With generous helpings and reasonable pricing, these non-veg eateries have retained their clientele since the 1950s
Liver fry. That’s what A.K. Balakumar remembers when he thinks of his favourite eatery, Velu Family Restaurant in Nungamabakkam.
The 34-year-old regional sales manager with a pharmaceutical company has been eating at Velu since 2005 and declares it’s the best for non-vegetarian food in the city. The friendly and efficient service at these outlets and the memory of tastes never go away, he said. “Try the fish kuzhambu,” he said. “It’s excellent.”
Velu Family, spacious and modestly decorated, is inspired by a city (and possibly world) legend, Velu Military Hotel, the granddaddy of the erstwhile military hotels in Chennai.
The ‘military’ tag, somewhat outdated today, probably came about because military personnel were thought to be mainly non-vegetarian, said Madras chronicler and writer Sriram V., and this was the fare these hotels excelled in.
“The hotels probably sprung up during World War II, when a whole lot of army personnel arrived in the city, changing its character fundamentally,” he said.
Military hotels began as there was a need felt in the city for good, non-vegetarian food, especially seafood, said A. Maruthupandian, managing director of Anjappar restaurants.
Mr. Maruthupandian’s father began Anjappar, which started out as a military mess back in 1964. “Our specialities were crab and other seafood items. Our family is from the Chettinad region and my father was a chef. He trained the subsequent chefs at the restaurant,” said Mr. Maruthupandian.
They focused on what they knew best, he said, and Anjappar has now grown to around 45 branches across the world — with biriyani and seafood still being hot favourites.
Today though, less than a dozen restaurants in the city still go by the military moniker, some having preferred to change to ‘Chettinad’ — in order to make it clear what their speciality cuisine is.
Their menu includes, apart from the popular ‘pepper fry’ items, a variety of chicken and mutton dishes, crab, prawn and several kinds of fish, and in some places, turkey and rabbit.
Stories abound about these hotels, especially Velu Military, where politicians and film stars were regular customers.
Started on Eldams Road by Velu Amabalam in 1952, Velu Military soon grew to be famous — for its excellent cuisine, reasonable prices and personalised service.
“The owner then opened a branch on Valluvar Kottam High Road and this rapidly became popular. It was a no-frills place — no neon signboard, no A/C, no cushioned chairs, no parking facility. And yet, there would be traffic jams on the road outside the restaurant at lunchtime.
Until a few decades ago, film vans lined the stretch from end to end and each packed about 40-50 meals for the crew,” said M. Mahesh Kumar, owner of Velu Family, who grew up eating at Velu Military.
“Its signature was handmade masala and food you couldn’t get enough of,” he said. According to Mr. Kumar, his own enterprise continued to bank on the loyalty people in the area felt towards the Velu brand.
The name resonates in old-timers’ memories but the restaurant on Eldams Road is now somewhat run down, and its property on Valluvar Kottam High Road has been leased out.
“The family grew larger and eventually split up. Eldams Road still survives and we have a loyal clientele and do a lot of door deliveries,” said N. Pandiselvam, son-in-law of Velu Military’s founder.
Over the years since these hotels first came up, the non-vegetarian scene in Chennai has changed considerably — with luxury hotels and specialty restaurants mushrooming and palates too growing more sophisticated.
But the military hotels have survived. Some have woken up to ongoing changes and expanded their fare to accommodate Chinese and north Indian food.
The newer menus though, seem to be a somewhat forced concession to the times.
Around 3.30 p.m., way past lunchtime, last Saturday, patrons busily tucked away huge ‘meals’ at Sri Ganesh Chettinad (formerly military) Hotel. Nestled on a busy portion of Royapettah High Road, the restaurant could easily be thought to have been around forever.
The smell of fried fish lingers in the air, and mounds of steaming rice sit on plantain leaves on the tables.
The rice is surrounded by scarlet chicken fry, all kinds of other fry and varieties of kuzhambu. No one looks up from their food. Here, to be absorbed by taste is all that matters.
Chennai Central at The Hindu celebrates Madras Week
Hashtag: #madrasweek #madras374