The Imperial: Spanning the history of a nation

Preeti Mehra | Updated on: Sep 28, 2011










As the distant strains of Frank Sinatra's ‘Angel Eyes' waft through the air, followed by a pretty pianist's rendering of Doris Day's ‘Que Sera, Sera', I know this could only happen in a place associated with ‘Nostalgia'. Yesteryear melodies played to perfection. Yes, this is Nostalgia – the retro evenings concept just launched at one of Delhi's oldest and most tasteful properties – The Imperial. And aptly so at 1911 Brasserie, the restaurant that sports original paintings, murals, lithographs and black and white prints of the British Raj – freezing the bygone years in time. There isn't another property in the Capital which would be able to take you back so many years to bring back to life the British Raj, as well as India's struggle for independence.

Dressed in regal white, with high ornate ceilings, a ballroom with wooden flooring and a history that is awe-inspiring, the Imperial is commemorating the city's centenary celebrations in its own way. It is serenading the old and the beautiful – evenings that evoke ballroom dancing, sit-down full course meals, rows of delicate glasses from tiny to tall glistening with fine wine, shining cutlery and dishes flambéed with cognac.

Apart from evoking the ambience of the Raj and reliving some of the grandeur with the soulful grand piano on weekdays and the heartfelt live saxophone on weekends playing hits by Jim Reeves, Elvis Presley and Louis Armstrong, the menu too is meant to bring back the ‘Nostalgia'.

Forgotten recipes

Just like the property that has been refurbished to keep intact every nuance of its history, so too has the menu taken 3 to 4 months of meticulous planning, derived as it is from forgotten traditional recipes to maintain the authenticity of the evenings. Here's a small sampling – French onion soup, vegetable terrine with goat cheese, traditional pepper steak, Scottish smoked salmon, lobster thermidor and a whole lot of dishes, desserts and coffees that are flambéed on a kitchen trolley by your table. What could be more redolent than watching a dish light up in orange flames, searing through the candle light.

“As New Delhi completes 100 years of its existence as the much renowned capital of India, The Imperial pays its ode, taking you back into the yester years that evoked grandeur, poise and style”, says Mr Vijay Wanchoo, General Manager and Senior Vice President at The Imperial. For him, the 1911 restaurant is the entry point into a slice of history he feels passionately about. A walk through the property tells you why.

The King, Queen and Mahatma

Situated bang in the heart of Janpath, then known as the Queensway, the property is famed for many an event during the British Raj, from where it also derives its name. However, even more important from the point of view of independent India is the fact that many significant meetings and discussions took place under its roof, paving the way for freedom from alien rule. It is here in the ballroom that Lord Mountbatten, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah thrashed out their differences on the course India would take after independence, including its partition and the formation of Pakistan.

The story goes that in 1880 Rai Bahadur Sardar Narain Singh, the great grandfather of Jasdev Singh Akoi, the Managing Partner of M/s Akoi Saab, the ownership firm of The Imperial, was given a contract to build a part of the Patiala tunnel by the Maharaja of Patiala. The job was so well done that he was flooded by prestigious contracts, including the grand Coronation Durbar in 1911 when the British shifted the Capital to Delhi with King Emperor George V and Queen Empress Mary laying its foundations. The King was so impressed by the event that he issued a certificate saying that in his and the Queen's opinion, “they had never witnessed and never would witness again so impressive a ceremony as the Durbar.” Following this praise, Rai Bahadur was given even larger contracts including The Imperial and awarded the Durbar medal. The 1911 restaurant stands testimony to the tribute.

The 24 palms

Like the 24 gun salute, visitors to The Imperial are greeted by 24 king palms all the way from the entrance to the porch. The lions that guard the ornate entrance speak the language of the Raj. It was Lady Willingdon who conferred the lion insignia upon the hotel and even gave it its name. Though it was part of Lutyens' grand master plan of Delhi, it was conceptualised in 1934 by his associate, Blomfield. In 1936 Lord Willingdon inaugurated it, making the property a popular destination and an important landmark.

Blomfield's design of the hotel saw a fusion of colonial and Victorian styles with art deco playing an important role. It is said that Lady Willingdon was often seen at the hotel working on its interior design, which was replete with marble figurines, Persian carpets, tableware from London, Italian marble floors, Burma teak furniture and original Daniells and Frasers on the walls.

The restoration

The last five years have seen an extensive restoration of the property, but thankfully it has been done with care to ensure that its original grandeur and impressive history stands out and speaks for itself. What also speaks as you move through the corridors is the timeless art that adorns its walls, including etchings of ink, stipple, lithographs, tints (mezzo and aqua), photographs from the colonial era and candle stands engraved with The Imperial crown.

The restaurants too stand the test of time. If ‘Daniell's Tavern' sports a menu that revisits India from the eyes of Thomas and William Daniells in 1786, the Polo bar ‘Patiala Peg' has a wonderful story to tell. A popular bar in the Capital that only serves 75 ml pegs instead of the usual 60 ml, it is said that in the early 1900s a tent pegging encounter took place between the Viceroy's team and that of the Maharaja of Patiala. The Maharaja's team won, giving way to the bar that pays tribute to his victory. The other two restaurants – The Atrium, the high tea café & lounge and The Spice Route are too well known for an introduction.

As you walk away from the grand property, what remains etched in memory are the magnificent green lawns seen from the ballroom balcony, the 70 feet mural of Hindoostan, the red turbaned waiters that make your head turn, the women in white who greet you when you enter and leave this early 19{+t}{+h} century English Manor. And, wait… the smell… a heavenly lemon aroma that pervades the senses and lingers on.

Published on September 28, 2011
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