Vidyarthi Bhavan, located in the Gandhi Bazaar area in Bangalore, is a students’ eatery established in 1943, serving South Indian breakfast staples like idli, vada, and dosa. It constantly pops up in lists of “must-try restaurants in Bangalore”, and I’ll have to admit, I was a tad skeptical. I knew this place has a huge crowd, and I wasn’t sure if heritage and rapid turnover of tables would result in subpar food. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a shot during my Bangalore stay, visiting it one fine morning with a schoolfriend of mine who works in the city.
As I walked towards the restaurant, I could see it was very crowded. After I mumbled “eradu” (Kannada for two), the waiter took us to an empty table of four. With its chequered floor, closely spaced tables, and long line of pencil sketches adorning the walls, it had an air of nostalgia, the feeling you get when you walk into Flury’s in Park Street or Paramount in College Street. A minute after we were seated, two other guys, about our age, was seated at the same table, facing us. This is a place of old-school communal eating, where you share your eating space with strangers, a far cry from the modern concept of individual dining.
Although it usually isn’t easy (and rather awkward in today’s generation, atleast for introverts like me) to strike up a conversation with random strangers as you eat your food, it gives the place a unique vibe, something you usually don’t come across these days. And there is the obvious practical upside: cramming in so many customers means more orders, and more revenue generated. But practicality aside, the old-school nature of communal eating was a pleasant respite from the modern dining experience, and it was interesting to share the Vidyarthi Bhavan experience with fellow Vidyarthis, albeit wordlessly.
Then came the waiter, a man who has no time for fake pleasantries. You place your order, and you do it quickly, this is no place for QnA sessions about the menu. So out shot the orders: two masala dosa, one kesari bath, and one coffee. The dosa needs to be freshly made, while the big batch of kesari bath, Karnataka’s version of semolina pudding, is already prepped, so it hits the table first. Ignoring all etiquette of savoury before sweet, I tucked in. And man, was it good! Drenched in ghee and scented with cardamom and clove, it had a wonderfully soft consistency and lemon yellow hue. It was laden with toasted cashew and bits of pineapple, which added a fresh bite to offset the richness.
The two Vidyarthis sitting opposite us ordered idli and vada, both of which reached the table quickly, bathed in sambhar. The South Indian breakfast relies heavily on fermentation. From fluffy idlis to crisp dosas, and vadas that are crunchy on the outside and melt-in-the-mouth inside, they are filling and delicious. Infact, just a few days before the Vidyarthi Bhavan visit, I had eaten breakfast an iconic Tamilian restaurant chain called Adyar Anand Bhavan, referred to as A2B for short, to sample the Great South Indian breakfast; a delicious platter of dosa, idli, vada, sambhar, a trio of chutneys, Pongal (a khichdi like concoction made with rice and flavoured with whole spices) and Rawa Kesari, the Tamilians’ version of the Kesari Bath.
A2B has options of both table service as well as self-service. Vidyarthi Bhavan on the other hand, despite the massive rush, has no self-service. The servers bring the dosas, 15-20 at a time, stacked atop each other and dexterously supported using the arm and forearm. With deft precision and impeccable memory, he serves up whatever each customer asked for: plain, masala, or sago dosa, each of them a brown, crisp semicircle on a round, steel plate. The other half of the plate gets filled next by another server, who closely follows suit and pours the coconut chutney into the empty space. Tableside theater at budget price.
The dosa was a delicious shade of brown, and as I applied some pressure on it, out oozed some ghee. It encased a simple potato filling, called palya by the locals, spiced with chilli and mustard seeds, with the nutty bite of urad dal. But the real hero was the casing itself. The exterior and edges were as brittle as a wafer or tuile, while the bottom, moistened by the chutney, was softer, assuming a crepe-like consistency. Open it up, and you see the multitude of bubbles, the sign of a great ferment, which also lends it a delicious tanginess to offset the richness of the ghee. The casing is stratified, with a crisp exterior and fluffy interior.
Then came the coffee, served traditionally in a steel tumbler and bowl. The the coffee in South India is really good, and it feels a lot deeper in flavour compared to coffees back home. Maybe it’s the chicory, but I’m not sure. And then there’s the visual appeal of bubbles on the top, thanks to the froth created as the coffee gets dexterously poured back and forth between two tumblers. Sweet, milky and with an unmistakable punch of bitter coffee flavour, it is the perfect end to any meal.
The final addition to growing list of pros of this place is the value for money. At under 200 for the whole meal, with the delicious kesari bath costing just 30 rupees, this place is ridiculously cheap for the quality of food it serves. It makes sense considering the fact that it is mostly targeted to students, but it is impressive that this place, which turns 80 next year, has neither hiked up the prices by playing the “Heritage Card”, nor skimped on the food quality with time. Each dosa is quickly served, picture-perfect, absolutely delicious, and dirt-cheap. What more can you ask for?
Vidyarthi Bhavan is a time-warp, with its communal eating, 90s-like pricing, and no-nonsense service. But unlike a lot of similar places, it substantiates the nostalgia with quality, making it a place you’d want to visit over, and over, and over again.
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Flavours of nostalgia