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Eating (IS) Out

My earliest experience at a hotel (in my parlance; to others it is Restaurant) has been pleasant. It was pleasant because, it was a new experience for me. Eating out. It was not a frequent exercise. It was very very rare.

The reason for such rarity was two fold - cultural and affordability. A scheme of things where by eating outside for the heck of it would be blasphemy, when you have a mom or wife who can cook. If you are bachelor, you are a curse on this earth which has seen Nala. Eating out was a strict no no more because of the financial burden it would put on your pocket. With little stream of income, it would obviously be stretching the purse too much at the cost of other necessities. It was, to put it crudely, privilege of the elitist class. And I am not referring about people with fatter wallets, but people with wallets.

Neither of the above reasons made any sense to me as a kid. I considered my father to be extremely cruel, for he was not taking me to hotels very often. Not even once a week. It used to be only once in three months or so. That too only when Amma was down with fever or not in station. I don't even remember if we four of us ever went to a restaurant (now in the language of the world) together. The reason therefor I realized only lately. Lot lately. During my class X and more specifically during my first year at college. I realized that, the reason was not cultural in our case.

I loved my visit to the restaurants, however much far and few they were. Not only because they were one "rare" experience, but because I loved some aspect at each of the restaurants I had gone.

Ambal Cafe (pronounced Ka-Fay). The earliest restaurant I can really remember. A kilometre and a half from our house. In a thatched roof. Thatched walls. An old lady at the counter, who used to serve food as well. Don't remember the dining arrangements or the table or chairs. There were only stools. Food was good. I am very finicky about food. I may not complain about food, but I never considered anyone as better cook than my amma. Not because she is my amma, but because she is extremely good at it. Ambal Cafe, was the close second. Till date.

One another restaurant (may be it is slightly developed Ambal Cafe, can't remember) is my all time favourite. Can't even remember the quality of food. It should have been good or atleast okay, else my father wouldn't have taken us there, nor would my amma have tolerated food from that restaurant. I loved it because of a server. A lad of around twelve or thirteen (I was seven or eight). Short and rotund. Chubby and vibrant. Among the most active human I have ever seen. Extremely cheerful, he used to sing and whistle cheerfully while serving. Remember him to shake legs a few times as well. He was trying to be Rajni Kanth. But he was good. Free spirited he was.

The next major hotel which I had frequented was near Central Bus Stand at Trichy. Saraswathi Cafe. Dad and one of our neighbour used to rave about the food there. Even amma was appreciative of the food there. I could never understand what was so special about it. It felt rank ordinary. When I asked my father as to what is special, he used to say, "Meals are extremely good." On insisting further he would add "compared to other hotels." May be my dad and our neighbour, a bachelor then, were referring to VFM aspect of eating out. Full and satisfying meal.

We were still into cafe and bhavans, when my uncle, my first hero, arranged and insisted on a dinner at a "good" restaurant. Any suggestion about "Cafe" invited a scorn and a rebuff, and a lecture on what is "good". Neat dining arrangement. Neat tables. Chairs, instead of stools. Non-disgusting servers, with clean clothing instead of dirty lungi's etc. We understood nothing. He took us to Trichy's top hotel (then). Jenny's Residency.

I was stunned. So was Amma. Bright lighting. White cloth on all tables. Uniform for Servers! They looked neat and affluent than all of us put together. Large tables. Comfortable Chairs. I could keep on going. Despite such large tables, only four or five members could sit at a table. We were fifteen or sixteen. I was already planning to sit along with my cousin and uncle, and stay away from others. My uncle made the hotel fellows, rearrange the tables by bringing them together to make all of us sit in a circle.

All these were never heard of. Asking the hotel to rearrange! And my uncle ordered soup. I was wondering what it was and asked him. "Appetizer" he had said. For the main course, we were told to look into something called as menu card. Another first! In my cafe, a server used to rattle them off in a non-stop fashion before we said Idli. Menu card had all of us in a fix. Somebody uttered about "price", uncle said "worth it." (may be one Idli was costlier than two dosas at Ambal Cafe). No further talk about price. We had a good time.

He said, "This is Good". I concurred. I had to. It was true. It felt so, atleast. Everything was new. New experience.

The next big eating that took place was immediately after my CA Intermediate results. Six of us had been to Tab Restaurant at Cantonment. Five of us were CA Students. Four of them were CA Final Students. All failed. I was CA Intermediate. Only one to have tasted success in the exams. First time I had come to a good restaurant to give treat. With friends! (Couple of them, Naveen and Mani were, more than friends. Mentors would be appropriate).

I was the host and I was the only vegetarian in the group. I was sharing my table with near cannibals who would have eaten cow alive, if fry was not available. I came across new new words. Chicken Lolly Pop. Gravy. Dry. Some new gyaan were also showered on me. That Briyani, Fried Rice and Kuska are not the same. I was bunking my college. Spent a cool thousand two hundred rupee. A huge huge huge sum by my standards. Mathematician in me told that I had eaten for barely Rs.100. Far less than my share (in value eaten) in the overall bill. It felt good. To be a host. To have food in an atmosphere where curd and milk looked like dhal and sambar. Plain rice looked like Puliyodhara. Thanks to yellow lights, and dark settings. I was told about ambience being good. Spending over two hours with friends over eating and teasing one another was fab. It was the new cool.

