What was eating out like before Annachi [of Saravana Bhavan] arrived on the scene? For a long while Chennai did not believe in this concept. The middle classes frowned on it, for it was a sure sign that the woman of the house was not a good cook or was incapable of managing the kitchen.
Brahmins-only hotels flourished, however, where patrons had to display their sacred threads before entering, this pernicious practice being finally stopped by Periyar EV Ramaswami Naicker, who ran a spirited campaign against such establishments, often picketing on their doorsteps.The most prolonged battle was at Murali Café in Triplicane’s Bharathi Salai, with the proprietor holding out till HH Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi, the pontiff of the Kanchi Math, advised him to move with the times.
During the days when the Brahmins-only hotels flourished, bachelors from other castes found the going tough, and by the early 1900s, eateries began making their appearance, especially in the George Town area. Here again, caste had a role to play and care was taken to ensure that the kitchen was under the control of Brahmins. Within this community, the best cooks came from the Udupi region of present-day Karnataka.
One among these was Kadandale Krishna Rao, who came to Madras in the 1920s and worked as a grinder of idli batter at an eatery in George Town. The owner was impressed with his diligence and entrusted the management of another eatery in a neighbouring street to him. Success in this venture emboldened Krishna Rao and by 1926, he had opened a restaurant on Mount Road – Udupi Sri Krishna Vilas, thereby starting off the Udupi revolution in Chennai. Several of his compatriots would follow, all of them setting up imitation restaurants and achieving a modicum of success. The masala dosa was essentially an Udupi creation which is now synonymous with South Indian cuisine.
But Krishna Rao was meant for bigger things. In 1938, the raja of Ramnad leased Woodlands, his palace on Royapettah’s Westcott Road, to a contractor from Bangalore who turned it into a hotel.This was not a success and Krishna Rao took the place on a sub-lease. He would wait at the railway station each morning and solicit custom from first-class passengers.
Other marketing techniques helped – Woodlands hosted the December Music Season of the Music Academy in 1937 and was also the venue for sale of used cars. The hotel became a roaring success leading to the Bangalore contractor being tempted to run the place himself. When he proved difficult to deal with, Krishna Rao opted to move out, identifying property on Mylapore’s upmarket Edward Elliots Road (now Radhakrishnan Salai) where he built his New Woodlands and from there embarked on a successful chain. It withstood the onslaught of the Saravana Bhavans of the world and is still a successful hotel with restaurants.
Not so fortunate was Krishna Rao’s other creation – Woodlands Drive-in Restaurant, located inside the Agri-Horticultural Society gardens on Cathedral Road. Established in 1962 in the midst of a vast acreage of greenery, this was where much of Chennai went of an afternoon. You drove up, placed your order and the food arrived, delivered on trays that were fixed to the car window!
Woodlands Drive-in was famed for its rose milk, masala dosa, and coffee. You also got a glimpse of several celebrities, including playback singer and composer PB Sreenivas, turbaned and ever surrounded by a sheaf of handwritten notes.This unique restaurant closed in 2008 when the government decided to take over the space and develop it as a green reserve, named Semmozhi Poonga.
Dasaprakash was the creation of another Mysorean, K Seetharama Rao, who in the 1920s gave up a lowly government job and turned restaurateur. Modern Café in Mysore was the first and then came similar restaurants in Madras, including one near the swimming pool by the Marina. All of this however paled into insignificance in the face of Dasaprakash, the hotel and restaurant that he set up in 1954 on Poonamallee High Road. An art-deco dream, it had rooms to stay in and its restaurants offered Udupi fare, as well as ice creams and milk shakes.
Rooftop dinners on moonlit nights were an added attraction as was the jewel of an auditorium where music and dance performances took place. Honoured guests included Jawaharlal Nehru, the maharaja of Mysore, and JK Galbraith. Seetharama Rao went on to establish Dharmaprakash, an upmarket wedding hall, next to his hotel and, after his demise in 1968, his sons set up a Dasaprakash in Ooty, and then hotels in North India and the US.
But back home, the original edifice was crumbling. Differences within the family led to the closure of Dasaprakash and the sale and subsequent demolition of the iconic building. The memory of its cuisine was carried on for some time by AVM’s Dasa, a lovely restaurant in a beautiful heritage building on Anna Salai, whose leasehold was with the AVM Group. It closed to make way for a hideous glass and steel structure. Today, the cuisine of Dasaprakash is a mere memory but some of it survives in Kapila Dasa in the Express Avenue Mall, run by Tulsi Reddy, a granddaughter of Seetharama Rao.
