Today you can find plenty of Chinese eateries around Kathmandu, but if you talk to someone from the older generation the first thing that comes to their mind is Nanglo: The Chinese Room which has found a place in their hearts forever. Opened in 1978 by two brothers, this duo brought a new palette of Indo Chinese food to Nepal during the late 70s when there were very few restaurants that served international cuisine for everyday people. The Chinese Room had not only brought good Chinese cuisine to the capital but created a decent respectable space for locals and tourists to enjoy food in a splendid ambience.
Bhola Bikram Thapa, Managing Director of President Travel, one of the loyal customers and admirer of The Chinese Room who has been patronizing the restaurant since its opening gives a review and shares fond memories.
I have been in Durbar Marg for almost 50 years and I have only moved from one corner to another through all this time. I have seen Durbar Marg changing its shape and color through my eyes and The Chinese Room was like a den. I already knew Gopal’s elder brother Shyam through some links. In Nanglo Restaurant they had a fireplace under the tree where all of us used to gather, drink together and have conversation and that’s where I met Gopal for the very first time. My travel agency was right next to The Chinese Room and I used to go there all the time for food and drinks so from there I met Gopal and we became friends.
I recall The Chinese Room as this dark place where you needed to step down and go through the stairs downward you would lose your vision for few seconds due to dim lighting and suddenly see a whole interior of red and gold throughout the restaurant. During those days there were only two restaurants in Durbar Marg so my go to place was obviously The Chinese Room due to its food, ambience and a place where I could hang out with my friends. It was the place to go and that’s why everybody used to go there. Within a few months of its opening, Nanglo became a meeting point for people, their comfort zone where you could find all sorts of people be it tourists or locals. People were so sure that they would meet somebody they already knew in The Chinese Room rather than calling their friends and deciding to meet there.
The usual routine would always be to finish your work and start with your drink in the bar of Nanglo at 9 and end up in the Chinese Room for dinner and after that we would go next door to Peter’s Place to a disco and return home. That’s how things were. You wouldn’t believe me but there were many discotheques during the time of The Chinese Room. Every day we used to go to The Chinese Room to have drinks, gossip with our friends and even saw some fights. Back in those days’ people also used to bring their girlfriends along and when they saw us they would feel awkward and turn away, as it was not common to take your girlfriend on a date.
As Chinese cuisine is composed of various items it required a lot of dishes to make a complete meal. Chinese cuisine promotes eating together so it was normal to eat in groups. I used to mostly go for lunch and you won’t only order a single item. You would order various dishes so it was normal to eat with your friends and make friends on the spot and eat together. So it also gave us an opportunity to have conversations which resulted in building new friendships, bonds and a strong sense of community. I have made a lot of friends there at The Chinese Room and I am forever grateful for it.
At that time, I had two brothers as partners in my travel agency, Peter and Mark Karthak. Peter used to start his breakfast from Nanglo and he used to mix vodka in juice from early in the morning. He used to be down by evening and his brother Mark would start his drinking session by evening and it would last till midnight. We three would always end up in The Chinese Room rather than our own office. Charles Mendes was a regular customer of The Chinese Room too but he was not much of a drinker. A very handsome guy named Madhu Shumsher also was a regular customer there and he used to drink vodka all the time. Every evening you would see him with his vodka.
Raja Ram Bhandari one of my close friends was also a regular drinker and the most shocking thing is after some years he became a sage and turned into a spiritual preacher. Y B Pandey officer of Royal Nepal Airlines also was an avid drinker and we used to sit together and gossip a lot. Ram Rana, General Manager of Malla Hotel, Binod Shankar of Shankar Hotel, K Y Mark, Riddhi Pokhrel, Laxman Rana, Madhukar Rana, Prabhakar Shumsher, Anil Khadka, Manoj Ghimire, Prem Upadhyay, Yogendra Shakya, Keshav Budhathoki we all got to know each other at The Chinese Room, became close and were like a community. Even Prince Dipendra used to come to The Chinese Room regularly when he was undergoing Army training in Kharipati. He used to have Fridays off and needed to report on Saturday afternoon, so he would drop by The Chinese Room to have his beer and momo. He loved Nanglo’s momo.
In our younger days we not only had fun but we also had business talks. We used to have stories beyond The Chinese Room as well. I, Gopal Kakshapati, Yogendra Shakya and Prakash Shrestha we were in a hot air balloon one day and suddenly Gopal had this idea to open a luxury travel bus. All of us agreed with the plan and opened the Green Line Bus service. From drinking together, we became business partners.
