The cultural capital of India is home to experimental establishments, swanky bars, and chic cafes. That said, menus dating back as far back as the early 1900s continue to draw diners in scores, including celebrities and politicians. Featuring fragrant filter coffee, flaky fish, and fluffy uthappams – vintage restaurants in Chennai are in a league of their own. We’re going on a nostalgic journey through a few iconic ones.
Beyond steaming plates of podi idli, Chennai’s culinary platter features sundal, pongal, thayir sadam, kuzhi paniyaram, jigarthanda, and kothu parotta (amongst other scrumptious delicacies that is). This medley is courtesy of different regions of its home state Tamil Nadu. We’re talking Madurai, Coimbatore, Kancheepuram, and Chettinad – the traditional cuisines of which can vary from each other in preparation styles, spice levels, and choice of ingredients. Peppered within these are migrant influences – from Armenian to Rajasthani – as well as ingenious inventions like the chicken 65 and modern-day masala dosa.
Although recent years have seen a growing appetite for modern fare that has prompted innovative menus and fastidiously-plated creations- take celebrity chef Sashi Cheliah’s Peranakan eatery for instance – traditional delicacies continue to have a stronghold in the dietary habits of locals. And the best spots to dig into them happen to have been in the business for decades. And while you’re never too far away from an old-school establishment in Chennai, a few vintage restaurants truly stand out. We’re exploring a few to hit up if you’ve only got a few days to spare in the city.
Vintage restaurants in Chennai that serve yesteryear flavours
New Woodlands Hotel, 1938
Forced to work at an early age to make ends meet, Krishna Rao went from working as a helper in a hotel in Kadandale to a cleaner, idli-batter grinder, server, and junior cook in Chennai – moving up the ladder. In 1926, he set up Udupi Sri Krishna Vilas, switching the culture of dark spaces and long benches to well-lit spaces and marble-top furniture. He also spent considerable time on the menu, presenting quality food – including an in-house masala dosa recipe that reportedly set the stage for Chennai’s current affinity for the dish.
Despite the popularity of his space, he was denied renewal, prompting him to buy land in Mylapore and call it New Woodlands Hotel. Since the area was residential, he was told by friends and family alike that it would not take off. However, he introduced a drive-in concept as well, which soon found takers in the city. Soon enough he’d laid out plans for expansion around the country, including Mumbai. The sappadu – Tamil meal served on a banana leaf – features traditional sambar, rice, rasam, kootu, and more, made in traditional vessels over woodfire. The basundi, sevige, mude, tuppa dosa come highly recommended as well. And let’s not forget the iconic masala dosa.
Address: 72-75, Dr Radha Krishnan Salai, Mylapore, Chennai
Contact: +91 4428113111
Kalathi Rose Milk Shop, 1927
View this post on Instagram
This charming, quaint retail shop was first started as a newspaper stall by Kalathi Mudhaliyar in the early 1920s. Pretty soon, throngs arrived at its doorstep for a sip of the frothy, perfectly-sweetened, verdant pink rose milk. From being sold for just 25 paise in the 70s to now costing just about INR 20, these are served cold in individual plastic to-go bottles. To date, the shop is being run by the same family (over three generations) and has a loyal customer base, which ranges from local delivery executives to Kollywood legends like Shivaji Ganesan. If you’re headed to Kapaleeshwar temple or have a long day of exploring Mylapore on foot on the cards – don’t miss out on this spot.
Address: 27, S Mada Street, Mylapore, Chennai
Rayar’s Mess, 1935
View this post on Instagram
While in Mylapore, this vintage restaurant is a must visit. Formerly known as Rayar’s Cafe – it was established by Srinivasa Rao. Back then, customers would sit atop traditional wooden stools called mana palagai and dine on banana leaves. Eventually tables were set up and today, the quaint space can seat up to 16 people, serving customers in hundreds per day. Many of them patiently wait their turn – right when service starts at around 7 am up until 8:00 pm. Popular menu features include idli, pongal, vada, adai, rava dosa, bondas, jangiri, and gulab jamun – all served popping hot and without any adulteration.
