Inside, the waiters rush to and fro with plates of khichuri and chicken biriyani held aloft in their hands. As one enters the shop, the nostrils are assaulted by the assortment of aromas given off by the variety of foods being served there, accompanied by the damp smell of wet cloths carried by waiters to wipe tables, which no one seems to notice or mind amid the delicious scent of food. One has to shout to be heard, as the noise in these restaurants can only be compared to a school field during break time, with the clattering of cutlery striking a constant treble refrain.
The analogy with the school field is not an idle one; the waiters are not too different from jealous schoolboys trying to hog the ball on the playing field. As customers enter, waiters compete with each other to lay claim so that they can benefit from the tips. Although the competition between waiters is unrelenting, fortunately that same meanness does not reach the customers, who get extra helpings of gravy on their plates of khichuri, or polao.
Tucked inside the ground floors and basements of the office buildings, these restaurants play host to a large portion of office-goers during lunchtime. “These two hours are our busiest”, says the manager of Gharowa Hotel and Restaurant. The place is teeming with customers, with not a single vacant chair, let alone table. Gharowa, unlike most of the dining places in Motijheel is a double-storey restaurant. It also seems among the more popular eating-places in the area, evident by the people waiting patiently outside in spite of the dearth of free tables.
Although areas like Gulshan, Karwan Bazaar and Dhanmondi have seen a steady increase in corporate offices, Motijheel remains Dhaka's principal business district. Motijheel houses the headquarters of Bangladesh Bank, Sonali Bank, Rupali Bank and the Dhaka Stock Exchange, to name but a few. During the hours of nine till five on weekdays, the streets are abuzz with office activity. At twelve, hundreds of well-dressed men take to the streets. Looking crisp in their starched shirts and dark trousers, the men all make their way to the various hotels and restaurants that can be found in large numbers throughout Motijheel.
A man in his thirties washing his hands at the basin reveals that this is a regular place of lunch for him, and has to raise his voice to a yell to be heard. “I have lunch here three times a week on average,” says the man, who works for the Pran Group, the offices of which are situated in Motijheel, “On other days I bring lunch from home.” Asked what he usually orders, he reveals with a wry smile that he usually orders biriyani. “My wife usually packs nutritious food, so Gharowa is my escape from that,” he adds.
“A lot of people who come here are regulars,” says the manager of Heerajhil Hotel, situated near Gharowa, and has the same bustling atmosphere during lunch hour. “There are lots of offices around, and those people come to eat here,” he adds as he works the counter for a long line of customers. When asked what the most popular dishes during the lunch hour were, his reply listed the usual suspects, “Biriyani, polao. Some of those who come here regularly order healthier options such as maach bhaat (rice with fish), but the overwhelming favourites are biriyani and polao.”
Besides hotels and restaurants, there are other options available to office-goers. Women are largely absent from such eateries. The crowded nature of such places as Ghorowa, Heerahjil or Shuruchi often acts as a deterrent for female office workers. According to Moin Hassan, who works at Eastern Bank Limited, most female employees at his office bring home cooked lunch, while others make use of the various catering services available in Motijheel. This practice is also rather popular among the male employees.
Moin elaborates on the catering process: “In Motijheel and Dilkusha there are two or three catering companies. Each individual working in an office signs a contract with one of these companies. They charge Tk 50 for each lunch they deliver.” These catering companies offer a variety of items, ranging from fried rice to dal bhaat. “During four of the five working days, I have my normal lunch delivered to me. This usually consists of healthy foods like I would usually eat at home. On the other day I have an arrangement with my caterer to deliver a special lunch, which usually is one of khichuri, biriyani or fried rice.”
At Karwan Bazaar, the Abdul Monem Limited building has its own in-house caterer. “There are three canteens in this building, each of them producing a different quality of food,” says an executive working in Abdul Monem. “The fifth floor canteen is usually frequented by security guards and office clerks. The different canteens use differently priced ingredients. For example, the fifth floor canteen buys cheaper rice while the first floor canteen buys the more expensive kind.
We usually eat at the canteen on the first floor. The canteen on the second floor is the most expensive, and we usually go there when our pockets are hot,” he adds.
In recent years, Gulshan has seen a steep increase in corporate offices, and this has spawned the growth of many trendy restaurants in the area. Mohammed Iqbal working in a multinational company in Gulshan-1 outlines his many lunch options: “On days when I feel a craving for cheap and fast food, I go to Mollika Snacks. At other times when I want deshi treats, I go to Habib Restaurant, situated behind D.C.C market. They have very good biriyani there. For Chinese I go to Food Court, a Chinese Buffet place situated near the intersection.” Rattling off all these choices one by one, he finally says, “These days though, I mostly eat my lunch at Time Out.”
“Many people in my office have their lunch catered to them,” Iqbal adds. “Office Peons are sent to places like El Toro and Bella Italia with orders. Personally speaking, those places are a bit too fancy for me.”
Gulshan also boasts some of Dhaka's premier fast food joints, among which Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) and Pizza Hut are especially popular. According to the store manager in KFC, the lunch hour counts among their busiest periods during a typical day. “We have many repeat customers, and the store is pretty full during this time (lunch hour).”
Among the customers during this busy time is a deputy manager of the nearby Brac Bank. “I always eat my lunch outside. With so many dining options in Gulshan, one is really spoilt for choice. In a typical week, I divide my lunch destinations among Pizza Hut, KFC and Bella Italia,” the deputy manager from Brac Bank revealed. Pizza Hut is two blocks away from KFC, and enjoys a working clientele similar to the fried chicken specialists. The restaurant is filled to the brim with customers, most of who come from neighbouring offices such as Brac Bank and Siemens.
“I guess you can call me a regular at Pizza Hut. On most days I come here for lunch from my office. Also, I live nearby, so I come here with my family too,” said Mr. Mahmudul Hashem, an executive at a nearby office. Asked what he usually liked to eat, he said “During lunch I usually choose from the salad bar, and when I am here with my family, it's pizza all around.” The salad bar seems a popular option for the many patrons at the restaurant, with lots of people queuing up to avail themselves of the various choices offered therein.
Places like KFC and Pizza Hut offer some high-standard fast food options, and these places are very busy during the lunch hour, which is a testament to their popularity. At the end of the day, the choices available dictate the choices made, and in that respect, it seems that office-goers in Gulshan have a better time during the hours of 12 to a half past one.
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed