Hip restaurants increasingly dot the city’s upscale landscape, but the charm and popularity of its old town’s rustic culinary heritage remains unabated
In a narrow street, diverging from the canopied lanes of the staunchly Old Bengaluru neighbourhood of Basavanagudi—lined with row houses, as opposed to gleaming apartments—a long queue is snaking up to the counter at Brahmin’s Coffee Bar. Having eaten here numerous times, I know what is on the nailed-to-the-wall menu, and what lies beyond the coy minimalism: Signature soft grainy idlis paired with crispy golden vadas or the tangy khara bath, all bathed generously in greenish white coconut chutney, served in palm-sized steel plates. The vada here is crunchy and the khara bath glistens without being too oily. Sambar, though, is verboten in this restaurant that has thrived for 50 years.
“Don’t they serve anything else?” asks my friend’s father, who is on a short visit from Sri Lanka, somewhat incredulously. He cannot wrap his head around people queuing up patiently in a restaurant that serves exactly two dishes.
But the crowd signifies more than just the potency of this menu—it is emblematic of the new found favour that the rustic local cuisine is gaining in the cosmopolitan city, amid the hip global cuisine and craft beer scene.
For decades, Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (MTR) was the lone face of authentic Bengaluru food. Guidebooks extol its gastronomic virtues and visiting tourists line up for hours for an entry into its austere dining halls to be served in silver plates and tumblers.
Now, however, on any given day, I see food tour crowds congregating in front of other old-school establishments like Brahmin’s, Vidyarthi Bhavan and Central Tiffin Rooms (CTR) , guide in tow. (Full disclosure: I have been part of that crowd many times.)
Kannada-speaking locals are substantial, but their visits are few and far between. In the five years I have been in the city, I have come to realise that Bengaluru has the ability to provide a sense of rootedness. The city opens its doors if one makes an effort to just speak the local language—a word here and a word there is all that matters. The language pride suddenly melts. It also helps that you can order confidently, like I do, in restaurants like Vidyarthi Bhavan: “Ondu benne masale kodi saar , [Give me a ghee masala dosa].”
There are two types of dosa loyalists in Bengaluru—those who love the amber brown Vidyarthi Bhavan benne masala dosa and the ones who swear by its crispy blonde version served at CTR. Unless it is after nine in the morning, there is little possibility of an easy entry into Vidyarthi Bhavan. The entrance is always crowded with patrons who arrive like flies flitting on a ripe jackfruit—a sight you can see at the fruit stalls of Basavanagudi, not far from the restaurant. The ghee masala dosa is the crown jewel of South Indian cuisine and Bengaluru’s establishments know their business. Biting into the dosa is not very different from having a gourmet sandwich stuffed with artisanal cheese. Crispy brown on the outside, the upper crust of the dosa is curiously fluffy and the mildly-spiced potato works as a well-thought-out filling.
Dosas apart, patrons at Vidyarthi Bhavan are also treated to the sight of waiters balancing 10 to 12 plates of the dish stacked in their hands, swiftly carting them out of the kitchen and serving them on to the tables. Cameras and flashlights flicker at the sight and waiters smilingly oblige.
I was introduced to Vidyarthi Bhavan by a friend. After watching me devour the dosa on our first visit, she told me to wait until I tasted CTR’s rendition of the dish. Evidently, she is a CTR loyalist.
I did sample the CTR version of the dosa soon after and found that to be luscious too. I couldn’t imagine a better treat for my taste buds than gingerly breaking the dosa’s delicate golden crust and dipping it in the chutney before slipping it into my mouth. But it’s hard to take sides. Surely, one can be in love with two things at once.
Establishments like Vidyarthi Bhavan and Brahmin’s were started in the area to serve the student population. A single serving of the entire menu at Brahmin’s will set you back by just around Rs 150. Even now, you will see the neighbourhood’s working bachelors frequenting Brahmin’s.
The dining hall of Vidyarthi Bhavan has hosted Kannada literary giants like Masti Venkatesha Iyengar, GP Rajarathnam and AN Krishna Rao.
Their pictures hang on the wall invoking nostalgia in the old-timers among the waiters.
Source: The Forbes