It was Chennai’s favourite meeting place. “Drive-in pakalam!” (“Meet me at the drive-in”) was the standard form of greeting between friends. The Woodlands Drive-in restaurant was also one of Chennai’s best-known landmarks. Everyone stopped there. It was a pit stop for the visitor to the city who wanted to soak up a bit of the “real Madras”.
Woodlands Drive-in provided it in spades, whether it was the early morning coffee at 6.30am, just as the “Suprabatham” sung by Subbulakshmi came wafting through the air, or the first batch of idlis that were pulled out, still puffing slightly, from their huge aluminum steamers, at 7am, or the crisp dosais, served on a banana leaf with a dollop of fresh butter. Or maybe it was the waiters who would greet you with a hot tip, “Coffee is on its first trip, best decoction of the day!” The whole point of the food and the service at the Drive-in was that nothing ever changed. You could be sure that the onion sambar was exactly as it used to be 40 years ago.
Just a memory: The Woodlands Drive-in restaurant in Chennai (Photo by: The Hindu)
And now, it’s all gone, razed to the ground by official diktat.
This is a requiem for an institution that once defined the city which used to be known as Madras, and has now become Chennai. More as a celebration of what it meant to so many people rather than as a plea that it might all be restored to its former glory. Maybe, as some people say, its time has passed. There are now more malls and specialist coffee places selling, or at least aspiring to sell, coffee from Colombia and Vietnam, the hot new home of the coffee bean. The once-famous “degree coffee” that the Woodlands staff fluffed up for you by pouring it from a metal tumbler into a squat round container to create a nice froth, has now been superceded by espressos and lattes spritzed with cream and swirled to make feathery patterns on the surface.
There are no true connoisseurs of south Indian coffee left, the famous Mylapore mamis, who would twitch their diamond-studded nose-rings and complain, “There’s too much chicory in the brew today.” Or worse still, that buffalo milk had been added instead of cow’s milk. Needless to say , in the early days, the Woodlands Drive-in had its own cowshed at the back.
If, as Conrad Hilton of Hilton Hotels remarked, the only criterion for a successful hotel is location, location, location, the Woodlands Drive-in was started at the right place, at the right time. As recounted in a long obit in Chennai’s best-known city paper, Madras Musings (which thankfully still retains the old name), the Woodlands Drive-in restaurant opened on 15 April 1962. This was the heyday of the famous Udupi restaurants and hotels such as Woodlands and Dasaprakash, that had their branches in most of the larger towns in the south.
When Krishna Rao, the legendary owner of Woodlands, heard that the Horticultural Society of Madras was facing financial difficulties, he offered to rent a part of the wooded area and open a restaurant. It faced the large area known as Gemini Studios on one side. On the opposite side, there is the St Mark’s Cathedral. It was only later that the American consulate building appeared diagonally opposite, adding a certain architectural grandeur to the area, and gradually, the whole intersection—crossed by a network of flyovers—became one of the city’s best-known rallying points and bottlenecks.
All through this time, the Drive-in continued doing what it did best. It attracted a certain type of food lover. For one thing, you needed a car, or a scooter, or a van. You needed plenty of time to spend in the shade of the magnificent trees. You needed company.
This is where many of Chennai’s most ardent courtships took place. It was safe enough for parents to sanction chaste encounters between romantically-inclined couples. If not anything, they felt, the regular waiters would be there to keep an eye on their children. Actors between shoots, dancers, resplendent in costume and make-up, catching a breath of air before a performance at the Music Academy down the road, or the husbands of pious women who were at church on Sunday mornings, were just some of the regulars at Woodlands.
As for the staff, they seemed to go on forever. Their job was to take the orders—after rattling off the items that were fresh on the counter, memorize the complex sequence (they would take several orders at a time), and then bring the lot back carefully balanced on metal trays. They did this through rain and shine.
Even during the disastrous floods in the early 1980s, the Woodlands staff was at hand with its trays. The spot boys, or tray boys who were in charge of fixing the metal racks on to the open car windows, were just as diligent.
The best known was Mani. We saw him grow from a young teenager, to husband and father, and then as the others informed us, he married again and had two wives! He never seemed to want to move on to another job. Years later, we heard that he had moved on to a higher plane altogether, where someone must still be shouting at him, “Mani, fix my tray.”
My favourite was someone who in the early days had managed to serve me a portion of a milk sweet that I loved. It used to be called basundi. One day, however, a snake from the horticultural side of the establishment got into the vat of hot, sweet basundi. I was among the 30 or so people who consumed the sweet that day and not surprisingly, was violently ill.
The incident became a cause celebre. The management offered to pay for our treatment. From that time on, however, the tray boy who had served me would always came up and introduce himself with a wicked grin, “Madam, I am your poisoner.”
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