Change isn’t always a good thing. In fact, when it comes to tried and tested edible formulas, which in turn amount to the kind of restaurants that only get better with age, we’re willing to go as far as to say…change sucks. We started this one out with the idea of keeping the list closed to pre-independence era joints alone, but as we brushed away the culinary cobwebs, we decided to refrain from ageist tendencies. Instead, we opened up the gates to all and sundry just as long as they fit into these two criteria:
1). They’ve been open for at least 50 years
2). They’ve never given us reason to demand their resignation.
There’s something to be said for those who stick to what they’re good at and we can vouch for the fact that these restaurants have never disappointed. Without further ado, here are 15 of India’s oldest, and thereby, most iconic restaurants, you need to know and sample.
[As always, each pick comes with a personal suggestion of what to order. Because...details.]
We wouldn’t blame you for being surprised; this is on the list considering ICH actually has over 400 branches spanning the length and breadth of the country now but its most popular branch at The College Street, Kolkata, was actually founded in 1936!
The influx of patrons has been unwavering over the decades thanks to its delicious specialities - right from its crispy fried cutlets and more modest omelette pacs to the revamped items falling into the Indo-Chinese category in all its glory to, of course, the chai-coffee that every budding poet/artist/writer still stop by for, to get their creative juices flowing. Even if its extensive and indulgent menu, with all its delicious offerings, is not enough to convince you of its legacy, there’s a lot more lending itself to its iconic status.
Best Known For: The ‘adda’ sessions.
It became an intellectual battleground for the Hungry Generation, which in itself was a massive cultural and literary movement. Several literary publications were born during these sessions in the presence of a number of iconic poets, writers, scholars and artists that ultimately made adda sessions a breeding ground for all kinds of creative breakthroughs. Other than that, India Coffee House has also witnessed many other political and cultural movements, as the place of their origin. Personalities the likes of Rabindranath Tagore and Subhash Chandra Bose have frequented the coffee house; to this day, Indian Coffee House remains a regular haunt for many due to its old-world charm and its consistently delicious food at highly affordable prices. It also explains why the owners have refused to change its ambience despite companies like Asian Paints having approached the society with offers to do the same.
What to order: The legendary Fish Cutlet @ a measly Rs. 50 per piece
Meal for 2: Olden day prices too @ Rs. 300!
MTR was founded by Parampalli Yajnanarayana Maiya and his brothers in the year 1924. The food served at the MTR is cited to be regular, wholesome Karnataka Brahmin fare and has its origins in the Udupi Brahmin cuisine of the coastal region of Karnataka but we can vouch for the fact that there’s nothing ‘regular’ about its taste. In fact, we’re willing to to bet this hole-in-the-wall, though more synonymous of a college mess than a real restaurant, would give every other Udupi’s idli-wada a run for its money. Highest priority is given to cleanliness and the quality of food, over and above the ambiance and it even went as far as to escort their patrons through the kitchen for many years so that they could be satisfied at the level of hygiene maintained before they ate there.
Best known for: The world’s best Rava Idli. No, really.
During World War II, there was a significant shortage of rice supply, which made it difficult for the good folks at MTR to churn out regular idlis at a fast pace to meet the demand. Desperate times called for desperate measures - they experimented with semolina and thus the wildly tasty rava idlis were born. Or at least that’s their version of the story.
What to get: Don’t think twice - Rava Idli @ an affordable Rs. 45 and/or Masala Dosa @ Rs. 65
Meal for 2: They understand inflation @ Rs. 450 but it’s still worth it.
Allen’s Kitchen is yet another landmark in the culinary landscape of the city of joy. This restaurant has been around for over 132 years (founded by Mr. Jibonkrishna Saha) and still holds its own amongst the plethora of eateries that have cropped up all over the city, over the decades. And it’s stayed in the family too, what with the intimate restaurant still being run by 4-th generation Sahas.
The space itself is nothing to write home about but one bite of the prawn or fish cutlet and the outdated décor ceases to matter, if it bothered you at all to begin with. Like every other restaurant on this list, the food here is insanely affordable and never fails to deliver. They only operate between 4 and 9 pm which lends to the restaurant’s reliability and the quality of the food served here. But rest assured, the place will be packed to the brim no matter what time you choose to go.
