Iconic restaurant, Calcutta Club, of Williamstown is closing down. Combination of factors to blame, says owner.
Bengalis in Melbourne are in mourning this week as one of the iconic restaurants of Bengali cuisine in Australia, Calcutta Club, in Williamstown, has decided to close its doors. The heart-breaking news was put out on its Facebook page which has a following of over 4,ooo food-loving enthusiasts.
“To all the Patrons of Calcutta Club, with a heavy heart, we must declare that ‘Tis the end of the only true Bengali cuisine in Australia’. We will no longer be operating due to a combination of factors. I hope we could bring some joy and hope in the hearts of the true Bengalis over the last five years. We sincerely thank everyone who has been a part of our extensive family and supported us throughout,” read their Facebook post, pinned on their page since yesterday.
Affection has been pouring in on social media from their dedicated customer base in Australia and abroad.
“So sad to hear…Thanks for delicious Bengali food. Will especially miss the dab chingri,” writes Bishakha in Facebook, reacting to the shock announcement.
“Never been more upset than this about a place closing down. Will dearly miss the biryani which I’ve been craving for since the last few days which by the way is the best in Australia,” lamented another dejected patron, Christina.
“I know there are many people out there who are really heartbroken by our announcement, but I really had no option,” said Bratadev Chatterjee, proprietor of Calcutta Club, speaking to NRI Affairs.
“Calcutta Club was so successful because of the quality of the food we served. We have had a wonderful chef all these years, but now he is leaving. The pandemic-induced lockdowns have also dealt a severe blow to our business. We tried takeaways but it was costing us a lot. In the end everything became too much to handle, and we will need to shut shop.”
Bratadev, had come to Australia from India in 1997 as a student. He completed a chef’s course and worked at the Hilton for a while. Life took him away from his culinary world and into a more serious life-building career of finance and property. He established a very successful business and was going along happily with life until one day a stranger, Shubhendu Malakar, approached him at a property stall he had set up and invited him to have a chat about food.
Subhendu was a banker with National Australia Bank of Australia and was clearly very fond of Bengali food. He encouraged Bratadev to open up Calcutta Club in 2015 as an equal partner. Bratadev’s brother, Shane Chatterjee, also a well-known restauranteur and owner of Ocean Grill, a very popular eating joint with the young and happening crowd of Kolkata, helped them find a good chef from Kolkata. Anupam Paul was young, eager to work and extremely adept at making traditional Bengali dishes and so, for a few years the business boomed.
People thronged the venue all week and weekends, savouring delectable Kati Rolls, kebabs, Dhonepata Kancha lonka Murgi (Chicken cooked with coriander leaves and green chilli), the Kolkata Chilli Chicken, Chicken Chaap, Mutton Rezala, Golbarir Kosha Mangsho (spicy goat curry named after Golbari, a Kolkata-based small heritage eatery), Bhetki Paturi (fish marinated in mustard and coconut paste, steamed in banana leaf), Ileesh Shorshey and of course the ever-popular Kolkata Dum Biryani.
Calcutta Club became a busy business, sponsoring functions, pujas, hosting Bengali artistes when they visited Melbourne and a favourite destination for nostalgic Bengalis, craving a bite of their favourite cuisine.
The first jolt to the business came when Subhendu left the country all of a sudden, citing his father’s ill health, never to return or even take Bratadev’s calls. Subhendu had allegedly misbehaved with the chef, causing him to leave and according to Bratadev, left a huge debt of $150,000 for the business to handle. There were also issues of alleged non-payment to suppliers, unpaid rents and salaries. Reeling from shock and disappointment, it was the first time that Bratadev had thought of closing down the business.
However, like an answer to his prayers, three Sikh gentlemen, with connections to Kolkata, came forward and offered to buy a part of his business, thereby easing the pressure of debt from his shoulders. Their only condition, said Bratadev, was that would have to spend more time at the restaurant and less on his own finance/property business. He agreed and soon the chef, Anupam, returned back to work in the kitchen. For a while it seemed the business had been saved. And then the pandemic hit.
“The lockdowns were a very difficult time for us. Williamstown is usually filled with visitors but the pandemic took that away. We started takeaway orders but realised it was very difficult to sustain,” says Bratadev.
Anupam, the brilliant Bengali chef, also decided to call it a day.
“He wanted a cosy seven to three job that took him back home early and he moved away to work in a Yarra Glen winery,” Bratadev told NRI Affairs. This was perhaps the last straw and Bratadev decided to call it a day for Calcutta Club.
“I don’t want to give up completely. I could open a restaurant or even a takeaway joint anywhere in South-eastern Melbourne, because I feel that is where most traditional Bengali families reside. So perhaps in the Glen Waverly or Mount Waverley area, who knows. I will have to arrange for another cook from Kolkata maybe,” he says.
“And this time, I would like to do it alone, no more partnerships, joint-ownership for me. I could even invest in a good eatery, who knows! But for now, I have to shut down Calcutta Club, it has become unfeasible.”