Bengalis are known for their fine palates and love of dining out, and a wide range of cuisines are theirs to choose from. Make sure to sample Kolkata-Mughlai food -- blending the best of the Bengali Nawabs' cuisine with influences from the Deccan, Awadh, and North India -- at least once. Nizam's, which has been given a makeover recently (1 Corporation Place, just behind The Oberoi Grand), claims to be the place where the kathi kebab roll (kebabs wrapped in a paratha -- fried bread) was invented. The food is legendary, and the prices unbeatable but don't expect any sophistication in service or ambience. Another popular Bengali-Muslim joint is Shiraz (56 Park St., at the intersection of Park St. and A.J.C. Bose Rd.; tel. 033/2287-7702 or 033/2280-5006). Go to the first floor for air-conditioned comfort, or up to the rooftop. The extensive menu includes numerous exotic-sounding Kolkata-Mughlai items, as well as a range of kebabs.
If you're in the vicinity of Nakhoda Mosque, try the Royal Indian Hotel (147 Rabindra Sarani; tel. 033/2268-1073), which opened in 1905 and is the oldest restaurant of its kind. On Thursday or Sunday, you can order murgh mussalam (chicken); mutton chanps tikiya (chops) is another specialty (available on all days except Thurs).
Chinese cuisine is popular with Kolkatans -- Mainland China (Uniworth House, 3A Gurusadary Rd.; tel. 033/2283-7964 through -7969; www.mainlandchinaindia.com) is one of the most popular, but serves typical Indian-Chinese: a tomato base, and heavy emphasis on chilies. Good choices include Peking-style lamb cooked in black pepper sauce, Hunan-style prawns, and Szechuan chili crab.
Park Street, one of the city's busiest hubs, is lined cheek-by-jowl with restaurants and stalls serving all kinds of interesting food. Peter Cat (18A Park St.; tel. 033/2229-8841 or 033/2217-2942), set in a pleasant colonial bungalow, serves an outstanding chelo kebab platter (Rs 148), skewered meat kebabs on a bed of flavored rice. This is a popular after-work watering hole, though service is often shoddy. Avoid it at lunchtime on weekdays when it's packed with local office-goers. Also on Park Street is Mocambo (25B Park St.; tel. 033/2229-0095 or 033/2217-5372), which serves decent Western fare (try the tasty deviled crabs and sizzlers (steak or kebab and vegetable platters).
For Bengali cuisine, try Oh Calcutta (10/3 Elgin Rd., fourth floor, Forum Mall; tel. 033/2283-7162; www.speciality.co.in) and ask for specials like dab chingri (prawns in coconut gravy), kakra chingri bhapa (crabmeat and minced prawn cooked with mustard sauce, wrapped in banana leaf, and steamed), or Anglo-Indian fare like the Railway Mutton Curry; nothing fancy about the decor but its popularity is evident. If you don't mind sitting in cramped surroundings, Bhojohari Manna (tel. 033/2440-1933) is where you get the most authentic Bengali fare at dirt-cheap prices. There are four branches; best to give a call and ask which one is closest to you.
Anyone with a sweet tooth is headed for heaven: Mishti doi (yogurt with caramelized sugar) is a must-try, as are Bengali staples like sandesh (cottage cheese with jaggery), chanar payesh (cottage cheese or milk with nuts and raisins), ledikeni (said to be named after Lady Canning, who was a great admirer of this sweet!), rossogolla (spongy balls of cottage cheese dipped in sugar syrup), and khir kadom, more delicately sweetened than the gulab jamuns (sweet milk-and-dough balls) and halwas (semolina desserts) of the north, and available all over the city. Shop where sweet gourmands do, at the most popular K.C. Das (11A Planet East, Dharamtala; tel. 033/2248-5920; www.kcdas.co.in). You could also try Ganguram (11 C.R. Ave.; tel. 033/2236-5502; www.ganguram.com), Gokul (1 A.J.C. Bose Rd.), Mithai (48B Syed Amir Ali Ave.), and Bhim Chandra Nag (5, Nirmal Chandra St.; tel. 033/2212-0465).
Fast Food, Kolkata Style -- At almost any time of the day you'll see expectant customers standing outside the various kathi roll booths all over the city. They're waiting for one of Kolkata's favorite lunchtime snacks, a paratha (thick chapati, or fried bread) filled with spiced chicken, mutton, egg, potato, or paneer (Indian cheese) topped off with chaat masala, onion, and lemon juice -- simply delicious. The hygiene at many of these places is often suspect, so look for a stall with lots of customers. (Try Kusum at 21 Park St., the one outside Oxford Book Store; or another stall next to Peter Cat.) Order the double-side egg mutton roll. Puchkas (deep-fried hollow balls made of wheat, filled with mashed and spiced potato along with tangy mint), omelet bread (where the bread is cooked inside the egg!), and jhalmuri (a truly delicious mix of a dozen snack items, served dry or with onions, tomatoes, and spicy chutneys), are also favorites with the local people and a must-have if you really want a taste of Kolkatan life.
Meeting Bengalis -- The Indian Coffee House (15 Bankin Chatterjee St., first floor; tel. 033/2241-4869; Mon-Sat 9am-9pm, Sun 9am-12:30pm and 5-9pm), where the Young Bengal Movement started, is the quintessential College Street haunt. This is where M. N. Roy, founder of the Communist Party of India (as well as the Mexican Communist Party), Satyajit Ray, Nobel Laureate Dr. Amartya Sen, and a host of other famous personalities discussed the future of India over platefuls of fish fingers and coffee. A lone photograph of Rabindranath Tagore looks across a vast former 1930s dance hall with sagging ceiling fans and scattered tables around which men, young and old, demonstratively argue the issues of the day. Surly waiters plod around rather aimlessly, so be patient while waiting for your greasy pakora and a strong Coorg. Meals are not the reason to come, but it's a good place to strike up a conversation over a cup of coffee. For an even more animated and authentic interaction with locals, head for the Calcutta races (www.rctconline.com); ask any waiter or at your hotel about the next event. All walks of life are to be seen here, many in their finest glad rags. As everyone celebrates the chance to escape their dharma, the atmosphere is electric.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.