This essay was first published in The City Story.
It’s 7:45 on a Sunday morning, and there’s already a queue outside Cafe Madras. Twenty minutes for your table, says the gentleman who jots my name down in his notebook. I glance at the list; there are at least eight ames before mine. We get comfortable on the last of the plastic chairs available on the pavement.
The other people waiting are a mixed bunch. There’s a large family—some of whom are visiting, their American accents tell us—who were already here when we arrived and soon abandon their post for nearby Mysore Cafe, which is a mistake, in my opinion. Young couples, groups of friends, families with hungry young kids…everyone is attentive each time the gentleman with the notebook calls out a name – if you miss your turn you’ll end up waiting for an age again. Twenty minutes turn to thirty, and the crowd continues to swell. Eventually, it is our turn.
Smaller groups are asked to share tables to reduce waiting time; my family of five gets our own. Today it’s on the ground level by the window. We’re in the corner but not forgotten; a waiter appears just a few minutes later to take our order, which includes kaapi, that hot, frothy, milky South Indian coffee that Cafe Madras is famous for. He seems amused that we want it now, even before the food is ready. He reappears mere seconds later with four steel glasses, deftly pouring the coffee from steel glass to steel bowl to cool it. I haven’t ordered any. I like my coffee strong, black, and without sugar—something I’m not willing to budge on even though I’ve heard so much about the kaapi. I order rasam instead, a drink I love that most South Indian restaurants do not serve. I will not pass up the opportunity to have it at the city’s best.
Breakfast ordered, we settle back and wait. Cafe Madras isn’t small, but it’s so popular they pack the tables to the brim. We can’t help but overhear snatches of conversation on the table behind us. Someone is commenting about a relative who’s on a Top 10 list of some sort in America. (College? Work? FBI’s Most Wanted?) We’ll never know, because our food has arrived and our focus is singular. There is nothing Instagram worthy about the presentation, but Cafe Madras doesn’t care about making the food pretty. Like any good restaurant, it cares about what the food tastes like. And it succeeds, like it consistently has for decades, in serving good, authentic, comfort food.
The sambhar isn’t sweet—a huge bonus in Mumbai these days. The idlis are floating in rasam, soaking in the spice. The mulgapudi is crunchy and salty. Someone outside fills the windowsill behind me with the snacks the cafe sells at its pavement counter. I make a mental not to buy some on the way out. The waiter reappears and we order seconds. He chuckles as we order more kaapi.
It feels like we’ve been here for a while, but in thirty minutes our breakfast is over. The family steps out while I wait at the counter to pay the bill. The owner sits there, calmly juggling the patrons waiting to pay, the phone that rings non-stop with delivery orders from neighbourhood residents, and the parcels lined up in front of him waiting to be delivered. The crowd outside has grown even larger, and people are now ordering kaapi to drink while they wait. When I’m done I head straight for the snacks—those sweet banana chips are divine.
They’ve opened a store right next to the cafe, which sells health food, tea, bread, and other quite frankly unmemorable things. It’s an effort at something new, but these are things you can buy in most stores these days. What’s best about Cafe Madras is the old: the no-frills decor, the steel thalis and glasses, the seasoned staff that keep it moving like clockwork when it seems chaotic to the casual observer. Because in the end, it’s always about the food, which at Cafe Madras has been dependable—and delicious—meal after meal every day.
Established in 1940, Cafe Madras is one of the best South Indian restaurants in Mumbai. It opens at 7 a.m. from Tuesday to Sunday and is always busy, no matter the time. The menu includes staples like idli and dosa, plus appams with stew and ponga avial.
Cafe Madras, No. 38-B, Ground Floor, Kamakshi Building, Bhaudaji Road, Kings Circle, Matunga, Mumbai 400 019. Phone: 022 2401 4419
Photograph by Suruchi Maira for The City Story