One of the most talked about cafes in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, Illtierati is a great place to stop for a coffee and excellent views if you’re anywhere in Dharamshala or Mcleod Ganj. Here’s a tête-à-tête with the owners on what makes it so special. Text By Charu Chowdhary & Photographs By Abhinav Chandel
1) How old are you and your partner, and what are your names? How did running one of the most loved cafes in the Himachal come about?
We are Rikten and Julian, and we are in our early 30s. The cafe was originally set up in 2012 by our close friend, Yannick Ramaekers, as a bookshop plus cafe, and it was our hangout spot away from the hustle-bustle of Mcleod Ganj. Due to unforeseen circumstances, Yannick had to move back to Europe with his family in 2016. After much deliberation, we decided to continue running the cafe for the staff, for our friends, loyal regular customers, and for Dharamshala. So much love had been put into it that it was too precious for us to not keep the legacy alive.
2) What does it take to run a cafe successfully in the Himalayas?
Definitely a lot of patience because of the diverse crowd that walk into our cafe and are unfamiliar with our offerings. Our menu comprises of dishes taught and recipes shared by family members, visiting chefs, and our own favourites from our travels. We also try to source good ingredients, which are not readily available in the local market.
3) What do you think makes Illiterati (why this name though?) resonate so much with travellers? Some highlights of your cafe?
The breathtaking view of Dhauladar mountain range and the relaxed ambience could be the reason people like visiting here so much. We have an impressive collection of books as well, across different cultures and genres, mostly in the English language. Our books play a major part in attracting the customers we feel – we have everything from travel-related journals, new titles, to coffee table books and second-hand books. And then, there’s decent WiFi of course.
People often ask us about our name – Illiterati (which means a person who’s uneducated in a certain arena); our cafe was originally a bookstore, and going by that, it sat well in the context. And then the name just stuck around even after it becoming a full-fledged cafe.
4) Illiterati is essentially not just a coffee shop, it’s a space for creative people. Any anecdotes from the hordes of cosmopolitan travellers that often throng the cafe?
Illiterati is a space for everyone, not just for creative types. Our regulars generally tend to be Thai monks, Korean nuns, Tibetan activists, Butoh dancers, Dharamsala locals, travellers from different parts of India and abroad, and friends and family. Anecdotes? We know of quite a number of couples who first met as fellow travellers at Illiterati but the rest as they say, is history.
5) It’s quite a favourite spot of Bollywood celebrities as well, isn’t it?
Not really. Yes, a few celebrities who have walked in here in the past were here because of some local connection. We have also had a few cricketers walk-in. That could be because they probably liked the idea of our cafe being away from the main town. We are however, happy to have served all the celebrities because they always bring a lot of joy to our staff.
6) What are the best food items and drinks on the menu?
We like our Chicken Schnitzel with our Mint Lemonade. We have vegan options of course and are open to customising our offerings to fit plant-based diets
7) Do you think social media plays a role in putting you out there?
No doubt, social media has been both good and not-so-good to us. Good because it has thrown the limelight on our space via photo and review-sharing platforms. However, we are unable to cope with all the attention because we are not equipped and don’t have the bandwidth to respond to all.
8) What are the places in Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj that you think people must definitely explore?
Nowadays, travellers are exploring every possible corner of Dharamsala thanks to all the travel companies and blogs. The trek to Triund is very popular but it’s very heartbreaking to see the scenic paths littered with plastic water bottles, chips bags, snack wrappers, and tetra pack cartons. Therefore, we request all the explorers to become better travellers. Simple acts like disposing trash in the designated bins and carrying refillable water bottles can have massive positive impact.
9) Lastly, if Illiterati had to expand, where would it open up next?
We don’t see us ever expanding. At the moment, we are happy wherever we are.