After shifting out to Chennai, I still considered hotels to be a rare stuff, with little eating outside as possible. Two reasons. One. Financial prudence. I was still a student, not an earning member, and I was sane enough to realize the strain our stay at Chennai, was creating on my family. Two. Never felt the need. Was already having wide variety of foods at home itself. Made by my Amma. She experiments a lot, and gives me, whatever, whenever I want. Most of the times.

Qualification and a little bit of earning did slightly alter my position. I started eating out, especially lunches, as I refused to carry lunch box any more. Still it was the regular hotels where idli was still called idli and there were only three or four varieties of dosa, and rice meant rice. I then tried hotels which offered food with high levels of masala / spices. And cornered on one "Aroma" which is, due to its taste and locality, an 'all men' hotel. Eating there, still is a treat to my tongue and stomach. In the same order. It was in Aroma that I had for the first time ordered something new, which is at every body's mouth, in discussion, but I had never tasted. Gobi Manchurian Dry as a side dish for Paratha. I learnt a few lessons, and knew the order at Chennai. Call an ordinary food with a fancy name, to make to alluring and eatable. Price it more.

Despite Aroma offering food that suited my taste, was still preferring another restaurant near my office for food. Again not because of any food quality or taste. But because of a server. I can never forget him. He was occassionally loud. Wasn't exactly loved by his colleagues. Was large and burly. Was super active. Quick on his feet, he served all his tables very properly. Rushing and courteous. A change of table, would make me seeth with anger, as the other servers were super duper slow. It went to such an extent that I used to visit that hotel just to see him, even if I was not hungry. A coffee (I prefer tea) would be had there. Seeing him work would just motivate me greatly. Inspire me endlessly. Despite all his noises with his colleagues, he was always courteous and polite to the patrons. One day, he was not there. Visited again. He was not there. Used to peep in at different times. He was not there. The management had changed. So had the staff. I hurt real bad to have not even known his name. Not even making an attempt. He was the compelling force to that hotel. I loved it for him. I couldn't even remotely acknowledge its presence, in his absence.

Another major hotel experience I had was at Hotel Mathura. First time, after our lunch was over, we were placed a bowl of lemon juice. I found a spoon, and was fiddling it with an element of doubt, as to why are they providing lemon juice in a bowl, and not in a cup, and what has happened to the straw. A piece of lemon made matters even worse. I couldn't bring myself to ask anything to anybody. Would have been too embarrassing. I touched the side of the bowl, and to my utter dismay, it was warm! It couldn't be a juice. Juices are supposed to be cold. They slowly talked my way till others also completed their lunch, and watched them. I had a company in couple of them. The a colleague of mine, rinsed her hands in bowl, and then I realized that I was staring at a wash bowl. That experience was cool.

Having a few more friends at Chennai, and a lot more money in hand, made me try food at different places. Roaming around in a car, made life difficult for me to park it in any hotel or place, and therefore, had to find hotels large enough to accommodate parking space. Food quality was no longer a criterion. Servers rarely made any difference. It was all about different ambience. Different food style. Afghan. Kerala. Chettinad. Chinese. Etc. Etc. Etc. South Indian itself was a speciality at Chennai.

What I gained? Experience. Reasonable knowledge about food. And that, despite names, many restaurants were offering the same food, with altered nomenclature and fancy menu cards, and ambient settings. Yellow Lights. Dark Mood. Neatly dressed servers. A waiting period of 15 minutes. Tissue Papers. Wash Bowls. And eat for the experience, and not for the stomach. And no idlis! And not all on the menu card is available for eating. The server doesn't know what is not available. You'll know it only at the end of 10 minutes of waiting. Being a server is no longer an extension of serving food, but only a communicating machine with fancy gadgets and yellow pads.

A strong realization also dawned upon me, that purpose of any restaurant is to serve food. Swiftly. Politely. Courteously. Basic neatness is very much required. Multiple spoons, or transparent glasses or english speaking attendants don't compensate for absence of speed and courtesy. The first and most important experience at any restaurant is that having a satisfying and tasty food in times of hunger, without too much fuss. The moment, phony names for old food items, and a mindless approach to eating with stomach getting the last priority and ambience and experience getting the first priority, is akin to eating shit. Customers need not be treated as kings, but as humans who are there to eat food first rather than enjoy an experience. Having a soothing music, or playing the latest hit song, or television with sporting events being beamed has little effect on the primary purpose. I am not calling them useless, but only highlighting that they are secondary. Whenever the primary experience is bad, I stay away from that hotel.

Considering all these, I had brought myself to eat only at a three hotels. Aroma. Afterall, tongue comes first, and stomach later. There is Andhra Means Hotel, which I frequent only for the garlic-cum-dhal powder they offer. Fab taste it has. Amma has since made a better one at home. And there is Hotel Saravana Bhavan at Vadapalani, where every food I have is far better than the one available in restaurants with fancy names and english speaking, tie wearing, Sambar pouring servers (attendants), and thrice the price.

