Last night, I was taken to Ling's Pavilion, the new Chinese restaurant at the old Frederick's. It is completely changed; the only thing of Frederick's that has remained is the chilli sauce and the stewed noodles.
Frederick's was my first Chinese restaurant, as it possibly was of an entire generation of Bombay citizens. I remember Geeti Sen, the art academician, now settled in Delhi, once telling me know as children she and her brother and cousins used to be brought there once a month by her father to learn to eat with chopisticks.
It was a much smaller restaurant in those days, I mean compared to the present Ling's, a few tables with a row of wooden booths on one aside, cut off by curtains. Here you could eat in privacy, if you so desired. The fashion of restaurants as places to eat and be seen eating was still to come.
In Irani restaurant, similar booths were known as family rooms. The rule at the Iranis was that you had to have a woman with you to use a family room, never mind whether the woman was your family or not. There was a belt to summon the waiter, and he would not disturb you unless you called him.
In Frederick's, of course, the booths were just style. They were not known as family rooms and anybody could use them. The restaurant itself was a friendly place, though in those early days one felt intimidated going to any Chinese restaurant. The entire concept was so foreign and exoctic. Besides, they cost a lot of money. You were set back around Rs. 12 for a bowl of sweet corn and chicken soup, American chopsuey and lichees with ice-cream. For the first ten years of my Chinese eating life that must have been my set menu. And I used to feel very knowledgeable about Chinese food.
I.S. Johar, the Hindi cinema comedian, was a regular at Frederick's. He used to spend most of his lunchtimes there, knew the management, the waiters, cooks, every item on the menu. There were other regulars. Like Johar, most of them have died by now, some have moved on to other restaurants, and Frederick's itself closed down several years ago.
The building that housed it was in a bad shapd and for some years the restaurant had props inside. Waiters dodged round the props to serve you. You dined there at your own risk, but everybody still dined there, and Frederick's continued to be the most popular Chinese restaurant in town.
Why it ultimately closed down, nobody knows. But remours kept floating that they were opening somewhere else in town, and whenever a new Chinese opend, it was said it was the Frederick's management. It never was. And Ling's Pavilion also is not. It is the Nanking management, and Nanking is another old and celebrated restaurant of Bombay.