A profile of five modest eateries that offer some of the best food at pocket-friendly prices
What is the taste of Chennai? Today it varies widely. For some it’s filter coffee, made from freshly ground beans, served in a gleaming steel davara-tumbler. For some it’s flaky fried fish, showered with lime and paired with mugs of cold beer. For some it’s Californian-fusion food styled fastidiously on fancy Italian plates and teamed with fine French wine.
Ten years ago, Chennai’s flavours were simpler. Fewer restaurants. Fewer cuisines. Fewer celebrity chefs. Certainly fewer gimmicks. Yet, there was plenty of great food.
Some of these restaurants, many of which are more than a decade old, are doing better business today than ever before. Some of these places aren’t even restaurants. They’re roadside eateries. Yet, their popularity can put a much-promoted five star restaurant to shame.
Considering the number of ambitious restaurants we have seen shoot up and fade, like Diwali rockets, that’s quite an achievement. Especially when you consider that these places have been built, established and popularised without any help from savvy advertisements, wily PR agencies or influential reviews.
Where do you find Chennai’s favourite flavours? Here’s a sample of places that have stayed popular over the last ten years. The best part? You can eat at any of them for Rs. 100 (or less) per head.
Mathsya (ph. 28191900): These recipes came alive a century ago as part of the daily rituals of a temple priest in Udupi. When he moved to Chennai, he opened Mathsya.
Today, although Mathsya is one of Chennai’s oldest vegetarian restaurants, it is as popular with the city’s old- timers as it is with its sphaghetti-salsa generation. Though that means it has been forced to expand its repertoire to include the mandatory Chaat-Chinese-Conti, it still features an Udupi Thali that loyally adheres to the conventions of the past. Despite its fragmented identity, Mathsya seems comfortable in its present avatar, managing to be distinct with steady quality, traditional cooking methods and friendly service.
Ram Bhat, grandson of the founder, is usually around — happy to tell stories as well as get the kitchen to tweak flavours to suit individual palates. Which explains the crowd, lining up sometimes even at midnight. Doctors, DJs, Dancers. And most flattering of all: chefs from across the city.
Murugan Idli Shop (ph. 42018181): While most Chennai restaurants work hard at busting stereotypes, this chain exults in them.
After all, they’ve taken idli-vadai-dosa, often dismissed as the conventional (read boring) Chennai cuisine, and worn them as a badge of honour. This rapidly expanding chain, which began 15 years ago, proudly serves fat, fluffy idlis, lolling proudly on glossy banana leaves. It has crisp golden vadais, served with fresh coconut chutney. And of course dosas, in all forms. The most popular are the thick, spongy uthappams, perfect with spicy podi and a splash of oil. And while you’re there don’t miss the ghee-drenched pongal.
Murugan Idli doesn’t waste time with silly restaurant niceties such as plates, cutlery or reservations. Strangely, this lack of luxury is unexpectedly comforting. It’s a slice of old Madras, set in the bustle of Chennai. Especially at their popular Besant Nagar restaurant, crammed with joggers. You wait. You eat. You leave. Now if only life was that simple.
Samco (ph. 24313111): One day three friends decided to start a restaurant. But they couldn’t come up with a name. Till they had a collective brainwave. They decided to use the first letter of each of their names to create a new proper noun. So in 1962 Soopy, Aboobacker and Mohammed started SAM & Co. Today, after two re-launches, one change in location and many menu reprints, it’s still run by their families. And it’s still known as SAMCO.
Although the restaurant has smartened up considerably after its latest renovation, they have ensured that the classics have remained: delicate chicken semia biriyani, fiery pepper paya and zesty Ceylon parottas.
Not surprisingly, Samco has loyalists who have eaten here for decades. They include actor Kamal Haasan, who’s clearly a favourite with the staff. Now Samco’s reinvented itself yet again, with more upscale décor, a wider menu and higher pricing. However, they say regulars come in for just one thing: the food.
Anjappar (ph. 28217200): You can’t throw a chicken lollypop without hitting a Chettinad restaurant in Chennai these days. Exulting in fire and spice, these restaurants are best for hardy food adventurers with their clash-and-clang service, masala-soaked interiors and profusion of unconventional meats, ranging from rabbit to pigeon.
We’ve chosen this restaurant because although it does succumb to the loud flavours that now seem to define Chettinad food, it retains some of the charm of this popular cuisine.
Started in 1964, Anjappar has been taking the food of the Chettiars across the world with their 20 plus outlets (a number that grows constantly). Although most of their restaurants are in Chennai they also have a presence in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Singapore, Malaysia, Canada and the U.S.
The menu is replete with the pop food of this genre, each with an Anjappar twist: rabbit 65, chicken pakoda, kaadai roast. They claim to use a secret mix of spices. Judging by the crowds, it seems to work.
Mylai Karpagambal Mess (ph. 24642902): We admit, this place can be a bit of a mess. However, it’s difficult not to be charmed by laid-back Mylapore, and Karpagambal Mess is an important part of the fabric of this part of traditional Madras.
With walls covered in religious paintings, dead-pan waiters and tables creaking under the weight of pickles, this is a colourful way to step back in time. They have recently renovated in a feeble and seemingly half-hearted attempt to modernise. But it’s just a veneer. Good old Karpagambal Mess’ stubbornly constant.
Like any old-Madras restaurant worth it’s podi, they don’t fuss around with non-essentials such as menu cards. You sit wherever there’s a free seat. The waiters reel out the menu. You decide what you want without waffling.
The dosas are comfortingly sturdy. The coffee’s fragrant. The sweet poli, served with a generous splash of ghee, is addictive. If you’re looking for authentic Madras, before the cappuccinos, cabanas and clubs changed this city forever, here’s one nook of obstinate tradition.