Geetha Café is full before the Nilagiri Express to Chennai arrives at 2030 hours at Coimbatore Junction. Its patrons— public servants, marketing executives, accountants, migrant workers, policemen, lawyers and rail passengers— throng the place for its reasonable, simple and tasty fare. The café has an old world charm, with its tall ceilings, behemoth-like boilers and intricate ventilator grills. The old serif font on the signs and, portraits of Nehru and Gandhi, tower above the clientele — a cult that wears brand loyalty on its sleeves. Stars twinkle above a canopy of trees in the sprawling courtyard; simple pleasure after a good meal.
Started in 1956 by C. S. Govinda Iyer, Geetha Hotel, with a café and a lodge, soon became the preferred destination of Coimbatoreans for good vegetarian food and a safe place to stay. The street it is on is also named after it.
It was originally a drama hall where greats like T. S. Balaiah, Embar S. Vijayaraghavachariar (famous for his Harikatha), Keshavardhini Ammal and Madurai Ram Singh performed. The late C. S. Govinda's son 70-year-old son C. G. Venkatasubban recalls that Embar recited the Sapthagam during its inauguration. “Actress Keshavardhini Ammal used to drive here in a left-hand drive car,” he narrates. That was quite a sight at a time when very few women drove.
He adds that his father bought the land in the late ‘30s from Australians hailing from Adelaide. The area had a large Anglo-Indian population back then. The railway station, the fire brigade and the post and telegraph office were the only main buildings then, when Gopalapuram was still scrub jungle. The place where Geetha Café stands today was originally called Vaikuntam; the name, still visible on its signboard.
Though dramas had to be stopped due to noise regulations around the government hospital, Geetha was already popular and the crowds kept coming. The café itself had many contractors and names over the years. The name Geetha Café has stuck since 1989.
Current manager Chandrasekaran Iyer, who's father-in-law was one of the first cooks of the café, says that the place is most popular for its lunch. Served on banana leaves, the food is cooked without garlic, small onions, palm oil or soda bicarbonate, and the use of masalas is kept to a mimimum. “It tastes just like home food,” adds Chandrasekaran. “We make fresh sambar podi everyday and don't use artificial colour for the kesari.”
The café works from 6.30 a.m. to 10 p.m. serving snacks, meals and beverages. Its USP is its dishes for diabetics, like broken wheat upma and banana pith poriyal and, its prompt service. With a seating capacity of 100, you don't need to wait for a seat. Meals cost Rs. 35.
The café is currently owned by the Arasan Soap Group, which bought it from its original owners last September.
The original owners, C. S. Govinda's family, runs the C. S. Meals Hotel on State Bank Road, nearby.
“Many people think that CS stands for Civil Saapad (read vegetarian food as different from military saapad or non vegetarian food). CS was actually my grandfather's initials which stood for Coimbatore Subramania,” says C. V. Kishore, the managing partner. Kishore quit his engineering job in an MNC to run Geetha Hotel for 12 years before selling it.
He adds that the family originally owned Mithra Samaj, also known as CS Grand Coffee Hotel on Old Post Office Road, which started in the early ‘30s, CS Meals Hotel— started in 1939 and, Geetha Hotel. Mithra Samaj closed down about 15 years back.
Geetha Hotel had to be sold to avoid partitioning it between the inheritors. Kishore and his brother Govindarajan now plan to take CS back to its old glory. Their prized assets are the old recipes scribbled by their grandfather in the account books, and the staff which they have retained.
Located beside the offices of leading political parties, Geetha Hotel, which also has a hall, became a centre for political speeches and rallies.
The walls of this quaint old building have thundered with the speeches of K. Kamaraj, C. N. Annadurai, Srinivasa “Cho” Ramaswamy, H. D. Deva Gowda and Ramakrishna Hegde.
If you are attentive, you can still get generous helpings of political gossip with your lunch or coffee. Take them with a pinch of salt.