Best Known For: Fried Snacks. (So good it doesn’t matter what they’re frying)
What to get: This hole-in-the-wall restaurant is perhaps best known for its Special Prawn Cutlet fried in pure ghee (clarified butter) @ Rs. 110 (Excuse us as we wipe the drool of our chin)
Meal for 2: Even cheaper if you go by yourself @ Rs. 300
Bangalore does love its Tiffin Rooms. A melting pot of creativity, CTR was Bangalore’s answer to Kolkata’s ICH as it played host to several writers and poets in the 1940s and 1950s due to which the name CTR has been immortalised by several literacy greats and works. A few years ago however, the façade of CTR was given a major facelift and a new name, Sree Sagar, but they were sensible enough to maintain the old-world charm of the interior.
People have been flocking to Sree Sagar for the authentic Chennai fare of masala dosa and bitter filter coffee for decades. All the ingredients are of superior quality – the rice, lentils and vegetables are unadulterated
Best Known For: Its butter!
Specially acquired directly from the homes of farmers in Nagamangala town and Mandya district, it quite literally doesn’t get any better than this.
What to get: Benne Masala Dosa @ an insanely cheap Rs. 25 or the Plain Dosa @ Rs. 22 (make sure you ask for butter with everything!)
Meal for 2: Sweet baby Jesus, how do these prices still exist @ Rs. 100
This 100-year-old establishment is just the kind of thing that would fit in well on a Darjeeling ‘Lonely Planet’ guide. Retaining all its old-world charm both in terms of flavours and aesthetics, this is where you need to come and spend a few hours should you ever feel like the world is moving too fast.
Better known for its baking skills, you can never go wrong with an order of sweet eats, right from its fresh n’ stewy apple pies to their hot, sticky cinnamon buns but the restaurant’s offerings of sizzlers and meat pies among other things have earned their own stripes too. Whatever you opt for, don’t forget to top it all off with a cup of Darjeeling tea.
Best Known For: Its list of their sales since the very first day the restaurant was operational.
They did business worth Rs. 369 on that first day and you really don’t want to miss navigating through this time machine if you manage to drop by for a visit.
What to get: Sizzlers, followed by Apple Pie.
Where: Nehru Road, Ganeshgram, Darjeeling 734101
Remember the Indian/Sepoy mutiny of 1857? Well, so does Mumbai’s Leopold Cafe. Or almost, anyway. Established in 1871, Leopold Café (better known as Leo’s) is one of Mumbai’s oldest restaurants and it shows no signs whatsoever of ever hanging up their aprons. They’d probably witness a real mutiny if they tried.
Over the years it has featured in every traveller and locals’ must-visit list as much for the versatile crowd (word has it you can meet anyone from a fake passport maker to good drug dealers here) as it is for the expansive menu. And it has adapted from its modest beginnings to include just about every cuisine under the sun right from Chinese to Italian to Indian and more. The Leopold special vegetarian pasta, red pepper chicken, prawn chilli and soya wine chicken are the most frequently ordered dishes according to patrons but there are plenty of other great things to order.
Best known for: Being both a shrine and a literary destination.
Other than the bullet holes that serve as a chilling reminder of the brutal attack in 2008, a lesser known fact is that the café has a literary aspect, deriving from the 2003 cult novel Shantaram. Leo’s plays a central role in the book, which is set in the complicated organized crime world of 1980s Mumbai. In the novel, the café is the canteen and neutral ground for rival gang members, Afghan drug lords, European prostitutes, and other exciting characters. Ever since its publishing, it’s become something of a tourist destination as well. With respect to the terrorist attacks however, the fact that Leopold’s reopened within 4 days of the attacks became a symbol of national resistance.
What to get: Crispy Fried Chili Chicken With Mushroom Pot Rice @ a slightly overpriced Rs. 360, accompanying the infamous tower of Beer @ Rs. 1500
Meal For 2: Seriously over-priced but worth its ambience/ legacy @ Rs. 1500
Holding tight to its reputation as Chennai’s oldest restaurant, Buhari became significant for being one of the first eating establishments to open post-independence, thereby becoming representative of all the new freedoms available to people in the country.
Best Known For: The Origins Of ‘Chicken 65.’
Invented by the restaurant’s founder, A.M. Buhari, in—you guessed it—1965, he made gastronomical history when he decided to deep fry chicken and season it with ginger, garlic, vinegar and chillies - though it’s almost impossible to describe what makes it so special. All we know is that it’s iconic status has given it enough merit to be used on Bacchan’s KBC Season 1 or countless press mentions among other things.
