In the 1950s and 60s, when the city was bustling with bachelors living out of mansions, there was the quintessential ‘mess’ — a small room with a few chairs and tables strewn about. These messes thrived on a simple principle: cheap, good and hot food.
There was Velu Military Mess, Rathna Café, Andhra Mess, Sydoji Mess, Nair Mess, Murali Café (which was later embroiled in a political controversy), and the relatively new ones like Karpagambal Mess, Kasi Vinayaga Mess and many others.
Peep into Sydoji Lane in Triplicane and search all you want; the once-popular family run Sydoji Mess is not there anymore. Ask about it in the neighbourhood and comments like “Which era did you jump out from?” are thrown at you.
Then again, Rayar’s Café, now rechristened Rayar’s Mess, has survived through three generations. But the details are ambiguous, as the current owners P. Mohan and P. Kumar themselves admit. “It has been around for about 70 years or so, we’re not too sure,” they say, adding “Our grandfather started it. It must’ve been around for even longer.”
According to them, Srinivasa Rao came to Madras from Karadipakkam in Vizhupuram for a living and began a small mess near Kutchery Road police station. A few years later, he shifted to another house on the same road and continued his small-time venture. As the food and name grew popular, Rayar Café went on to establish itself on Kutchery Road for 40 years before moving into a smaller bylane off Arundale Street.
Padmanabha Rao took over from his father continued to build the brand on recipes brought from their hometown and handed down from his father. P. Kumar and P. Mohan belong to the third generation and took over Rayar’s from the 80’s. “When Kumar took over, we were almost shifting to Arundale Street. The other place on Kutchery road was big, with good parking space and seating area. But they were all rented and we wanted a place of our own. Even though we moved, business has been stable all along,” says Mohan. “The menu hasn’t changed much,” he adds, “My grandfather’s recipes were unique and they soon became very popular.”
Rayar’s Mess is easy to miss but practically everyone in the area gives you accurate directions to the narrow street where a lone board hangs from an aged house. From the entrance you can spot the service area, where large pots and pans are washed and there are bags of used banana leaves stocked up to be thrown away. Move in and the passing breeze brings with it a waft of fried mustard and sambar.
“When my grandfather was running the mess, we would open as early as 5 am. The family used to help around, apart from five other workers who we hired. Now it’s just the two of us. In their heyday, stars such as Thenga Srinivasan, Nagesh, Cho and others would come everyday to eat here. Now, only Cho comes once in a while to keep in touch. They have a lot of memories associated with this place,” smiles Mohan.
On the other side of Kutchery road, in Pitchupillai Street next to Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan is Mami Tiffin Shop — now run by G. Kapaleeswaran — serving hot, scrumptious food for 44 years now.
Vasantha Mami came to Chennai with her family from Alvarkurichi in 1962 to start a new life. Her husband was into the food business already and worked in a hotel back there. “My father was a dosa maker in a hotel in Alvarkurichi. He married, got children and came here to begin something new. Chennai was then the city of dreams for people from smaller towns,” says G. Kapaleeswaran.
They began a small mess near Kamadhenu Theatre in Luz where they served idli, dosai and thavala adai, things that were popular in their hometown. In 1967, they moved to Pitchupillai Street and have stayed there since.
“We were among the first messes in this area. There was an Udipi mess, Rayar’s and ours. Just the three of us in Mylapore,” he says. Fondly called Mami, the mess later was given the same name. They served idli, dosa and their hometown special, thavala adai, in the mornings and evenings. Now, Vasantha’s sons Kapaleeswaran and Murugan, who run the mess, have added more variety to the Mami brand.
“Everyone in Chennai knows our mess as Mami kadai and we decided to officially name it that. Our entire family run this mess together under our mother’s name. We are proud of how she stood as a single woman so many years ago and earned her way to make us what we are today,” says Kapaleeswaran.