that the recipes used at the national Restaurant have remained the same over the years. The cooks come to work in the morning and make the masalas and gravies for lunch and then come back again in the evening to cook dinner. The helpers assemble the meals during service and rotis are made fresh. They don't use ghee here and just palm oil which probably explains why the food is so light. The food is cooked on coal fires and are great examples of the virtues of slow cooking.

I asked Amit why there was no mutton on the menu.

Amit said, "we used to offer mutton (goat meat) earlier and then stopped. "

"Why?" I asked.

Amit looked at me, smiled and sheepishly replied, "we didn't do it very well you see.""

The food served in a place which is built on such disarming honesty is bound to be magical.

It's a clean kitchen and an open one at the National Restaurant

Life goes on in Bandra but its legends live forever and National Restaurant is one for sure

I've seen Bandra change a lot over the last twenty years. Rents have become very high as has real estate. I doubt if it is any longer feasible for white collar trainees and early jobbers to live here as we did two decades back. 

Mumbai has expanded too and places like Oshiwara and Malad and Goregaon have emerged as newer youth hubs while Bandra grows older in its demographics. 

Some of the poshest restaurants in Mumbai are now based in Bandra. These were not there when I first came here. Not everyone who eats at these places would be comfortable eating at National Restaurant and I get that. This won't affect National if you ask me. Bandra still needs places which are affordable and offer good food. National does that well and continues to run to packed houses. 

I would urge you to try out The National Restaurant still because that is where you will get a taste of Bandra as it once was. The the food is evergreen.

It is places like these, which once welcomed me so lovingly to Mumbai and it is thanks to them that I am fortunate to call Bandra and Mumbai home today.

If you have eaten at National and stories that you have to share then please write in. If you have stories about Bandra becoming home for you then please share them. I would love to hear of them. 

7 Reasons why you should visit National if you haven't figured out so by now:
  1. The rajma paneer
  2. The roti
  3. The alu gobi
  4. The chicken liver masala
  5. The chicken moglai
  6. The prices
  7. The history

Bandra Station 2017
Twenty years after I'd first come here.
Approximately twenty kilos heavier.
I was a migrant then... Now I am at home 

Here's an iPhone video that I requested Sid to shoot while we were at National:

Hope you have caught my chat with Annie Arakkal every Wednesday on 94.3 Radio One Mumbai. You can listen to us talk about National in the clip below. Please subscribe to my channel to catch more such chats on food

Menu card and rates, May 2017, National Restaurant, Bandra

You might also want to read:

1. My blog post on my PG in Bandra
2. My blog post on Punjab Sweets which is run by the cousins of the owners of National
3. My blog post on Crystal, another affordable Punjabi restaurant that I used to go to in my early days in Mumbai. This is in South Mumbai and serves vegetarian food
4. My blog post on a nostalgic visit to Mumbai's Stadium restaurant. Good old Sid was with me then too
5. My blog post on the time when I ate at Kesar Dhaba at Amritsar and had its alu gobi