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Monday, June 11, 2001

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Bit of drive-in nostalgia

IT WAS a hot summer day in the 1960s. A cousin charged into the room, all excited to be the first to break the news to the rest of the gang. "Do you know, there's this fantastic new eating place near Gemini? It's a drive-in restaurant, and you get fabulous idli-dosa and coffee there." "What's a drive-in restaurant?" the only cousin in the gang who was not ashamed of letting everyone know he didn't know, piped in.

His face fell when he realised he didn't qualify to be a customer. "What's the use, da? I don't even own a bicycle. Surely, they won't let me in there," he said, not trying to hide his disappointment.

But the moment we knew we could try out this new joint even if we did not have the wherewithal to drive in, we scraped together every paisa we could scrounge... from parents and sundry benefactors and, in fact, one of us going to the extent of raiding grandfather's anteroom and flicking old issues of The Hindu and The Indian Express and exchanging them for a few coins at Rajaji Book Stall and Old Newspaper Mart at the end of our street.

Thus began an affair that has lasted over 35 years and continues unabated even today. The cousin who brought the glad tidings, was absolutely right. The idli, vada and dosa were first rate and the garden retreat atmosphere sensationally novel.

A cafeteria in the midst of the wooded precincts of the Horticultural Society, was a stroke of genius, and the idea that the Madrasi would enjoy his tiffin served to him in his car, caught on.

Woodlands Drive-in Restaurant, Woodies to many - not to be confused with the champion Aussie doubles pair - is the favourite spot for most people on the move who wish to 'grab' a bite but do it in relative leisure, certain in the knowledge that the waiter knows their preferences and the fare would be totally predictable: tasty, wholesome and easy on the digestive system.

The dosa they serve there today is the dosa they have served for nearly four decades, no change in the batter or oil, no change in size or shape, no change in the sambar and chutney that go with it.

Even most of the waiters are the same people who served you when you were a mere stripling; they were striplings too, then, but today, they have aged gracefully.

Woodies now has a drive-in service, a semi-open air service for the janata, a self-service area, an air-conditioned dining hall and a new air-conditioned restaurant, all serving idli-vada-dosa to chole(y) bhatura to bread peas masala (a Woodies special) to pongal-avial to bisi bele huliyanna as well as the ubiquitous, so-called chat items.

The amazing thing is that every section serves all these items, with not an attempt to tempt you with claims of speciality restaurants. Seasoned customers know that pongal avial is served only on Tuesdays and that sambar sadam is available only on Fridays and so on and so forth.

Not everyone who visits Woodies eats there. Many stop by to chat with friends, colleagues, customers or business partners. My friend Ashok, the stockbroker, has a coffee and a quiet smoke before commerce engulfs him for the rest of the morning. Jaganmohan, the medical equipment manufacturer, breaks off from business calls to stop, think and relax a while. Ganesh, the indefatigable entrepreneur, hatches his newest project over a succession of coffees through the afternoon.

For years, medical representatives have done most of their business at 'Drive-in'. For the reps, it is a convenient spot to meet, exchange notes and adopt shortcuts to the day's work. Today, along with salesmen, mobile phones are part of the scenery as well, rendering the temperamental pay-phone there quite redundant. For many a start-up venture, what better office space than their favourite haunt at which to launch their operations?

Time was when boys would gather there in the hope of 'sighting' some 'chicks' from nearby Stella Maris College, but increasingly that kind of crowd seems to have migrated to other spots nearby.

Young couples, courting or married, however, still meet here regularly; they can usually be spotted under the trees or in the A/C restaurant.

Fortune tellers and aspiring starlets are as much a part of the scene as groups of tourists stopping for breakfast or lunch. Established stars too have been regulars over the years.

Rajnikant often breakfasted there in the past. That it has been the versatile musician P B Sreenivos' home away from home is public knowledge, with magazines and TV channels giving it wide publicity.

For many erstwhile Chennaivasis temporarily or permanently displaced, memories of home are incomplete without a spot of Drive-in nostalgia. To them, the very idea of a future scenario without a place for this landmark in it would be entirely unthinkable.


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