The Chennai Food Express

There is more to this southern city that walks the dual paths of traditional and innovative.

Vinita Makhija

South India owns the breakfast club. Most metro cities have adopted Idli and Dosas as its no-fuss, go-to, default breakfast idea. Even so, Chennai’s variety on display is staggering and way beyond just these two famous items.

Before the vegan and gluten-free movement, so popular in the country now, Chennai was dolling out Rasam and Vadai’s all made with rice flour and coconut milk. Chennai food is, extremely nutritious, even if slightly indulgent, sumptuous, hearty and hugely satisfying.

There is the massive Mess culture (tiny, local eateries serving home-style meals), the Sabha canteens (music hall canteens that serve local, regional items) and the many cool, just-opened inventive options. So if you’re planning a short trip with food on your mind and warm sunny weather, this southern city is our recommendation. With the below, you can decide to walk towards the more traditional trails or go towards the absolutely new.

Also read: Make rice meals yummier with this easy sambhar recipe

Image Courtesy: Buharis


1. Murugan Idli Shop 

Don’t be surprised if you see many people enter these chains with their suitcases, Murugan is literally the first stop for most people as soon as they hit Chennai. Possibly the most authentic and an institution in itself the shop has many branches but we recommend the one on Bessie Beach. You will be served food on a banana leaf that you must wash out on your own to clean before eating. Our picks, Ghee Podi Idli and Paniyarams. Everything is served with four kinds of chutneys- coconut, coriander, tomato, and mint. Do not leave without indulging in their world-famous Jigarthanda, a sherbet-milk concoction with ice cream and sago beans.

2. Mami Kadai (Mami's Tiffen Stall)

Nestled in the city's bustling Mylapore neighbourhood, Mami Tiffen Stall was established by G Vasantha, who was fondly known as Mami, in the 1960s. It started as a tiffin stall and slowly expanded into a breakfast and lunch eatery. Mami Tiffen Stall or Mami Kadai (as the locals call it) is known for their bondas and thavala vadai. Apart from this, the rice preparations - from sambar rice to rasam rice - are a must-try at this place too. 

3. Junior Kuppanna

Their take on Chettinad cuisine has made it a second home to many regulars. Junior Kuppanna's most popular dishes are the Chicken and Mutton Pallipalayam, which are prepared oil-free. Also try the ‘Cup Lunch’ that includes a portion of biryani, plain gravy, rasam, buttermilk and one poriyal.

Also read: Malabar Biryani - a melting pot of taste and cultures

4. Rayar Mess

Comprising just 16 tables in Mylapore and opened even India achieves independence. Rayar is a classic. There will be a long line, you will have to wait, and you may have to sit with a stranger, but you will leave happier than you arrive.
It’s open only for breakfast and evening snacks. So queue up, this family-run mess’ green chilly chutney is the stuff of legends, try it with their cooked-just-before-you entered idlis.

Also read: Idli sambhar is a match made in heaven

4. Karpagambal Mess

An old-style eatery that updated its recipes to keep health in mind. These recipes were inherited from their great grandmothers and they claim their food helps reduce BP, control sugar and calm the nerves. Try their version of vadais— cabbage, parappu, vazhapu, keerai (available between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m only) and healthy wheat halwas for the conscious.

5. Jannal Bhajji Ka

Literally a hole, or in this case a window in the wall. This Bhajji house located at Ponnambala Vaidhiyar Street is situated right next to a temple and dishes out super hot and sizzling items straight from the stove to your plate.

6. Ratna Caf


One cannot go to Chennai and not pay their respects to this legendary café, a place of religious worship for people who find God in their food. Unlike a lot of places in Chennai, they insist on Sambhar with their idlis. The Dal for this Sambhar is specially sourced and made using a secret recipe. End your meal with their famous khichdi. Their name in Chennai is synonymous with Biryani but they claim to have invented chicken 65. Indulge in their most commonly ordered Mutton Biryani and stop over at their flagship Mount Road restaurant that opened in 1951.

7. Buhari

Their name in Chennai is synonymous with Biryani but they claim to have invented chicken 65. Indulge in their most commonly ordered Mutton Biryani and stop over at their flagship Mount Road restaurant that opened in 1951.

Image Courtesy: Shmoozie's Hand-crafted Ice Creams 


1. Shmoozie's Hand-Crafted Ice Creams
Kshama Adka runs this artisanal and seasonal brand of ice-cream. Chennai’s hot and muggy weather is literally begging for something cool and Kshama more than delivers with her innovative and indulgent flavours such as Buttered Walnut Candy, Backyard mint refreshing mint leaves with citrusy lemon and her most famous Banoffee Pie Cream that has Toffee cooked for 4 hours and smoothly blended with banana and crunchy homemade digestive biscuits for the texture.

