Vintage hospitality and food cooked the way it used to be. Subha J Rao profiles Sri Lakshmi Vilas and The Bright Dawn Bakery, two old-world eateries in Podanur

The Bright Dawn Bakery

It’s 6.30 in the morning and Mohammed Shakeer, 57, is just back from the mosque. He washes his hands and gets set for his favourite task of the day — getting the dough ready for varki. He runs The Bright Dawn bakery in Podanur, which is about 114 years old. His father Mohammed Haroon bought the bakery from one A.L. Dawn, when he went back to England.

Even today, people swear by Bright Dawn’s bread and buns. “Shall I show you why?” asks Shakeer, as he leads you into a dark passageway that opens into a wide room. The object of his affection stands there — a tall wood-fired oven that has turned out buns, breads and varkis by the lakhs over the years. “I have a modern oven for the cakes, but this one’s special,” he says.

At eight, when the workers arrive, Shakeer has already started work on the varkis. The workers line up the dough, which has been mixed by hand, on the baking racks and place them in the mouth of the hot and ready oven. “You can never recreate the taste of hand-mixed dough in a machine.”

Bright Dawn’s plum cakes are legendary. “Because of my candied fruits,” says Shakeer, offering me a spoon of tutty fruity, dry fruits, ginger and orange peel soaked in sugar syrup for three months. “My fruits won’t squish. You can cut them into two,” he says.

Helping him at the store now is his son Mohammed Shaheed, who left behind a job in Dubai. He carefully slices a loaf of bread, hands it over to a customer and speaks of his plans for the bakery. “Fast food, maybe. Some sandwiches, cream cakes…”

Over the years, Bright Dawn’s suppliers have remained the same — a firm from Mumbai sends the dry fruits in bulk, since Shakeer’s father’s days.

On Sundays, Shakeer whips up a mean chicken biryani, chicken fry and chilli chicken. “I grind the spices myself. I love cooking.” He also takes party orders.

Shakeer speaks about the good old days. “Every train driver, guard and fireman working this route knew us. The minute the train stopped, they would make a dash here, pick up bread and rush back.”

As we leave, Shakeer opens the wood-fired oven and takes out a tray: hot, melt-in-the-mouth crisp mini puffs. After that, try out the dum tea that Shakeer makes. “It’s like Hyderabadi tea. Milky and sweet.” Have it with a dash of masala, to wrap up the experience.

Call them at 94437-51299.

Sri Lakshmi Vilas

Even today, when old-timers return home, one of their first stops is Sri Lakshmi Vilas. Once there, they walk into the nearly-century old telescopic building, and scan the sweet shelves for jaangiri — fragrant, crisp-soft and soaked in jeera.

Next up is a trip inside the dimly-lit inside room where Raja Ravi Varma’s goddesses smile benevolently upon diners. There’s a room further inside, the one closest to the kitchen. I call it the special room, where food is served steaming hot, fresh from the dosai kal and the idli thattu.

Everything about Lakshmi Vilas is redolent of a world gone by. Steaming idlis that leave a mark on tender banana leaves, dosais served with a dollop of getti chutney on top and waiters who coax you to eat some more.

But, that’s how N.R. Gopala Ayyar, who took over the shop and ran it from October 27, 1947, till his death a couple of years ago, wanted it to be. A place where people could get home-style food, cooked and served with love. “My father could handle every department at the hotel,” says G. Lakshminarayanan, Gopala Ayyar’s son.

Work at the hotel starts at 4 in the morning, when the cauldrons are filled with dal and the vegetables are cut for sambar. Next, the rice and dal are cooked for pongal. Five kilos of roasted coffee seeds are ground.

Many times a day, a helper pours boiling water into the percolator that can hold 200 gm of coffee powder, for fresh batches of decoction. Milk for the hotel comes from the cows they raise at home and from outside.

At 5.30 a.m., the doors are opened, and people enter a room fragrant with oodhubathi and vibhoothi. Coffee, pongal, idli, poori and sevai are ready.

At 6, the dosai kal starts turning out crisp dosais. At 6.30, the vadais, golden and studded with pepper, are set on the table.

Customers start walking in from 5.30 a.m. — those heading to the Chettipalayam Golf Course, morning walkers, passengers rushing to catch the train, Railway employees…

Lunch starts at about 11 and goes on till 2.30. During the summer, they serve a cooling cardamom-flavoured tender coconut water. There’s rose milk too. Arisi kozhakattai makes an appearance at 2 p.m. It vanishes in less than an hour.

From 4.30, the tiffin crowd starts filing in to partake of rava dosai, sevai, Mangalore and Mysore bonda. The hotel holds on to tradition but has bowed to modern tastes, serving chilli parotta, chilli idli and mushroom roast. They also sell mor milagai, podis, thattai murukku and kai murukku made by Janaki, Gopala Ayyar’s wife.

Over the years, the hotel has introduced steam cooking. But, the benches are probably the same ones that your ancestor sat on decades ago. It’s probably this throwback to the past that sees NRIs and those living in other cities pack back jaangiris by the dozen, carrying back a taste of home.

Call them at 0422-2414494 and 2410395 or visit https://www.facebook.com/SriLakshmiVillas