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A Well-Lighted Place

by GOLAB P. in Tehran

09 Mar 2010 20:206 Comments
cafenaderi.jpgTehran is a city inhabited by millions dashing, driving, and edging past one another every day. Those from smaller towns live to get to Tehran. Residents of Tehran would die to get out. Every day is marked by endless collisions and crashes, but rarely does the city offer a spot for its dwellers to exchange a laugh, read a newspaper or sip a cup of coffee in anything that resembles a refuge from Tehran's frantic pace.

But Tehran's Naderi Café is such a place. It is one harbor in this gargantuan city that despite odds has survived revolution, war, demolition and pollution to offer respite within its archaic walls. The café and restaurant, adjacent to the Naderi Hotel, is nearly a century old and situated downtown near the notorious British embassy, a short walk to Istanbul Square, in the heart of Tehran's shopping district.

The café was established by the Armenian Khachik Madikiyans in 1928, originally as a confectionary. Many of Tehran's greatest cafes and confectioneries were run by Armenians. Some still are, like Tala Confectionary and Lord.

Naderi eventually grew into a hotel, restaurant and café. Along with Café Ferdowsi (now closed), it is one of the oldest cafes in the city. In 2007, it was reported that the owner was looking to sell. The literary community in Tehran responded with great sorrow because Naderi Café was the famous gathering place of some of Iran's brightest literary talents: Sadeq Hedayat, Ahmad Shamlou, Nader Ebrahimi. Lili Goestan, author, translator and the director of the famous Golestan Art Gallery in Tehran, writes of going to the café as a child with her mother and father, Iranian writer, Ebrahim Golestan.

In fact, one of the most charming features of Naderi is the waiters' claim to personally recall each of these writers. They point to the place where Hedayat would once sit, they tell us about the discussions they had with Ebrahimi and his wife. The waiters are chubby, jolly septuagenarians who insist the water they bring you is "aabe pak-e Tehran-e" (pure water from the city of Tehran). And if you want to call to one, be careful to mention the word "Khan" (Sir) at the end. As one waiter explained when I asked his name: "It's Reza Khan and please don't forget the 'Khan' if you're calling me!"

Those waiters are the very heart and soul of the place, with their cheerful bodies frantically scurrying to fetch menus and offer water, coffee or a joke. Some speak fluent English and love to tell stories of meeting the British who they claim visit regularly from the embassy. "Hello! What can I bring for you, dear lady?" Reza Khan asks jokingly.

It is not merely the waiters that gives Naderi its unique vivacity. It's the ambiance, the thick, ancient walls, the antiquated bubble lamps that resemble the furnishings at my grandparent's home, the remnant chairs and faded china. Some would view the café as decrepit and dirty. For others thirsty to visit old Tehran, the city that lived generations before we walked its trafficked streets, Naderi offers us a glimpse of that which has faded beneath the sheen of modernity, beneath the pollution, traffic and mayhem.

Naderi sits like a hidden artifact, an anthropologist's finding. The windows of the café open up to a spacious, beautiful garden. The waiters say that long ago they served drinks and pastries to customers who sat there, but it has not been used for years. Summer evenings I like to sit on and face the sun-soaked garden, imagining what it must have looked like 50 years ago. The gardens remain as one of the most intriguing features of the vicinity's older buildings. The area is one of the most polluted, populated parts of the city -- the center of commerce near the bazaar. But once inside, these old buildings often open to vast gardens. One would never guess from the tiny, dingy doors seen from the outside.

Besides the history, what makes Naderi so appealing is its vast, open space. The café is airy, huge and well lighted -- so very different from the current trend of most Tehran cafes. The cafes that have sprouted like mushrooms all around the city are tight, murky places offering little light. Places where a hazy-eyed, spiky-haired waiter brings a cup of warm water sprinkled with Nescafe for 5,000 tomans. These new cafes are "in." It's where all the girls and boys collect, because there is simply nowhere else to socialize.

At Naderi you can find the best Turkish coffee for 2000 tomans -- half the price it is elsewhere -- and many times more savory. My favorite menu item is the coffee milkshake, a mixture of ice cream, milk and coffee. The secret with everything on their menu is the ice cream, homemade by their Armenian chef and simply superb. My mother tells me that it tastes like her childhood days in Abadan.

In the late '90s, with the rise of reformist newspapers, Naderi underwent a revival. For years, during the war, it had been forgotten. But with a swell of stories and articles referring to Naderi, and with the republication of Hedayat by a number of publishers in Tehran, Naderi was brought back to the consciousness of Tehran dwellers. It has since turned into the next "it" café, a "cool" place for the young and trendy to hang out. Tehran's hip crowd drives all the way from uptown for a cigarette and coffee. Art students from the three nearby art schools -- Azad University School of Art, The Art University of Iran and the Fine Arts faculty at the University of Tehran -- come for drinks. Businessmen drop by and study the paper. Families and shoppers stop in for lunch.

For my generation at least, the kids born after the revolution, the concept of the "café" or pub, a place where people go to lounge, socialize, drink (be it alcoholic or nonalcoholic beverages) and read a paper is just nonexistent. Instead, there are the traditional tea houses (chay khaneh) populated by older men. There are the new dingy cafes. But Naderi is different. The room is bright, the waiters smile, the chatter is loud and warm. We take comfort in one another's presence; we try to sip that last drop of coffee as slowly as we can just so we have an excuse to sit a while longer.

In a city where darkness reigns, we take refuge here for hours.

Photos by Hooman Majd.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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If you eat at the restaurant, try the signature steak, served in a sizzling pan and drenched in a cream sauce -- heavy, but heaven!

mona / March 10, 2010 2:57 AM

And "estemaal-e dokhaaniaat akeedan mamno'o" :) !

gorg O'meesh / March 10, 2010 4:07 PM

mona, since they shuffled around chefs two years ago, I don't think the steak has been as good as it used to be. And they took the beef stroganoff off the menu for good which was really sad :( It had been the staple of the lunch menu for decades.

But yes, it's still heavenly :-P

Golab P. / March 10, 2010 9:11 PM

I was there just before election day last June, and the Turkish coffee was so good I ordered a several in a row. The garden looked very inviting, but the waiters said Cafe Naderi was not allowed to use if for their customers. Does anyone know why?

Catherine / March 11, 2010 2:35 PM

Catherine, I've inquired about the garden several times, and gotten two stories: the waiters say that "amaken" (morality police) don't allow them to serve in the garden anymore. But there are lots of restaurants in Tehran which serve food in the garden. The man behind the cashier, he told me it was because it would be too expensive to maintain the garden for daily use.

Golab P. / March 11, 2010 10:59 PM

wanna open a coffee shop??

simran / March 13, 2010 9:16 AM