During those days’ people didn’t normally go for food but mostly for drinks as at that time they were not allowed to drink at home. So The Chinese Room became our place for drinks. I remember most of the time after drinking, we used to go for a drive to Nagarkot and have coffee at Sukey Budi’s small eatery and return back after enjoying the sunrise. All of us have spent prime time of our life at The Chinese Room, so it is not just a restaurant for me, it is a big part of my life. When The Chinese Room was shut down, I was really disappointed, but now I am glad that it has reopened. I could relive all those memories.
In a conversation with Gopal Kakshapati, he gives us an account of The Chinese Room since its beginning.
Can you tell me why and how you decided to open The Chinese Room back in the day?
We are two brothers, me and my elder brother Shyam. In 1973 both of us decided to enter into the restaurant business which was not a fine dining restaurant but a café named Café De Park in Ratna Park. After three years in 1976, we wanted to expand our business and opened Nanglo Café and Pub in Durbar Marg. From there we started our brand Nanglo. It was the first public pub besides five start hotels with the capacity for just 18 people. After two years of starting Nanglo Café and Pub in Durbar Marg, we had empty space next to our pub and hence Nanglo: The Chinese Room was born.
Any specific reason you chose to open a Chinese restaurant?
In those days there used to be very few Tibetan restaurants with different kinds of food. As Nepali palette consists of spices and masalas, we wanted to bring that but with our own twist. We decided to go with Indo-Chinese cuisine originating from Kolkata as it is similar in taste and has the same palette.
How was the response from people back in the early days?
When we opened The Chinese Room in 1978 there was only one in Annapurna a little older than ours by a few months, that’s it. We were the first publicly opened Chinese restaurant. And it catered to people of every class be it upper, middle or lower. Our décor was completely Chinese themed with red and gold color and people liked that. The response was amazing not only from local people but also from tourists.
How did you decide menus back then and what about the chef?
My brother travelled to Kolkata to hunt for a chef and luckily got hold of a chef who was half Nepali and half Chinese. He had a Nepali father and a Chinese mother. We brought him here to Kathmandu and with his help and from our little exposure which we had during our travelling we created menus.
Can you share some of your beautiful memories from The Chinese Room?
There are lots and lots of memories from The Chinese Room but back in the day we had a bar which could accommodate around eight people at one time. We used to stay behind the bar with lots of friends chatting away. We have developed a lot of friendship among customers and that is the biggest charm about working in a restaurant.
How was the turnout of foreign customers?
At that time there were not too many restaurants so we used to have a lot of foreign tourists and our client demarcation was 80% foreigners and 20% locals. But as time passed by, we started getting more locals than tourists.
Was it hard to juggle work between two restaurants?
No, it was not and if you are enjoying your work you never feel burdened by it. Back then we used to open our pub around 7:30 for breakfast and there was a bar as well which used to run late till 1 am. We used to work 18 hours a day without feeling any pressure.
What major differences do you see between now and those good old days in restaurant business?
The evolution of time started to bring more restaurants. During the 70s, restaurants serving foreign cuisine were opened by foreigners and after the 80s, a lot of restaurants started to emerge and today you can find restaurants in every nook and cranny. So it has developed itself rapidly throughout these decades.
How would you define The Chinese Room?
The Chinese Room promotes community eating as continental food is more individualistic where you order a plate for yourself, have it and leave, but in Chinese cuisine, you can’t order only one food item, you have to order varieties and it would require a number of people to finish the food so it is based on family and community. And I see Chinese Room the same way where you come with your friends and family to enjoy a meal and spend quality time with them.
What motivated you to bring back the restaurant?
After we closed The Chinese Room in Durbar Marg we had a combined restaurant of Chinese and normal food at Nanglo. Whenever I met my old clients they wanted me to reopen The Chinese Room and they were missing my food and ambience which just struck my heart. We also saw a demand and we decided to reopen our legendary restaurant.
How do you feel about all the friendships and bonds you have created all these year through your restaurants?
I feel like I am the richest in friendship and that is the biggest gift ever. They walked in as customers and after some time, they walked out as friends which means a lot to me. When I am travelling abroad people recognize me as an owner of Nanglo and they talk about the food and ambience of my restaurant and that is the biggest achievement ever.
Your favorite dishes from The Chinese Room?
I must confide that I am a foodie and I am happy with whatever I am given. From The Chinese Room dumplings, spring rolls, hot and sour soup are my favorites. And as a restaurant owner I must be able to have a distinct taste to determine the quality of food here in my restaurant.
Your favorite memories with Bhola Thapa in your old setup?
Bhola had his travel agency next to my restaurant and he had no choice but to come for food in my restaurant and from there we met each other and became friends. We used to drink together and had a lot of fun. We became so close that we even became business partners.