Their signature filter coffee has a fan base of its own and is the perfect accompaniment to a long wait. Post a meal, diners head out and let the staff know what they’ve eaten – an indication of the owners’ faith in them. Their clientele is hence diverse, including the likes of writers, judges, and celebrities like Carnatic singer MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, actor Thengai Sreenivasan, and comedian Cho Ramaswamy.
Address: 31, Arundale Street, Mylapore, Chennai
Contact: +91 99404 25551
Ratna Cafe, 1948
From when it first opened its doors in the early 1900s, Ratna Cafe has been drawing eager diners for a taste of its unique sambar-soaked idlis. The secret? Following the same ratio of ingredients – tomatoes to dal – that goes into making the soupy creation. Not to mention, having separate cooks for different delicacies. This includes traditional parottas, basudi, rasmalai, vadas, dosas, jalebi, and filter coffee. This is an evolved version of the original menu, which had just about 10 bites on offer. Interestingly, the space was founded by Uttar Pradesh native Triloknath Gupta – who later sold it to his nephew Rajendra Gupta. The latter kept the integrity of the menu alive, while innovating by switching from a wood-fire kitchen to a modern, smoke-free variant. This new space serves up sambar that goes up to several thousand litres a day. A plate of idli here is just under INR 100 and includes unlimited sambar and chutney, with the former being poured over. This pairs well with a chilled glass of badam milk.
Address: 255, High Road, Triplicane, Chennai
Contact: +91 91500 96301
Known to be the only eatery in Madras to own a jukebox in the 50s, the beats of Dum Maro Dum would often liven up Buhari’s ambiance. It also happens to be one of the first establishments to open post independence. However, it’s the invention of chicken 65 – courtesy of its owner Mr A.M Buhari – that truly propelled it to legendary status. The biryani here – in chicken and mutton variants – with its seven-decade legacy has its own fan base. The space fuses British fine dining sensibilities with Indian flavours, with popular menu features being classic Chennai flavours like Mulligatawny Soup – a delicious remnant of Madras under British India as well as egg parotta, masala fried fish, and kurma. The Idiyappam Biryani – a unique preparation with noodles instead of rice, is a must try as well.
Address: 83, Anna Salai, Border Thottam, Padupakkam, Triplicane, Chennai
Contact: +91 44285 51951
Mylai Karpagambal Mess, 1953
When R Soundarajan first opened this spot a little over 70 years ago, it reportedly served just about 50 people. He’d personally go grocery shopping to personalise every plate offered – with popular options then being lemon and pineapple rasam, paruppu usili, and avial. When he noticed customers missing lunch by arriving post 1:00 pm, he did away with meals, opting to have a range of traditional options available throughout instead. Today, the reins are in the hands of S Prabhu Das – Soundarajan’s son – who has added a range of new options to the menu – pavakkai podi, vadai, pineapple pudding, kasi, halwa, bondas, and dosa.
The filter coffee here is delightful as well. Despite the noteworthy changes, flavours remain quite the same – holding on to the homely, comforting nature the restaurant always had going for it. This is credited by the owner to age-old recipes, passed down generations. They also have a section that sells delicious, healthy options like balloon vines pickle, curry leaves powder, gooseberry powder and more that come with health benefits. And although the renovated space has air conditioning and more – all you need is a bite to be transported back in time.
Address: 20, East Mada Street, Mylapore, Chennai
Contact: +91 44421 12377
Geetha Cafe, 1954
Known for its lunches, this vintage restaurant in Chennai first served about 24 delicacies in a meal – all in brassware. As time passed, this switched to a more efficient menu – with availability specifications and weekend specials. Popular options include vada, rava idli, parottas, pongal, bonda, upma, and ghee roast. The filter coffee and rose milk here are a must-try as well. However, what truly sets the space apart is its tiffin service – which includes a rotation of rasam, sambar, poriyal, curd, rice, and other traditional fare. The pineapple as well as tomato rasam are raved about. You’ll find many locals heading here with their carriers to be treated to some piping-hot lunch.
