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Madras Day Special: Two Chennai Eateries, A Unique Attribute – They Are Kollywood Favourites

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Legend has it that MGR, when he was the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, would arrive at Rayar’s Mess, Mylapore early in the morning for breakfast. The mess continues to thrive, and is still favoured by the Tamil film world

Report & photographs: Dani Charles

Perhaps the biggest mystery at Rayar’s Mess, the 85-year-old eatery that operates out of a hole in the wall in Mylapore, is its master – and owner 59-year-old P Kumar. A stooping, bearded man, with a towel slung over his shoulders, he spares us a glance before religiously unpacking a giant case of idlis – lined with yellowing muslin cloth – hot off the stove. A wet-grinder on the side churns the batter for the vadais while another, now empty, has traces of white idli batter along its walls. There are neat rows of steel tumblers and davaras, waiting to be filled with coffee.

The owner and master – P Kumar – at work. 

It’s 7 am, but the space – barely 500 sq ft, lined with a set of four tables and 16 chairs – is packed to the brim. P Mohan, identical to his brother except for the beard, tells us that the owner doesn’t talk much; he handles all interactions for him, media and otherwise. He rapidly takes down names for the next ‘batch’ of customers waiting outside: a varied profile comprising morning joggers to those who take a detour after visiting the beautiful Kapaleeswarar temple – a seven-minute walk away. There are no celebrities among them today.

I provide moral support, laughs Mohan as we engage him in conversation; he holds a day job at the harbour, but spends the morning helping around the eatery. Hailing from Karadipakkam, a small town off Villupuram district that houses around 300 families, Mohan and his brother are third generation owners and caretakers of Rayar’s Mess. “My thatha opened the first outlet in the 1920s,” he says, “he relocated to Madras just to launch the mess. It was called Rayar’s Café then, and was on Kutchery Road.” At present, Rayar’s Mess can be found on a small alley leading off Arundale street. You can ride a bike down there, but we are warned that we can’t park our vehicles; that’s the exclusive right of the residents on the lane. Quite a few cycles and two-wheelers already jostle for space among the early morning crowd – most of them awaiting their turn at breakfast.

The standard fare at the mess includes idlis, vadai, pongal and filter coffee for breakfast.

The pachai milaga [green chilli] chutney here is a hit; the recipe has been handed down the family.
Within the mess, the first batch of customers is being served idlis, pongal, two chutneys (the green chilli variant being a hit, the recipe handed down the family), podi, and sambar – and filter coffee. That’s the standard fare every morning, explains Mohan. The servings are generous, and almost every person tucks into two vadais or more. “We grind the batter for the idlis the previous night,” he adds, “மாவு புளிக்கணும் (the batter needs to ferment).”

Breakfast closes at 10 am, and the mess next opens at 3 pm for an early tiffin. On the menu in evening are rava dosai, adai, two varieties of bondas, jangiri, gulab jamun, and coffee. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the busiest, “we have several people walking in just for the onion chutney that we serve on Wednesdays and the brinjal gothsu on Tuesdays,” he smiles, “the rest of the week, our food doesn’t contain onion or garlic.” In a few video features of the restaurant posted online, a customer who is seen across almost every one of them, fondly remembers the time when the late DMK leader Karunanidhi would arrive for a bite in the morning.

Rayar’s Mess serves around 150 customers per day, but its regular clientele comprises around 50 people; some of them arriving just for their fix of morning coffee. The waiters seem to know the preferences of their regulars: the milk-sugar ratio varies with each tumbler. Apart from the simple, but hearty fare that is on offer, the eatery is known for having served the likes of MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and PU Chinnappa back in those days to actors Suriya, Siva Karthikeyan and Vivek today. It was also the favourite after-shoot spot for yesteryear actors like VK Ramasamy and Nagesh who would walk in for an early breakfast at 5 am after filming overnight.

P Mohan (right), along with the owner’s son. Mohan spends his morning at the mess before heading to work at the harbour.

“Back then, we would open the mess at 4.30 am just to serve film people,” says Mohan, “we didn’t have furniture then; our clients would sit on the floor.” Cho Ramaswamy, VS Raghavan and Thengai Srinivasan were regulars, too. Among the current crop of actors, Silambarasan, Suriya, Vivek and Siva Karthikeyan still arrive for breakfast. “Most of them would eat here, while Simbu would take food home sometimes. He prefers idli over pongal while Siva Karthikeyan likes everything we serve.”

