When they say ‘no frills’, they really mean no frills but the food is to die for. In Kolkata’s ‘pice hotels’, you're clearly not there for the ambience, but the promise of hearty, home-style, Bengali comfort food will have you eating off banana leaves, at community tables, and coming back for more.
Perhaps the meals in these bare-bone eateries are that much tastier because, apart from serving the most authentic home-cooked food you can get away from home, they also offer a peep into a long-forgotten chapter of Kolkata’s past.
The word ‘pice’ comes from a tiny unit of currency called, well, a pice, which was the equivalent of 1/64th of a rupee or 1/4 of an anna. If none of that rings a bell, let’s just say the value of a pice was next to nothing even a hundred years ago, exactly what the meals in these eateries used to cost. Hence the name.
Scattered across Kolkata in the early 20th century, pice hotels were set up to serve nourishing meals to migrant workers who flocked to the city in search of work as the economy transitioned from agrarian to industrial. Away from their families, and worked to the bone, these homesick migrants needed a place to eat and, more importantly, they craved comfort food.
That’s why the menu is strictly traditional. Expect to find lip-smacking alu posto (potato with poppy seeds), kumro phool bhaja (pumpkin flower fritters), prawn chingri macher malai curry in coconut milk, maach bhaja (fried fish) and maacher jhol (fish curry). This is Kolkata, mind you, but these eateries also have an impressive array of vegetarian dishes to choose from.
And, oh, if you do find yourself ducking into a pice hotel, don’t cast about for a menu card. There is none. It’s all handwritten on a blackboard, which allows the menu to stay flexible.
To keep prices in check, meals used to be served – they sometimes still are – on banana leaves and, back in the day, patrons squatted on straw mats on the floor. To avoid wastage, every item is priced separately, so that you can customize your order. You even pay for the banana leaf that doubles as your plate!
Many pice hotels used to be the kitchens of messbaris, affordable boarding houses for students, office workers, artists and writers, and even blue-collar workers. Some threw their doors open to the public and most of them converted into stand-alone eateries when the messbaris shut down.
These unpretentious eating houses served yet another purpose, at least some of them did. During India’s freedom movement, many of them offered cheap and even free meals to Independence activists and freedom fighters. A handful of them even hosted Revolutionaries, who met here in secret to discuss their plans for the Resistance. Eateries with strong political leanings were proud to advertise them in their names. Sample these – ‘Swadhin Bharat", ‘Free India’ and ‘Young Bengal’.
Over time, many of Kolkata’s pice hotels shut down, hit by a double whammy of rising costs and changing lifestyle choices. Simply put, Kolkata had moved on and eating out took on a whole new meaning.
But you can still find a smattering of pice hotels in the city. Soldiering on and true to their ethos, they continue to offer the most amazing Bengali flavours in hearty servings at pocket-friendly prices. Here’s where you can head for a mouthwatering ‘Kolkata experience’ when you’re in the city next.
Hotel Sidheshwari Ashram
Rani Rashmoni Road, New Market area, Dakshineswar
Tarun Niketan Hotel
Rash Behari Ave, Lake Market, Kalighat
Adarsha Hindu Hotel
Rash Behari Avenue, Ballygunge
Swadhin Bharat Hindu Hotel
Bhawani Dutta Lane, near College Square
Ramanath Majumdar Street, Amherst Street