Young Manoj Kumar busily peers into the tattered paper in his hand. “Swami sir,” he calls out. Hearing that, a group, which has been patiently waiting for the last 30 minutes on the steps of a neighbouring house, immediately perks up and heads inside.
‘Inside’ is just a few yards away, but the lane is narrow. There’s a motor purring somewhere and a colourful bucket with water is overflowing. And there are people, many of them, whom Swami and company need to carefully manoeuvre around.
Once they do, they reach the hall of Rayar’s. A tiny room that comprises 16 seats, this is where all the action takes place. And on a busy Sunday morning, it’s a food blockbuster!
Action at Rayar’s begins at 7 am, when brothers P Kumar and P Mohan open the doors to eager patrons waiting after their morning jog at the Marina. For many, it’s been a tradition — following their morning fitness activity with idlis — for years.
“We could open as early as 5 am — we’re sure there’d be patrons — but our USP is providing food hot, steaming and straight from the kitchen, and that can happen only if we start at seven, when the crowd sets in,” says Mohan, over the din of the grinder, “We make the idlis just a few minutes before they are actually served.”
Six people make up the crew — Kumar does most of the cooking, with one help, while Mohan does the serving.
Manoj, Kumar’s son and a recent addition to the fold, takes care of the table bookings that come not just from Mylaporeans but also from North Indians hailing from the neighbourhoods of Sowcarpet and Purasaiwalkam, who stand eagerly in line to get a taste of the fluffy idlis every morning.
Rajesh Katria, a businessman from Sowcarpet, is one of them. “I’m used to having chapatis every day, but on Sundays, I make it a point to come here for South Indian fare,” he says.
For some patrons, like Sachin Sawhney and Simran from MRC Nagar, the mention of Rayar’s brings pleasant culinary memories. “I remember this taste from 1981,” beams Simran, who has, along with her husband, been to the hotel even in its earlier location, “The vada is the best — it’s irresistible.”
On the other hand, it’s the chutneys that appeal to Pooja VK, who is at Rayar’s with a heavy suitcase. The counselling psychiatrist has just landed at Koyambedu Bus Stand from Kerala, and she’s here to have a filling breakfast before heading out for a busy day. “There’s something about the experience here; all the waiting adds to its charm.”
Another aspect that adds to it, feels Kumar, who has spent a good four decades at the hotel, is its ‘unadulterated home-style food’.
“Our coconut chutney is the way it ought to be; with coconut, roasted Bengal gram, salt and a bit of green chilli. That’s the combination we’ve used for years. The other chutney, the green chilli one, is another reason people keep coming back. Some come all the way just for that. They even get up and leave in a huff if we run out of it.”
Rayar’s has changed with the times — there are phone bookings these days as well. But what they are insistent about not changing is moving to a bigger place. There have also been requests to provide lunch, extend working hours and include poori in the tiffin list. “But all that is very difficult to implement… since Kumar, my elder brother and the chef here, is a one-man army when it comes to cooking. We resist employing people from outside as they might not have the same involvement in serving customers,” he says.
Among the other quirks you have in this joint is the billing process — there’s no bill once a ‘batch’ of people finish eating. Instead, they all hover outside drinking coffee or talking till Mohan comes and goes around asking them what they ate.
“This has been the practice for a long time. My grandfather and father used to go around with a slate in hand and check with the customers what they ate. I use a sheet of paper. It is easy because out of 50, 40 are regulars. For the 10 newcomers, it’s a new experience.”
There have been cases when some people have forgotten a vada they’d eaten, and paid later. “We run this place entirely on trust.”
In the past, celebrities loved the old-world charm. “Sreekanth, the yesteryear actor, wouldn’t even expect a chair. He’d go straight to the kitchen and instruct Bawa, the cook then, to serve him. Late actor Cho Ramaswamy used to be a regular customer.”
It helped that Mohan’s father, Padmanabha Rao, knew exactly who preferred what. “He used to have secret nicknames for each celebrity and would quickly tell us what to serve. But we’d be terrified to chat with them, fearing our father.” Mohan was 27 then; he is 52 now. “Now that I own the place, I don’t need to worry. I love speaking with the celebrities who visit us.” He’s referring to Tamil film celebrities like Suriya, Sivakarthikeyan, Simbu, Santhanam, Gautham Menon and Vasanth — all of whom frequent this mess.
The allure, for them, is the home-like atmosphere that Mohan, Kumar and company try to provide. “No one comes to Rayar’s thinking it’s a hotel. For everyone, it’s like visiting a friend’s home.”
Rayar’s Mess is open from 7 am to 10 am and 3 pm to 6 pm every day. They are closed on Sunday evenings. They are located at New No. 31, Arundale Street, Mylapore, Chennai. For details, call 9940425551.