What to get: If you don’t order the Chicken 65, you’d seriously be a fool @ Rs. 150
Meal For 2: Totally appropriate @ Rs. 600
Much like Indian Coffee House, you’d be excused for thinking this was the latest fast food chain now but one look at the original eatery, established in 1913, and the years epicurean legacy shine through. Bang in the middle of over-crowded Chandni Chowk and around the corner from the exquisite Jama Masjid, Karim’s epitomizes the word legendary. Armed with an arsenal of secret recipes for delicious Mughlai delicacies passed down for generations, Hazi Kareemudin established a modest eatery but even in a thousand years, Hazi couldn’t have predicted that his name would be immortalized like this. And he certainly couldn’t have predicted the concept of inverted snobbery, in which highbrow patrons and tourists would travel to visit the flagship branch to share tables with Afghan tribals and Kashmiri shawl sellers, amongst other strongly cultured communities. Considering he started off with nothing but a 2-course menu: alu ghost (mutton and potatoes) and dal, perhaps no one could have ever predicted its fledgling-then-dizzying success.
Best Known For: Its incredibly varied crowd.
What to get: Literally anything on the menu is worth ordering but if we really need to pin point one thing, it’d have to be the Mutton Biryani @ a totally worth it Rs. 265.
Meal For 2: We’d be willing to splurge @ Rs. 800
They say Flury’s shares an ‘umbilical bond’ with Bongs, Brits and the Old Kolkata Schoolboys’ Club. Set up in 1927 as a tea-house by a Swiss couple, Mr. and Mrs. J Flury, who made Calcutta their home, today, Flurry’s is arguably the most famous coffee shop in Kolkata, taking up prime real estate in the middle of the upmarket Park Street. Enormously loved for their omelettes, cream of mushroom on toast, doughnuts and hot chocolate.
This peephole into the British Raj now has 14 counters in Kolkata alone and took advantage of mall culture, eventually opening branches all over major cities in India and it’s become renowned for its high-end European fare right from cakes, desserts, and breakfasts to hot and cold drinks.
Best known for: Satyajit Ray’s Patronage!
The legendary filmmaker was rumored to have maintained a credit account here, and would visit Flury’s every Sunday morning for breakfast without fail.
What to get: Chicken and Mushroom Quiche @ an affordable Rs. 45 per slice OR the cream of mushroom toast for a delicious evening snack.
Meal For 2: They’ll remind you of their history @ Rs. 1000
Unless you’ve been living under a proverbial rock, you’ve already heard about Britannia, sampled their beri pulav and napped for many hours post countless sumptuous feasts here. You’ve also probably rushed through lunch-time traffic, hoping against hopes you’ll get there before they pull their shutters down at 4 p.m. and if you made it, you probably succumbed to the absolutely adorable, octogenarian owner’s suggestion of having a sweet fresh lime soda to accompany your meal, whether or not you feel like it.
Easily one of the city’s most loved restaurants, rumours of it shutting down usually send loyals into a tizzy but the Zoroastrian immigrants from Iran who established it in 1923 haven’t ever fuelled that fire. Seeped in Iranian heritage, Britannia’s remained largely untouched since it first opened its doors to British officers stationed in the Fort area, including the Bentwood furniture imported from Poland in the restaurant’s earlier years. It’s achieved cult status by constantly delivering the best Parsi fare that Mumbai has to offer, with even the humble rotis made at Britannia enjoy international fame. Legend has it that there was once an NRI living in London who requested an Air India stewardess to bring him 100 airtight-parceled rotis every week. This arrangement went on for a whopping 7 months.
Best Known For: Boman Kohinoor, the current owner and manager of the restaurant.
He’s always hands on (despite his old age) is immensely charming and personally takes orders and makes small talk with the patrons.
What to get: Beri Pulav, Beri Pulav, Beri Pulav @ Rs. 500
Meal For 2: We’d pay double this @ Rs. 800
Delhi has several restaurants that are soaked in antiquity and Moti Mahal in Daryaganj remains, to this day, a time bubble. Not only is the menu untouched since 1947, but even their décor is exactly what it was when the doors first opened. Till date, you can hear quawwali singers in the courtyard as well but there is one difference. In those days, Moti Mahal was virtually the only restaurant in Delhi. Today, there are several branches of the restaurant — owned by rival partners, all with more or less the same menu — plus a couple of thousand other restaurants selling a surplus of cuisines. While 50 years ago, you would go to Moti Mahal because there really wasn’t much of a choice; today Moti Mahal has become an experience in and of itself. One that you couldn’t avoid even if you tried.