Of late, the so called "experience" restaurants or "speciality" restaurants are more of a theatre with each of us playing a nicer part without any great involvement. The presence there is phony. The food name is phony. The niceties are phony. The entire experience is plasticky. There is an air of indifference. There is little emotional connect. Food feels the same. Eating there feels more out of a compulsion to feel cool or in line with the trend than any desire to have a food for stomach. Eating itself has become secondary, with "frequenting" becoming the order of the day.

There have been days when I had felt guilty of not having ever taken my Amma, Dad and Sister, for an exclusive dinner or lunch, only for four of us to any restaurant, leave alone "experience" restaurant. As days go by, I think, subconsciously, I didn't take them there, because, I didn't myself feel part of them. Despite this, the guilt lingers. Even as I stormed out of a restaurant for the disgusting apathy the fellows had, I felt guilty at shouting at the wrong person. It hurt even more that despite my prior experiences at such "experience" hotels, and not a very high regard or concern for such places, I had repetitively surrendered myself to tread the path of having such experience. Admittedly, not all have been bad, few have been excellent.

Today, Ambal Cafe has grown many fold. The old lady is no more. They have a fancy name (Garden Restaurant). Fancy prices. Fancy food articles. Open Air. Bamboo Tables and Chairs. Shadow lighting arrangement. And I don't know if the "eating" "experience" is still the same, or people have been replaced by morons.

Would I cook my own food, if all my experiences are rank bad? No. I wouldn't even boil water to save my life. I may be from the land of Nala, but I am not one. Do I have the right to comment then on culinary skills of others, taste and quality of food? I have. Its my blog space after all. Would I stop "frequenting"? No. I would still continue exploring and visiting these restaurants, and many more. Hoping to find some good reason to continue.


Ketan said…

Your honesty and frankness had me impressed yet again! Not that I should expect anything less.

Even my family outings to restaurants had been very few. Probably since I had joined college inhibition to eat out had decreased (for my dad; personally, I always liked eating out).

I don't know why, but I might never be able to write a blog post about eating experiences. They have never registered that strongly. I could see, you have a penchant for efficiency, & that you observe people very closely without letting them know.

Somewhere in the middle of the post I realized, you could make a good sociologist or economist! Seriously. Maybe you could try those things as hobbies when you have more time.

If I have to live in a place for more than a couple of days, the things I make a point to taste are aloo parathas, pulao/biryani and samosas (as part of street food and not in restaurants) as all of these taste distinctly different even in the same area, and also because I like them. :)

I had really, really liked the lemon rice served at the Chennai bus depot.

I think you will really feel nice if you take your family at least once for a dinner. :)

Somehow I like the experience of eating pizza with friends provided it's not at a very crowded place. It allows for sufficient time to talk and the entire experience is more sociale than looking into one's plate & eating.

I do not feel satisfied cleaning my hands in a finger bowl. I make it a point to wash my hands afterwards at the basin. I get very impressed if an eating place has a good running tap and soap, that in itself would ensure that I will develop a soft corner for it!

And wow man, I just saw your pic (virtually for the first time)! You don't at all look as angry as some of your blog posts sound! But looks can be deceptive. :P

Very glad to see your pic, finally. :)

Keep enjoying!

Ketan said…
I had felt something in the middle of the post, but wasn't sure if should discuss, but then let me do it any way. And that is, probably south Indians find it easier to be candid about concerns like saving money or talking of one's inability to afford. Such things are not looked down upon in the South, it seems. Whereas, it's exactly the opposite in places like Delhi (or maybe, in north).

North Indian middle class tends to be flamboyant, whereas south Indian middle class tends to be, for lack of a better term, functional!

These are just generalizations based on many observations; am not being judgmental about any of the two ways to be.

Your honesty, of course, is exceptional. :)

Here's a fellow blogger who I've come to respect immensely. Can't tell you how much one can learn from each of his blog posts. This post is a good, candid introduction to his journey of life.
G Saimukundhan said…
Hi Ketan

You been to Chennai? Enroute to Pondy? Or you had come specifically to Chennai? I have had tasted lots at Chennai CMBT (Bus Terminus)

Whenever I have rice, finger bowl is inadequate. It will be so nasty that I would need couple of finger buckets.

Sociology or Economist isn't within me, simply because of the rigour of study it involves. I am never that patient. Though I have extreme fondness towards Economics.

The north south divide in the way of presentation I have observed over a longer period. In fact, of late people at the Metros down south are no different from the people at Metros up in the north. In fact the difference in approach (flamboyance vs. conservative) is very much apparent between majority in Metros / Cosmopolitan and Semi Urban / rural areas.

as to the photo, I never really wanted to upload it. Thought of it only after posting "Theory of Evolution".

Thanks for Your Comments

G Saimukundhan said…
Forgot to add. I had read Harmanjit's blog. Among the weblogs you had recommended, this was the one which connected me to the post.

Cheers again

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