2. Pumpkin Tales
Serviced by an all-women crew- situated in Alwarpet they serve up a mean Bibimbap, Mexican tofu bowl, Pumpkin soup (of course) and the pumpkin cupcake for dessert that has more frosting than the cupcake and begs for a repeat. Their signature Morning Glory Bowls include a congee and miso soup are a super crowd pleaser. They also have a bakery, downstairs, so pick up some sourdough, vegan peanut butter cookies, and double chocolate tart.

3. Cereal Killer Bistro
This is a cereal-killer story you don’t mind indulging in. India’s first cereal-concept café in Anna Nagar’s USP is their generous bowls of cereals with some serious toppings. Try the ‘Lannister’s Street’ with Apple Cinnamon Cheerios, Snickers, marshmallows topped with caramel syrup and pista, with a bottle of almond milk.

4. Hamsa
A vegetarian fine-dining restaurant ventures out beyond the regular south-Indian fare and indulges its patrons in a pan-Indian culture. Bhagirathi Mehar paneer- cottage cheese cooked with reduced milk and dried plums or the Iddiyapam Paneer goes beautifully with the anar aur hari meeri ka chawal, a pomegranate and green peppercorn mix rice. Leaving without trying Apple Jalebis or Guava Phirni would be a crime.

5. Broken Bridge Café
True to their promise of tradition with a twist, they take up classic dishes like Thayyir-Saddam (curd-rice) and transform it into delectable brand new items. For e.g fritters served with pickled mayo. The mains are equally exciting- blue cheese naan with butter chicken and a crab with a special blend of khara chutney. The Gulab Jamun Crème Brulee deserves a mention of its own as does the French Pressed Buttermilk Rasam cocktail which they suggest you pair with Bourbon.

6. ITC Avartana

World’s first progressive South Indian restaurant, ITC Chola’s offering has once again paved the way ahead. Common to see Rasam poured over herbs, brewed like tea served to you in a martini glass as a drink or minced lamb brain served inside a dumpling. You are encouraged to sip on Paneer Soda (rose sparkling water) all evening. The semiya payasam, the classic vermicelli kheer gets a makeover as vermicelli arranged like a nest with ice cream inside in an egg shape laced with nuts.

Image Courtesy: Käse

1. Chennai Food Walks
Sridhar Venkataraman and Rupam Das, co-founded the Facebook group ‘Chennai Food Walks’ and organise culinary walks to explore and experience rare and local places around Chennai streets. The group charges nothing to join and people just pay for what they eat. There is no better way to enjoy a city than to do it with locals eating the absolutely local food.

2. Say Cheese
Anuradha and Namrata started Käse (German for cheese), an Indian brand of artisanal cheese as a hobby, but after a quick win at a market organised Karen Anand decided to take this as a full-fledged business. Employing differently abled people the duo want to make an impact in more ways than one.
They offer 20 varieties of cheese like Truffle Brie, Feta with charred leek, Zatar and Sumac (Mediterranean spices) laced Cheddar but their hero is definitely their signature Malagai Podi Cheddar, an ode to Chennai. Go ahead load your dosas with this, you know you can’t resist.

Also read: How to make the famous gun powder or malagai podi

Purva Mehra,
Founder The Daily Pao and Doubledip by Purva.
"As a frequent traveller you learn never to underestimate a city, especially not its food. On a short visit to Chennai I discovered Dahlia, a nondescript Japanese restaurant housed in a dilapidated office building. I never imagined Chennai to have any authority on Japanese food, but Dahlia, which is over 25 years old has established itself as just that. It’s run by N Yamauchi, who doesn’t speak much to diners (he was practically) mute with us, and mostly nods and points when asked a question. His Japanese speaking partner from Chennai Revathi Nagaswami is thankfully more communicative and hands-on. There’s a cabinet full of manga and other dust-covered Japanese posters and knick knacks placed around the old, living room-style joint that is popular with the city’s Japanese population. Their bento meals are iconic as is the chawan mushi, a steamed egg custard that you can order a la carte. In addition to seafood, the a la carte menu prioritises beef and pork and rarely disappoints as Yamaushi has remained committed to the food he knew while growing up in Japan, for the 33 years that he has been in India.
Chamiers is a lovely English-tea-room-style cafe with diaphanous drapes and warm lighting that is a must for tea and desserts. Get a sandwich followed by their lemon pie. Here you will have to exit through several gift shops - Chamiers, which is focused on home decor, beauty and fashion knick knacks and Anokhi, the chain of clothing boutiques across India, so keep your plastic handy.
Tovo - the best chicken in Chennai, prepared in a sous vide style with delicious marinades ranging from chilli pepper to sriracha to their signature butter preparation. Their chicken is perfectly succulent and their regional toppings such as Chettinad zest, Hyderabad spices, Kashmiri zing, and cheese scramble are all equally compelling in taste."

To delve deeper into the south Indian culture and cuisines, don't miss LF's Dakshin Diaries. The singing chef Rakesh Raghunathan takes you on a tour to discover the south like never before. Check out its sneak peek here:

The Chennai Food Express

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