The warmth from the hot stove and the food on the plate under a star-studded midnight sky in an almost deserted street. But ‘Thattukadas,’ romantic food courts for some and a basic necessity for others, now close early. 10.30 p.m. is the unwritten diktat of the police.

Who would forget hurrying to one of the “Thattukadas” near Thampanoor and ordering a glass of piping hot black coffee to shake off the chill after a second show in an air-conditioned cinema?

These eateries on wheels, however, close shop at 10.30 p.m. now. And nights in the city are not the same anymore.

The city police have imposed the restriction as a measure to prevent crime. “Open only after 6.30 p.m., close before 10.30 p.m.,” is the unwritten diktat. Unwritten because the police cannot just issue such an order, but sections of the Kerala Police Act allow them to impose the restriction for preventing crime.

The police have their reasons to do so. A senior officer says several of these eateries became meeting points for criminal gangs and places where the first seeds of gang rivalry are sown. Some goons made it a habit to frequent the eateries in their “circle” and demand free food. Drunken brawls became common.

“Drunkards will eat 10 dosas, and the liquor inside will make it feel as if they had only five. And they will be willing to pay only for five. That would be the beginning of one argument, slowly leading to fisticuffs and so on,” the officer says.

The number of petty cases based on such arguments has come down ever since the operating time of these eateries has been restricted.

But how has this affected the common people — those hungry after reaching the city late, families going out and looking for a late, affordable dinner…?

“It is the common man and travellers who have been hit hard. Most restaurants do not take orders after 10 p.m. So there is no doubt that the restrictions have brought down our late-night dinner options. The police should, perhaps, arrange for more security and allow us to remain open at least till 30 minutes past midnight,” says Vijayan, a former councillor who runs a roadside eatery near West Fort.

Pointing out that these eateries have to bear the brunt of VIP visits as well, when police ask them to close early or not to open at all citing security reasons, Mr. Vijayan says the restrictions have hit the livelihood of the people involved in the business.

“I could pay my staff Rs. 600 a day earlier. Now I am forced to cut that down to Rs.400-450,” he says.

Though the restrictions might have hit business, the demand for hot, steaming dosas and “mulaku curry” or sizzling double omelettes has not ebbed. Families come and take away food or park their cars near the mobile vans at Vellayambalam and Vazhuthacaud and have their fill.

“But it is just not like it used to be when we could watch a late-night movie and come have dinner here. Yes, we do miss those days when we could listen to the old songs from the radio at the ‘Thattukada,’ slowly have our dinner and black coffee and go home satisfied,” says Ashwin Abraham, an entrepreneur digging into chicken fry and “Porotta” at Vellayambalam, not as late as he wished, but slightly early at 9 p.m.

Inhaling deep the aroma from the eatery, he says: “A city loses its essence when there is no night life. And ‘Thattukadas’ were Thiruvananthapuram’s only sign of a night life.”

Prasad, who operates an eatery opposite the Thampanoor railway station and has been in the business since 1990, says 90 per cent of the customers who come after 11 p.m. are trouble-makers if no police vehicle is around. But still, it was good for the public if the eateries could remain open at least till 30 minutes after midnight.

“I used to have up to 400 customers a day. That has come down to 200-250, and with the rising prices, you can imagine what the impact will be,” he says.

Sheen Tharayil, Circle Inspector, Thampanoor, however, says it is not that late-night travellers do not have any options.

Many cases

“We insist on ‘Thattukadas’ closing down early because of the high number of assault cases and complaints from them after 11 p.m. Instead, we have allowed select hotels to remain open till late in the night. These hotels will have security cameras installed and will be where we can easily monitor affairs,” he says. These include some near Attakulangara, one inside the KSRTC bus station, which operates round the clock, and a few near the Government Medical College Hospital, he says.

Still, that 1 a.m. black coffee after a single omelette was heaven!