Address: 88, Pondy Bazaar, Sir Thyagaraya Road, T. Nagar, Chennai
Contact: +91 44281 50083
Novelty Tea House, 1958
In the neighbourhood of Sowcarpet, Chandrakanth M Shah laid the foundations of a small tea stall in the 1950s. Years later, the now vintage restaurant continues to draw Chennai residents in scores – going so far as to even have a branch inside the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA) facility. From cups of tea, the menu evolved to accommodate a whole range of delicacies including tawa pulav, pani puri, falooda, dosa, milkshakes, cheese rolls, and more! The fresh orange-fruit ice cream with orange jelly as well as its seasonal mango cousin are a must-try. The bread here is popular as well. The space – along with the menu – also grew from a 900 sq.ft eatery to a restaurant. Reportedly, this was the spot that first introduced Chennai to pav bhaji. When in the city, it’s worth a quick pop by.
Address: 175, Mint Street, Sowcarpet, Chennai
Contact: +91 98400 41724
An eatery so popular nearly every local could guide you to it – Samco is frequented by the who’s who of Kollywood. It’s also a common sight in movies. This includes Kamal Hasan, who inaugurated the space post renovation in 2009. That said, despite the modern upgrades, the restaurant stays true to its flavours, which first made their impression on diners in 1962. The story goes that three friends and business aspirants – Soopi Haji, Aboobacker and Mohammed Manno Haji – opened a bakery, naming it after the first letter of their names. As years passed, they converted it into a restaurant – which is now run by the third generation. The biryani here is wildly popular, with the chef being around since the place first opened its doors. The parottas (killi to kutthu), masala prawns, paya, and idiyappam come highly recommended as well.
Address: 174, Eldams Road, Alwarpet, Chennai
Contact: +91 95512 69944
Saravana Bhavan, 1981
Perhaps one of the most iconic names when it comes to dining in Chennai – and across the globe – this vintage restaurant was founded in 1981. P. Rajagopal – the infamous founder who evaded sentencing for murder through the course of his life – founded the cultural sensation after observing multinational fast food joints like McDonald’s on his visits to Singapore. Soon enough dining out was near synonymous with Sarvana Bhavan for many Indians – with the lentil and turmeric rich sambar and the thick coconut chutney being talking points.
Like most franchises – this spot’s delicacies are the same in consistency and flavour – from the chutney to the gulab jamuns. Reports attribute this quality to freshly-made food – over centralisation. In fact, all vendors are based in Tamil Nadu and supplies like rice and lentils are shipped across outlets – even overseas – from Chennai. Soon enough, branches of the same – from the Middle East to the UK – had opened up across the globe, giving Indians a taste of home no matter where they jetted to. This makes it one of the country’s biggest, most profitable chains. You’ll spot this iconic restaurant in many Kollywood movies as well.
Address: 21, Kenneth Lane, Egmore, Chennai
Contact: +91 44281 91255
Murugan Idli Shop, 1991
Rounding out this list of restaurants in Chennai is this absolute cultural icon – a vintage space that has been serving up fluffy idlis in Tamil Nadu since the late 1900s. Although it first started as Murugan Coffee Nilayam in Madurai, Murugan Idli Shop has a cult-like following in the coastal city. At first, the menu only featured coffee and a few snacks. However, the idlis soon took off, selling out like hot cakes. In 1991, S Manoharan took over the business from his parents – adding to the one-page, crisp menu. This now includes popular options like ghee podi idli, sweet pongal, vada, uttapam, paniyaram, and jigarthanda. Diners also rave about the chutneys, which come in about four varieties and the filter coffee. In 2003, the GN Chetty branch opened – followed by a string of others across town. This could be courtesy of the dedication that goes behind every plate – which includes commitment to original ingredients and large batches being hand prepped. If you’re in the city, don’t miss out.
Address: 77-1/A, G.N. Chetty Road, T. Nagar, Chennai
Contact: +91 95970 86501
Which of these vintage restaurants are going into your Chennai bucket list?
All images: Courtesy Brands/Getty