Vanishing restaurants

Changing tastes

Vanishing restaurants

Of course, as long as other restaurants are there, they will continue to serve these delicious savouries. But not of the traditional Udupi restaurants. Yes, that is what is happening. Udupi restaurants all over India, especially in Mumbai, are slowly vanishing or getting amalgamated along with other eateries. When the 75-year-old restaurant Gajanan closed down in Bombay this year, a popular kebab joint took its place.

There have been reams written on the Udupi restaurants too — about the waiters with legendary memories (they rattle off numerous orders without writing them down, the quaint instructions on the restaurant walls (‘Do not comb hair’, ‘Outside eatables not allowed’, ‘Plastic container extra’) and so on.

Much has been written about the tendency of the waiters to push pencils behind their ears and the enterprising Shettys, who came to Mumbai to set up these quick coffee-idli-dosa places and became successful.

Seven decades ago, the only restaurants for the middle-class in Mumbai were the Iranian restaurants, where women rarely entered. These restaurants had what they called ‘family rooms’, screened by a curtain for women patrons, but they had acquired a sleazy reputation and no ‘decent’ woman went there. The result? Restaurants were all-male affairs.

It was the Shettys and the Nayaks from Mangalore who changed all that. It was towards the middle of World War II in 1942, that Rama Nayak (1911-1981) started his own restaurant in Matunga, a central Bombay locality with a strong Tamilian and Kannadiga population. It’s widely believed (although there is no documentary evidence to confirm this) that this restaurant, with its rather mundane name ‘Udupi Shri Krishna Boarding’, was the very first Udupi restaurant in the world, and thus began Mumbai’s love affair with Udupi cuisine.

 Through what came to be called ‘Udupi restaurants’, they brought in a new restaurant culture that enabled even single women to walk in and have a meal without eyebrows being raised. This happened at a time when women began to enter the work force in greater numbers. To them, these restaurants were a godsend.

A meal in an Udupi restaurant is typically a no-nonsense affair. The staff is all business, the place is teeming with people and noisy with the clattering of stainless steel utensils and whirring fans. You already know what will be on the menu. Most people have a specific Udupi-dining profile. There are the uttapam people and the crispy dosa people. There are those who want to eat the full thali (price fixed). Then there is also that person who orders something like matar paneer and naan, the few North Indian dishes placed on the menu for people exactly like these. Within 20 minutes, you will have placed your order, wolfed it down and have the bill plunked on your table, in a small plate of somph (fennel) seed. Now that’s fast food.

Mumbai’s urban historian Rafique Baghdadi thinks that it is about time that all Udupi restaurants reinvented themselves. “Every other cuisine is trying to keep up with the competition, so Udupi restaurants need to innovate as well. Otherwise, they will fade away,” he says.

As such, it doesn’t come as a surprise that like the Iranian restaurants, Udupi joints in Mumbai are fading. Last year, around 60 such restaurants have shut shop and now, many more are facing the threat of closure. Today, business for Udupi restaurants is down by 50 to 70 per cent. Some of the reasons are rising rents, overheads, VAT, shortage of staff and changing tastes. In a bid to survive, many of these restaurants are on a modernising trip.

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