Looking for the best places for dosa and South Indian thalis in Chennai? Here are 8 iconic eateries in Chennai most recommended by dosa connoisseurs.
The road map of decadent fine-dining restaurants on Chennai’s bustling streets is interspersed with traditional hole-in-the-wall eateries. These usually cater to two palates — one that delights in South Indian breakfasts and the other that takes pleasure in meaty main courses.
The vibrant city takes great pride in its gastronomy and has enjoyed breathless coverage of its military-era hotels. And history lets us in on their inception.
The story goes that it was during World War II that these military outlets mushroomed in a bid to satisfy the troops’ hunger. Now, neither the emergence of the newer Chettinad restaurants nor the glam of the fine-dining spots can dim the allure that military hotels continue to retain in the city. From politicians to the who’s who of Southern cinema, everyone has stopped here for a bite and has a story to tell.
Here we chronicle the city’s best dosa and thali joints where you can expect a tasty fiesta.
1. Ravi Anna Kadai
The eatery hasn’t ever had a formal name. In fact, it was inconspicuous for the most part. But when locals observed crowds — comprising the elite business class and labourers alike — thronging to the area behind Pondy Bazaar, it needed to be christened. The ‘nei podi dosai’ at this way-side eatery is the first choice of youngsters who flock to it late at night when all other dosa outlets are shut.
In an interview with Conde Nast, Mathangi Kumar, chef and culinary consultant recalled how he finds it tough to stop himself at just one dosa. “As a family, we have been going here for years now. Their dosas are always super crisp with a generous amount of ghee, chutney and sambar. Their podi is a little different from how it’s usually made at home.”
2. Tanjavur Military Hotel
Claiming to be “the first inheritance hotel in Chettinad, built on a property that has been with the family for almost 105 years”, Tanjavur Military Hotel is located in Parktown heart of Chennai city. The boundary-pushing chefs merge traditional cooking styles with modern palates to serve an array of mouth-watering South Indian food such as pepper chicken and varuval (dry dish fried with spices and onions). Another must-have is any of their succulent mutton dishes with the mutton biryani taking the prize.
The restaurant says it serves the “world’s favourite Chettinad cuisine” and no one is arguing that! Through its franchise model, Anjappar has expanded to over 25 countries thus becoming “the world’s largest Chettinad chain of restaurants”. While these accolades add their feathers to its cap, the family’s humble beginnings continue to be their pride.
Anjappan, the founder, was a little boy growing up in Tamil Nadu and spent much of his time in the messes around his village. He’d watch fascinatedly as masalas added magic to any dish they were incorporated into. In 1964, he set the foundation of his dream by starting his first restaurant located in Royapettah, Chennai, with the blessings of the beloved, M G Ramachandran. An article in The New Indian Express mentions that Mollywood stars, including Aju Varghese, Mamta Mohandas, Asif Ali, Vineeth Sreenivasan, and former cricketer, S Sreesanth, are regulars here.
What is the largest meal you’ve ever had? Whatever it is, the 32-inch Baahubali thali is sure to beat it. Featuring 50 dishes (both meat and vegetarian), the thali shouldn’t be on your list if you’re doing a food trail in the city. It deserves a day to itself.
Here’s what you can expect to see on your plate: ura puttu, vanjaram meen varuval, mutton nalli, mutton sukka, prawn masala, mutton biryani, daal fry, sambhar, rasam, naan, white rice and desserts (plural, of course). While you get comfortable with your thali, you will be treated to the legacy of the hotel. Started in 1952 by two teenagers A R Velu Pillai and his younger brother, Ponnusamy, the hotel grew in scope and is an empire today.
5. Nair’s Mess
Located on Mohammed Abdullah Street, Nair’s mess serves an unparalleled seafood platter complete with prawn masala and fish delicacies. But the vanjaram fish fry is said to be one of the most impressively prepared seafood fares one can come across. While there isn’t a way of confirming this, it is hearsay that the place was frequented by former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, MG Ramachandran.
6. Paati Veedu
Bringing an element of fine dining to the traditional thali concept in Chennai, Paati Veedu is attempting to recreate the nostalgia that comes with growing up on one’s grandmother’s food. There are three concepts of food here. The first, Poorna Bhakshana, includes a seven-course unlimited meal that is akin to a grand feast. The second, Bhakshanam, caters to delightful sweets and savouries with a combination of traditional and contemporary elements. The third, Decoction, is a traditional take on fast food.
7. Ratna Cafe
Steeped in nostalgia, Ratna Cafe, established in 1948 by Jaggilal Gupta, a Mathura resident, is known for its sambar that is drunk by the litre. If you happen to stop by this eatery in Triplicane, you’ll be amused to see staff carrying around mini-buckets with them. Look inside and you’ll spot the delicious hot sambar. Lokesh Gupta (30), the fourth-generation scion currently at the helm of affairs at the cafe, says there are close to 1,500 litres of sambar that are made at this iconic eatery, and some days, that number reaches 2,000 litres.
Edited by Padmashree Pande