by Raashid Andrabi
SRINAGAR: The historic Hotel Lala Sheikh on Residency Road in Srinagar may be small and unassuming, but it serves up more than just a fine cup of tea. Sheikh Mehboob Ali, the face behind this historical tea shop on Wednesday lost his life to cardiac arrest.
With a history that spans over 133 years, this quaint tea shop survived as a cultural icon that has stood the test of time. Despite the challenges of time and family divisions among its inheritors, Hotel Lala Sheikh remains the preferred choice for all seeking a taste of history and a delicious cup of tea.
The shop has a huge history envisaging migration of a worker from city periphery and making it big within Srinagar at a time when situations and system were not supportive of a “start-up”.
Lala Mohammad Sheikh, a young man from the Budgam village of Handjan, founded the shop and quickly gained a reputation for its bakery items. Presently, fourth generation of Lala Sheikh that include three brothers namely Sheikh Altaf, Sheikh Javeed and Sheikh Mehboob Ali are running the shop.
The bakery was very popular for its pastries and chicken patties, with many people visiting the shop, especially during the time when an English Resident lived at the Residency – now the Emporium Garden. It was this residency that made the road Residency Road. Politicians and foreigners also used to visit the shop to taste the bakery items. Lala has been serving customers since 1890 and has become region’s iconic restaurant.
Besides, serving delicious patties and fine tea, the restaurant has witnessed some of the fiercest literary, political and journalistic discussions in Kashmir. The cafe’s history and popularity have made it a must-visit destination for those who want to learn about Kashmir’s oldest tea room.
According to popular belief, the likes of Dina Nath Nadim, Bansi Nirdosh, Mirza Arif, Akhtar Mohiuddin, Amin Kamil, Pran Jalal, and other notable writers would congregate at Lala Sheikh in the evenings, engaging in discussions on poetry and politics while sipping endless cups of tea. Sometimes, these conversations would continue until past midnight.
Additionally, due to its proximity to the Doordarshan TV station and Radio Kashmir, famous singers such as Raj Begum and Ghulam Ahmed Sofi, as well as prominent broadcasters like Makhan Lal Saraf and Prana Shunglu, would frequent the establishment in the evenings.
Kashmir’s noted raconteur Zareef Ahmed Zareef attributes cafe’s success to the dedication and passion of its founder, Lala Sheikh. “This place always served pure food and that too with love. As I worked around that shop only, I used to regularly visit the shop. Lala never compromised on the quality of food” Zareef recalls. “They maintained their fame till today with its food filled with love.
Zareef said he was particularly fond of the restaurant’s tea and butter toast, which he describes as unmatched in their flavour and texture.
While the restaurant may have changed in some ways over the years, its commitment to serving delicious food with a side of history remains as strong as ever.