A Bohemian Getaway in the Heart of Mumbai

16 April 2014 – T Magazine Blog

Until this year, Mumbai didn’t have a single boutique hotel. There was the Taj Palace, with its iconic confectionary grandeur; some characterless, midrange hotels scattered around Colaba, the core of historic South Mumbai; the Oberoi and the Trident in their 1970s concrete boxes. But there was no hotel that captured both the rich visual heritage of historic Bombay and the intense aesthetic energy of contemporary Mumbai. Now, there’s Abode.

Built by David Sassoon, a wealthy entrepreneur, at the turn of the 20th century, the building was run as a small hotel for decades by the Sham family. In 2011, the English expatriate Lizzie Chapman approached Abedin Sham, the family’s patriarch, about transforming the space into a stylish, affordable city retreat. Shortly after, the pair brought on the Australian architect and designer Sian Pascale to modernize the interiors while conserving the building’s bones.

Abode was designed with a diverse audience of travelers in mind. The ground floor boasts luxury rooms outfitted with two-story windows, separate sitting areas and restored midcentury furniture alongside original local artworks. Upstairs, the basic rooms — though smaller and set up with shared toilets — combine the price point of a hostel (spots start at just 3500 rupees per night) with a heavy dose of Pascale’s bohemian design sensibility and attention to detail.

From the outset, Chapman hoped to eschew the obsequious formality of India’s celebrated palace hotels – what Chapman describes as “Sir/Madam/Namaste service” – in favor of something truer to the city’s casual, offhand warmth. Pascale, for her part, based her design on Bombay’s singular aesthetic history, upending typical notions of Indian luxury. To that end, you won’t find turbans or cusped arches here. Instead, you’ll see traditionally patterned cement tiles and Art Deco teakwood furniture, sourced from the city’s markets (the Sham family has a long history in antique dealing). Old books in Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and English line the walls, which are dotted with signs handcrafted by the same artisans who paint buses and trucks across town.

Throughout, there are glimpses of Mumbai’s precolonial fishing villages, its Raj-era Victoriana, its midcentury boom and its frenetic, irrepressible present. Two clocks in the reception area, set to the same time, are cleverly labeled “Bombay” and “Mumbai,” a nod to the city’s simultaneous propensity toward nostalgia and tendency to ruthlessly demolish its own past. Here, a list of must-see/do/eat items for your next trip to the most populous city in India.

Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum
The city’s most celebrated restoration project transformed the former Victoria & Albert Museum into a lovely display of urban history and craft. Set in the once affluent neighborhood of Byculla, adjacent to the Mumbai Zoo, the BDL Museum is a wonderfully atmospheric departure from the tested tourist grounds of Colaba and Fort.
91 A, Rani Baug, Veer Mata Jijbai Bhonsle Udyan, Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar Marg, Byculla East, Mumbai; bdlmuseum.org.

Liberty Cinema
Mumbai’s best Art Deco showpiece is, appropriately in this city of cinema, a movie theater. Recently restored to its original glory, it’s possibly the world’s best place to watch a film.
Liberty Building, Vitthaldas Thackersey Marg, Dhobi Talao, New Marine Lines, Marine Lines, Mumbai; thelibertycinema.com.

Britannia restaurant
The Parsis, the Zoroastrian community with its roots in Iran, may be a minority in Mumbai, but they have had an outsize impact on the city’s cultural growth over the centuries. For sampling the community’s unique culinary traditions, there’s no institution more iconic than Britannia. Don’t miss the berry pulao (a rice dish prepared with dried berries and meat) or the sali boti (mutton stewed with onions and tomatoes and topped with crispy fried onions) — or an opportunity to chat with the venerable bespectacled owner, who will, upon learning that you’re American, tell you exactly how much he loves “Madam Hillary Clinton.”
Wakefield House, 16 Ballard Estate, 11, Sprott Rd, Ballard Estate, Fort, Mumbai; +91 022-2261-5264.

The best seafood spots
Most Americans don’t think of fish when they imagine Indian cuisine, but like any coastal city, Mumbai relishes its seafood. There are plenty of options here, many of them quite famous. You’ll undoubtedly hear about Trishna and Mahesh Lunch Home, but of the seafood institutions dotting south Mumbai, the real gems are New Martin, a bare bones canteen serving traditional Goan cooking, and Ankur, serving Mangalorean food from the coast south of Goa in comfy, if kitschy, surroundings.
New Martin, 21 Glamour House, Strand Road, near Radio Club. Ankur, MP Shetty Marg, near Horniman Circle, Fort; +91 022-2265-4194.

Shree Thakker Bhojanalay
Along with the Parsis, Gujaratis are Mumbai’s most influential community of merchants. Vegetarian Gujarati cuisine often gets left off foodie itineraries, but the thali, or unlimited set lunch, at Thakker’s, a 70-year-old restaurant tucked away in the rundown bazaar of Kalbadevi, is among the greatest culinary surprises the city has to offer.
31 Dadiseth Agiary Lane, 2nd floor, Kalbadevi; +91 022-2201-1232.

The bazaars
North of the old British districts of Fort and Colaba, you’ll reach the bustling bazaars of what was once known as the Native Town. There’s the shabby Victorian tower of Crawford Market, the densely packed lanes of the Mangaldas Fabric Market in the elaborately pinnacled shadow of the Jama Masjid and past that, Zaveri Bazaar, famous for its costume jewelry.

Mohammed Ali Road
Chor Bazaar (which means “The Thieves Market”) is Mumbai’s antiques lane, and one of its most popular attractions. This is the place to buy old photos and Bollywood Posters (and, of course, to bargain). The adjacent Mohammed Ali Road is also the best place to try the cuisines of the city’s Muslim populations. The nalli nihari – a delectable beef stew topped with bone marrow – at Noor Mohammadi is a highlight.
Noor Mohammadi, 181-183 Abdul Hakim Noor Mohammadi Chowk, Bhendi Bazaar.

South Mumbai shopping
Several of Mumbai’s best boutiques are clustered within easy reach of Abode. Bombay Electric is known for its eclectic collections from young local designers. Bungalow 8, a three-story monument to local design, contains a stunning collection of furniture, accessories and one of the city’s best loved clothing labels, The Bungalow. And Obataimu, just north of Colaba in the gallery district of Kala Ghoda, combines a global aesthetic with India’s special talent for personalized tailoring.
Bombay Electric, 1 Reay House, Best Marg, Colaba. Bungalow 8, Grants Building, Apollo Bunder Rd, near Radio Club. Obataimu, Machinery House, B Bharucha Marg, Kala Ghoda.

Bandra
The so-called “Queen of the Suburbs” is now home to much of the city’s young creative class. It’s one of the best parts of town for a stroll along tree-lined streets, up seaside promenades and past colonial-era bungalows. This is the place to take the city’s pulse and see that New India you’ve heard so much about.

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