Best Known For: Their unadulterated quality of food.
What to get: Their infamous Butter Chicken @ Rs. 540
Meal For 2: Ludicrously cheap for what’s on offer @ Rs. 600
This is Madrasi intimacy at its finest. Despite hundreds of messes that have popped up since it was first established 65 years ago, this place is still the only place that serves as a portal back into time, nostalgia notwithstanding. Its walls are covered in religious paintings and the tables creak under the pressure of an assortment of delicious pickles, and they don’t waste any time with niceties over here. You come, you eat, you make way for the next 300 people to do so.
They still serve on a banana leaf and can only fit about 50 people at a time but none of these things will matter once you’ve torn into a crisp dosa and laden it with their in-house mulga podi, the kind you can only hope to experience in Madras, not Chennai.
Best Known For: Their traditional recipes which have never wavered from the original, passed down from the owner, Mr Prabhu’s grandmother.
What To Get: Everything is of impeccable quality but if we had to pick, we’d go for the sweet poll, served with a generous splash of ghee @ Rs. 50 It doesn’t get more addictive than this.
Meal For 2: Prepare for time travel @ Rs. 200
Samco’s isn’t too good for, or too beneath anyone. There’s no place for authentic Hyderabadi cuisine that comes packed with as much flavour and as much heart as a single dish from this restaurant and it’s a place where people from all walks of life come to drown their sorrows, joys and cravings alike in a common love for good food and better service.
It’s known to have been a haunt over its 5-decade-long existence for all sorts of film industry folk (Mumbai’s answer to any coffee shop on Yari Road?) and they keep late hours to keep up with all its patrons too. Whether it’s a biryani, Chettinad chicken, or perfect, flaky parathas (South Indian style) their loyal customers have long since learned that their consistency will always remain worthy of a visit. And surprisingly, their Chinese isn’t half bad either!
Best Known For: Their seriously eclectic crowd.
What To Get: The special chicken 65 Biryani is almost a throwaway @ Rs. 200
Meal For 2: You won’t eat for days and it’s only Rs. 750 if you order more than you can finish.
We’ll admit this is the one place we’re willing to go to any lengths to experience, whether it means sharing our space with complete strangers, or eschewing all our usual expectations of hygiene considering we have no idea what’s going on in that kitchen. One way or the other, the food hasn’t disappointed in 60 years and it’s unlikely to start doing so now.
As no-frills as it gets, this erstwhile family has been sharing delicious goan meals with lucky frequenters of the Colaba area, despite a Mangalorean heritage. From their fragrant prawn pulav or the drool worthy pork vindaloo or that perfectly delectable 80-rupee steak, slathered with fried onions, conversation takes a backseat at New Martin’s and every single soul who’s managed to cram themselves in are part of a bigger culinary moment and they know it.
Best Known For: Being closed more often than they’re open.
Martin’s keeps really strict timings and post their lunch service, they will always tell you the waiters are taking a nap. Not that we’re complaining because that’s probably how they keep the quality so high—with well rested workers!
What To Get: Steak, Onion, And Chips @ a painfully cheap Rs. 150 (It made our Mumbai’s Best Steaks For Many Budgets list too)
Meal For 2: There is a god up there @ Rs. 450 (and that’s only because you’ll end up ordering everything on the menu)
The year was 1942, and India, still a British colony, was off fighting the second world war. But Delhi’s connaught place was still busting with the fervent energy that set it apart from the more subdued times as far as culinary experiences were concerned. In this unique space, United Coffee House found the right soil to bloom and it went on to quite literally set the table for fine dining in India, fast becoming a meeting spot for politicos, bureaucrats, artists and business men, all visiting for the same purpose—a leisurely fine-dining experience and a liberty-infused environment. Even all these years later, despite our independence, the restaurant still retains that air of freedom.
And its menu has been kept largely the same with old-time favourites like the gargantuan, crisp Kheema samosa and skewered, fresh, tomato fish still retaining top rank in order volumes but newer additions like the Vietnamese pho and Lamb Redankgi Kari (an Indonesian curry staple) have been met pretty well too.
Best Known For: Its in-House Coffee Blends.
What To Get: Chicken A La Kiev @ Rs. 545 but not if you’re on any kind of diet!
Meal For 2: Come here for a lighter wallet by the time you’re done @ Rs. 2100
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