Haroon Sait passed away last week. If you’ve ever had anything to do with food scene in Bangalore, you know who I’m talking about, and why it matters to me. If not – this is the man who established The Only Place in the 1960s, and gave this city steak, burgers, pasta, and pie when they were unheard of here. It was, truly, The Only Place you could get ’em.
The first time I stepped into The Only Place, it was located cheek-by-jowl with a coffin-maker, at the rear of a large, mostly-empty plot of land that now houses Mota Arcade at the bottom of Brigade Road. I was 11 years old, and already quite greedy when it came to food. We were with a friend of my father’s who insisted I share a steak with my younger brother “because the portions are large” and “she won’t be able to finish one all by herself”. My parents indulged me; their friend was right on the first count and wrong on the second.
I was enchanted by the gentleman who took our order. He listened to the “she won’t be able to finish” theory, then said that he would pick out a smaller steak for me, and that if I didn’t finish it, he would cut it up and fry it with some onions and garlic for us to take home and eat later. “How would you like your steak?” he asked, looking straight at me. I had no idea what he meant, but wanted to appear sophisticated – and he sensed my discomfort at once. “Medium rare, I’m sure,” he continued without skipping a beat, as took the rest of the order. I remember feeling profoundly grateful for the rescue, in the way that only a gauche 11 year-old can.
I later visited The Only Place on dates, where bemused boyfriends watched as I tucked a huge steak and a slice of pie into my skinny frame and 23″ waistline (no wonder I don’t have those anymore!). Haroon was always there, always spry, always chatty, never intrusive. He didn’t recognize me, other than as a regular customer; I never forgot.
After Mota Arcade was built, The Only Place shifted into a spot on the ground floor. Sleek pinewood tables, a whole passel of uniformed waiters, and newly printed menu cards. Nice. They served you beer in steel glasses, if you asked nicely and if they knew you well enough. And they gave you the best cuts of meat too. It was still The Only Place that knew the difference between rare, medium rare, and just plain overcooked. The pastas were sometimes overcooked, the pies weren’t really pies, and the steaks were decent, not brilliant – and by now, I knew the difference. I still visited, more for the vibe than the food.
I got married, had babies, and moved to the U.S. When I came back for a quick visit, I was sad to see that the quality of the food had deteriorated somewhat, and that the service had gone downhill – but Haroon was still there, dapper as ever, bustling around and making sure everyone was doing their job. He’d aged some, but hadn’t we all?
By the time I moved back to Bangalore, The Only Place had moved to its current location on Museum Road Cross. Haroon wasn’t there as often – his son seemed to have taken on the same role though. Like Haroon, he never seems content to sit behind the till and count his shekhels. He mingles.
I took the Vacuum Cleaner there at the very beginning of his vacuum cleaner stage, and bet him he couldn’t finish the steak he ordered as well as the peach pie he wanted for dessert. I should’ve known better. Haroon happened to be there that day. “Big appetite,” he pronounced in passing, deadpan (and somewhat needlessly, I thought, seeing as the child had just consumed as many calories as Elvis on a binge).
Although I didn’t really know Haroon other than by sight, I feel a strange sense of loss. A living Bangalore legend is now just a legend.
Goodbye Haroon. You lived well.