The legacy restaurant in Dadar, which recently opened a Juhu outlet, is known for its star clientele: it was here that icons of Bollywood's Golden Age — Raj Kapoor, Madhubala, et al — dined

If the famed Rajshri Productions movie banner, in particular their 1990s’ hits Hum Aapke Hain Kaun and Hum Saath Saath Hain, had to have a restaurant representing their culture, Pritam Da Dhaba would be an ideal fit. The 82-year-old legacy restaurant in Mumbai has been a melting pot of Bollywood, family, corporates and couples over since 1942, when Prahlad Singh Kohli, a businessman from Rawalpindi, and his wife came to Mumbai. Prahlad passed on the reins of the restaurant to his son Kulwant Singh Kohli, after which it was handled by his sons Amardeep Singh and Gurbaxish Singh Kohli. Currently, the Pritam Group is led by the fourth generation — Abhayraj Singh, Jaibir Singh and Johann Singh Kohli.

The Bollywood Connection

While the original Pritam Da Dhaba is located in Dadar, a new Juhu outlet opened its doors last year too. The restaurant was known for its association with the golden age of Bollywood, with glitterati such as Raj Kapoor, Madhubala, Meena Kumari, Sunil Dutt, Dharmendra, Pran, Dilip Kumar, Yash Chopra, Zeenat Aman, Rekha and Sridevi visiting it over the years. This association also led to them starting a film company which produced several landmark movies such as Pakeezah (1972) and The Burning Train (1980).

“Sunil Dutt was a great friend of my grandfather from his struggling days and would eat at our place on a monthly arrangement. On many occasions, he could not pay on time so my grandfather would lie to my great-grandfather that he had paid and would let him continue eating. Yash Chopra became a friend of the family as well due to the proximity of the film studios nearby. Bandra/Juhu didn’t even exist at that point and the film studios were all in the Dadar/Wadala area,” says Jaibir.

Enter, Butter Chicken

So is it true? Was Butter Chicken introduced to Mumbai by their family? “Butter chicken or Chicken Makhanwala was basically tandoori chicken on the bone put in a frying pan with some green chilies, spices, salt and lots of butter (hence the name Makhanwala). The advent of the Butter Chicken as we know it today started around the early 1970s after a major renovation of the restaurant, making us the first centrally air-conditioned standalone restaurant in India (inaugurated by Raj Kapoor),” he adds.

Guests started requesting a boneless version of the dish. At that time, menus were simpler, with fewer options. Every dish was fully prepared and only reheated on the gas before serving. It was not like today when gravies are specially made and things assembled on the spot as per order. The only extra gravies prepared were a tomato gravy and a tomato-brown onion gravy, in case someone ordered something off the menu. The boneless version, developed through trial and error, was finalized by shredding tandoori chicken and adding the tomato gravy with some spices, chilies, and a bit of butter to justify the name Makhanwala. The resulting dish tasted wonderful, especially with the smoky flavour of the tandoori chicken. It quickly became the most popular chicken dish. Given that Mumbai’s guest profile included a majority of vegetarians, a vegetarian version was introduced to ensure they weren’t left out. Thus, Paneer Makhani or Paneer Butter Masala was born. Back then, the Makhanwala trend hadn’t yet hit the city, making this a unique recipe which was available only at Pritam Da Dhaba.

Butter Chicken with Naan, Lassi. Photos courtesy of Pritam Da Dhaba

“We really can’t say if it was us who invented the ‘Butter Chicken’ or someone else did but surely in Mumbai it wasn’t available anywhere else except at Pritam. We called it Chicken Makhanwala to differentiate it from our original Butter Chicken and very soon this became universally accepted as Butter Chicken or Chicken Makhanwala. Also, palates change over a period of time and the buttery rich version eventually took a backseat. I guess we have earned the undisputed title of introducing butter chicken to Mumbai for sure,” Jaibir asserts.

Their Secret To Success

Pritam Da Dhaba is part of the Pritam Group of Hotels, which has a diverse portfolio that includes restaurants, cafes, hotels, and mixed-use developments, such as commercial and residential real estate projects. Some of their other well-known F&B brands include the Grandmama’s Cafe chain, Terttulia, Ginkgo Pan Asian Kitchen, MRP, Native, and Torii. A question that comes to mind is why Pritam Da Dhaba has succeeded where many other legacy restaurants across India have struggled or shut down, unable to replicate their success in the past. So, what sets Pritam apart?

According to Abhayraj, who has been associated with the company since he was 19, the fact that changes have been very minimal could be a strong factor. “People love the old-world charm of the place as it’s a legacy restaurant. They come for nostalgia, comfort food, and the overall sense of freedom. We adhere to our legacy that has worked for us. The hospitality here is absolutely amazing; people adore the waitstaff. Several servers have been with us for over 40 years and are still here; people feel comfortable in their presence. And, of course, there’s the undying love for the food at Pritam’s, whether it’s the Butter Chicken, dal, or any of our other items,” says Abhayraj.

The original Pritam Da Dhaba

Armed with a Master’s in Hospitality from Cornell University, New York, it was in Pune that Abhayraj launched Indyaki, a fine-dining Indian restaurant and watering hole in 2007. In 2014, he opened Please Don’t Tell, followed by The Roll Company and Grandmama’s Café, both in 2015. MRP Lounge opened in 2016, and in 2018, he introduced a Goan favorite, House of Lloyd’s. The most recent addition is Torii (the Japanese name for a traditional gate in front of a Shinto shrine), a luxurious Pan Asian restaurant crafted by none other than Gauri Khan.

What began as a single diners’ delight in the pre-partition era blossomed into an empire over time, encompassing both family-style joints and luxury restaurants. However, they all trace back to that one iconic location in Dadar, which reflects an era when mega Bollywood stars would relish sumptuous meals, often without having the money to pay for it. Not only did they find a satisfying meal after marathon film shoots, but also a sense of family. Oh, if only the history-laden walls of Pritam Dhaba could speak, they could start a podcast of their own.

Next Story