There are no plans to expand, Mohan declares staunchly. The only change that Rayar’s Mess has witnessed over 85 years of existence, is perhaps the location – the size of the place smaller than the last. The walls are tiled till a certain height, and receive a fresh coat of pain once in two years. “We don’t want to develop further,” he emphasises, “If we begin making in large quantities, we can’t serve off the stove – and can’t attend to our patrons personally. We want to serve hot food, never something that’s even a few minutes old.” That’s why, he declares, there’s no air-conditioner either – a feature that most mid-range restaurants like to suffix their names with.

A plate of idlis (2) at Rayar’s Mess costs Rs 20 while vadai is priced at Rs 10 per piece and pongal at Rs 35.

More pictures here: Rayar’s Mess In Mylapore

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Since the times of Sivaji Ganesan to that of Nivetha Pethuraj, Kattayan Chettiar Hotel has been serving its famous chicken and mutton biryani to common folk and celebrities alike

The menu at Kattayan Chettiar Hotel detailing items and prices; on offer are dishes like nattu kozhi pulav (chicken pulav) and eraal (prawn) and kidney fry.

Report & photographs: Sriram Narasimhan 

A quick Google search on the Kattayan Chettiar Hotel (Thanjavur Military Hotel) will tell you that it’s a 105-year-old family run restaurant serving authentic Chettinad cuisine. But on the narrow, busy Rasappa Chetty Street of Chennai’s Park Town, amid the hardware stores and rundown buildings, this nondescript eatery can easily be missed. But looks can be deceptive. This mess – as it’s locally referred to – boasts of an envious clientele, from Sivaji Ganesan, MG Ramachandran, Karunanidhi to KV Anand, Shankar, Nivetha Pethuraj all have frequented this place for their biryani.

Gangadharan, the fourth generation owner, tells us that it was the second licensed hotel in Chennai. The concept of military hotels came into vogue during to the World War II when these eateries were serving food to military personnel in Chennai. While restaurants serving vegetarian food came to be known as Udupi hotels, those with non-vegetarian food were called military hotels. Gangadharan had started working at the family restaurant when he was 15 and has been running the business for the last 25 years. His family is originally from Chidambaram in Cuddalore district. The ramshackle look of the place is in contrast to its pedigree but the owner is no hurry to gentrify it. He believes in preserving its old world charm.

The dosa master at the mess.
Naatu kozhi being cooked in the wok.

At around 11 am, there is languid activity outside the eatery – someone is relentlessly chopping gingers in one corner, another person is seen coaxing onions into thin strips. Once you step inside, it’s almost as if time has stopped. There are cauldrons burning on coal fire, small stools are lined on the side of the wall while Dakshinamurthy, the manager, sits behind the counter with his slate and chalk. He has been working with the family for the last 45 years. He doesn’t need any cajoling in reciting the history of the restaurant and readily rattles off the names of all four owners. He is also the restaurant’s gatekeeper. He verifies the Silverscreen website on our phone and only then allows the staff to interact. “MGR and Karunanidhi used to come here regularly from Wall Tax Road. KV Anand is a friend of the owner, so he comes here regularly. Recently, director Shankar had come,” he informs.

Dakshinamurthy, manager, keeps a tab on the bills with his slate and chalk.

Dakshinamurthy is proud of the fact that he doesn’t use paper bills. “I do all my calculations on my slate. Even the customers are served on banana leaves and they are asked to dispose it. On an average we get 50-100 customers daily. A lot of our clients are 75 years and above,” he informs. And most of these customers claim to be friends of the owner. We meet one such person, a painter by profession. He quickly thulps a few dosas while chatting with the staff and makes a dash. That’s a regular day at Kattayan mess.

The food is cooked here on coal fire and in brass and copper vessels. Though mutton and chicken biryani are their signature dishes, they also serve muttai dosais, nattu kozhi, mutton sukka, prawns fry, brain fry. “Wednesdays and Sundays are chicken biryani days, and mutton biryani for rest of the days. We open at 6 am and work till 3 pm and then again from 6 pm to 10 pm,” informs an employee. The mess employs 11 men, including a dosa master, who’s quite insistent on making a dosa for you while prepping up for kaal curry. The recipes are, of course, as old as the restaurant with all in-house spices.

Former owners of the military hotel.

People at the Kattayan mess are almost dismissive of modernising the place. This nonchalant confidence comes from their allegiance to their roots and a firm belief in the food that they serve. As Dakshinamurthy says, celebrities or otherwise, they all come, sit on the stools, eat food on the banana leaves and asked to put away the plates.

Prices at Kattayan Chettiar Hotel range from Rs 50 for muttai dosai [egg dosai] to Rs 400 for mutton chops. Naatu kozhi pulav and mutton pulav are priced at Rs 130 and Rs 150 respectively.

More pictures here: Tanjavur Military Hotel (Kattayan Chettiar Hotel) In Park Town

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