Also gone are many Udupi hotels of the city, including the one that began the trend – Krishna Vilas. In that long line of extinguished eateries we need to include Pankaja Café of Purasawalkam, immortalized in the writings of the playwright Marina. Several of Chennai’s famed “lunch homes”, which specialised in traditional midday meals served on banana leaves, have also shut shop.
The best remembered is Ramakrishna Lunch Home on NSC Bose Road, for years the mainstay of middling lawyers and their clients, when the high court took its midday break. The genial proprietor was VR Ramanatha Iyer, who also served as mayor of the city. VRR’s other entity was Shankar’s Café, also on the same stretch, which, rather ironically, after having been a jeweller’s showroom, is now Saravana Bhavan’s George Town branch.
Vegetarian food in Chennai does not mean just South Indian fare.The streets and lanes of George Town, peopled as they are with Gujaratis, Marwaris, and Jains, have plenty of eateries in them, serving delectable North Indian food. The humble Gujarati Mandal in Gunvanti Bhavan on Broadway is known for its thalis while Kakda Ram Prasad, close by, is famed for its snacks, especially jalebis.
Just outside it, and bringing a whiff of Varanasi is Anmol Lassi Bhandar, a kiosk where a wrestler pours out lassis. Agarwal Bhavan in the same area is the place to go to for North Indian sweets.
Each December, Chennai has some added options when it comes to dining out on vegetarian food – the sabha canteens. Many of the core rasikas may argue that the eatery is but a fringe element in the December Season, but its role in making the music festival a lively affair over the years cannot be denied.
Had it not been for World War II, restrictions would not have been imposed on gatherings at outdoor spaces in Madras. Had that not happened, the Music Academy would have happily continued hosting its conferences and concerts in 1939 in the gardens of Woodlands Hotel, Westcott Road, as it had the previous year, to great success.
But with World War II breaking out in September, the Music Academy and its dynamic president, KVK, were faced with the task of finding an enclosed precinct in which to conduct the music festival. Being a member of the University Syndicate, KVK, with some help from S Satyamurti, who was mayor of Madras that year, managed to get the University Senate House for the series. Not everyone was happy. The acoustics were bad and to the conservative Carnatic crowd, it was a lonely spot, especially in the evenings.
KVK had an answer for everything.The acoustics at Senate House were improved by draping sacks across all the windows and doors. Special buses transported music lovers to and from the venue.
But the new complaint that emerged was that Senate House had no eatery in the vicinity. The next year, 1940, with the series being held once again at Senate House, KVK went a step further. An eatery would function from the premises itself – Ambi’s Café of Broadway being the caterer. This was evidently a great success.
The next year’s festival was also at Senate House and the Tanjore Lodge of Mambalam won the contract. In 1942, the last year that the Senate House hosted a concert, Bharath Café of Mount Road, Mambalam and Mylapore, was the canteen operator. From then on, a canteen at the academy became de rigueur.
The canteen history of other sabhas is not so well-documented but it is clear that the Tamil Isai Sangam had a subsidised kitchen functioning even in the 1950s, which still operates from the premises. The Indian Fine Arts Society souvenir too has advertisements of caterers from the 1950s.Thereafter, the other sabhas followed suit.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, when the Music Academy operated from the RR Sabha and the PS High School, its canteen was run by Appaswami Iyer. Among his specialities was a badam halwa that had S. Y. Krishnaswami, the music-loving ICS officer, waxing eloquent. Not so appetising from its description, but equally in demand was a preparation of dry coconut scrapings and crystallised sugar that was sold in small paper packets. The canteen contract was an entry into high society for Appaswami Iyer and he was soon in demand for weddings.
His successor at the Music Academy was Krishnamurthy, who had at one time presided over the kitchen fires at MS Subbulakshmi’s Kalki Gardens. He was to bring the same grace and hospitality that embellished that stately home to the canteen. His speciality was kasi halwa and the news that it was ready would spark off an exodus from the auditorium. Even Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, that top draw among musicians, it was rumoured, timed his concerts to avoid the exodus when the halwa was prepared.
Others have come and gone since then at the Music Academy, but the canteen magic is now broad-based – “Arusuvai” Natarajan, “Gnanambika” Jayaraman, “Meenambika” Kannan, “Mount” Mani, “Mint” Padmanabhan...the list goes on, the prefixes being the names of their catering business ventures. They are as much stars as the artistes who perform within the auditoria. A few weeks before the season, artistes are besieged with fan mail requesting that they sing some favourite song or the other. Similarly, entire WhatsApp groups are formed and messages sent to caterers requesting certain dishes.
Excerpted with permission from Chennai: A Biography, V Sriram, Aleph Book Company.