What’s the secret behind the enduring success of 70-year-old Rayars Mess?

Fluffy idlis, crisp vadas, and scalding-hot degree coffee…. Located in a cramped nook on Arundale Street (Mylapore), Rayars Mess has been spinning this delicious tale for over 70 years, where according to P. Mohan, co-owner, “Customers are family.”

Rayars Mess was opened as Rayars café more than seven decades ago by Srinivasa Rao on Kutchery Road, off Mylapore. Successfully run by Rao’s family for three generations, the mess quickly gained immense popularity just through word-of-mouth. “My grandfather was from Karnataka, where people used to call him Rayar (or Rao). That is how the mess got its name,” says P. Mohan, its current owner, smiling with pride.

The street is crowded with customers eagerly waiting their turn for the scrumptious idlis and vadas. The mess works on a first-come-first-served basis.

Most customers don’t mind travelling long distances to reach Rayars even as early as 6.30 in the morning. “Rayars has been maintaining quality in terms of food and service, for as long as I can remember. We don’t feel like customers but part of a huge family,” says P. K. Deepak, a loyal customer since the Seventies.

What sets the mess apart is the fact that it functions for just a few hours every day (from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.); it is small and cannot accommodate many customers at a time; and it has an open kitchen. Treating loyal customers with a personal touch, as they are aware of their likes and dislikes, is why Mohan and Kumar have stuck to the four-to-a-table tradition. “It is the feel-at-home ambience and flavour of our fare that draws customers here, and they don’t mind the wait before they are served,” says Kumar, cook and co-owner of the mess. “I remember my father going to Rayars all the way from Ambattur, just to bring piping hot vadas from there,” laughs Poornima, another customer.

It is no surprise that the idlis and vadas are such a hit. But it’s the chutney that seems to be so popular among foodies. “Even now when I go abroad, I dream of those Rayars flavours, especially the ghetti (thick) chutney. There is something about the place that seems to attract customers,” reminisces Ananth, an old customer. “Pottukadalai (roasted gram) is the secret behind our chutney’s unique taste,” says Mohan, with a gleam in his eyes.

Rejecting suggestions from customers to expand the services, Mohan says, “If we did so, the personal touch would be lost, and that completely goes against what Rayars is famous for.”