Chennai, or Madras, as it was once called is one of the oldest cities in the country. Established in 1693, the history of how Chennai got its name is still quite up in the air. But it is said that the name Madras originated from a fishing-village north of Fort St. George called Madraspattinam. Or it could have been derived from the word Madhuras, which means “juice of honey” or “sugarcane” in Sanskrit. When in 1522, the Portuguese first arrived, they built a port named after St. Thomas, then in 1612, the Dutch established themselves in the north of Chennai. And in 1693, the English East India Company bought land and built a fort and a castle, which later came to be known as Fort St. George.
But all that history aside, what Chennai is really famous for is the food. The city has legends and history and all the statistics that make it a great place to be, but what is really magical about Chennai and Tamil Nadu in general, is the food that you can eat. Take a look at the dosas, idli and sambar, filter coffee, pongal, Chettinad chicken and you already have the dishes that people associate with the city. Tamil Nadu as a whole has made South Indian breakfasts a really popular and anyone who visits the city needs to indulge in at least one delicious breakfast comprising of idli & sambar, dosa, sambar vada and of course, wash it all down with filter coffee.
So we did some searching and found a few restaurants and cafes that have been open in Chennai since before we got our independence, or right after we got independence. Places that you need to visit when you come to the city, or places you should visit today to truly get the independence feel.
Opened in 1951 by A.M. Buhari, who brought with him from Colombo, the mildly spiced, fragrant biryani and Buhari introduced the city to something completely new. According to The Hindu, Buhari also brought in something more – espresso machines, a jukebox and fancy cutlery and crockery from London, to give guests an experience of ‘fine-dining’. The first ever restaurant was opened on Mount Road, and now the city hosts over 200 outlets everywhere you turn. But if you want the real experience of Buhari, make sure you visit the original spot for a touch of history with your meal.
Established the year after India got her independence, Ratna Café has been a staple and a landmark of Triplicane. Their most popular dish? Sambar. It might seem odd to most that sambar which goes with just about anything would be their biggest draw, but it’s what the people want. Order a plate of idli and dunk each one into the sambar for the complete experience. And here’s the best part, the restaurant was started by Triloknath Gupta of Uttar Pradesh, not a South Indian as you would assume.
Opened as Rayar’s Café over 70 years ago, Rayar’s Mess is one of the oldest standing eating establishments in Mylapore. Besides shifting streets where the mess is located, the concept and place has stayed the same. Like with Ratna Café, Rayar’s is famous for their quick and delicious breakfasts which comprises of your usual suspects – idli, vada, sambar, filter coffee. But they have working hours, something that most other places in the area don’t have. They open from 7am to 10am for breakfast and then 3pm to 6pm for snacks and an early dinner.
This might be a place you’ve never been to, never even knew of either. But Smithfield Bakery has been in Chennai since 1885 by Ponnuswamy N, with the aim to treat the people of Chennai to quality baked goods. They’ve got everything from freshly baked breads, cakes, puff pastries, biscuits and other delicious baked goods. Everyone who is anyone has been to Smithfield and has experienced what this legendary bakery has to offer.
Established in 1928, long before Madras was renamed to Chennai, an Italian by the name of Mr. A. Bosotto and his brother took over Hotel D’Angelis and renamed it Hotel Bosotto Bros. When he returned to Italy, he handed over the reign in 1950 and since then, Bosotto Bros. has been a bakery, famous for their freshly baked breads, snacks and other desserts. Their claim to fame is obviously baking Prince Andrew’s birthday cake in 1961, with a picture of Queen Elizabeth II cutting the cake.
New Woodlands Hotel
When it opened in 1938 by Kadandale Krishna Rao, it was the most popular Udupi hotel in Chennai. While it was never known as just Woodlands Hotel, there was another hotel with a similar name. The lease of that hotel was given to Mr. Rao and he then revamped and changed the establishment and made it what it is today. Udupi food is as popular as South Indian food, but what is really interesting about New Woodlands is that till 1960, there was a separate section for Brahmins.