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Bengaluru’s darshini wars

The gentrification of darshinis, Bengaluru’s quintessential quick-service eateries, is a pointer to a slow but inexorable process of changing tastes and the disruption of a 100-year-old food culture

On most days, The Rameshwaram Cafe outlet in Indiranagar, Bengaluru, draws huge crowds
On most days, The Rameshwaram Cafe outlet in Indiranagar, Bengaluru, draws huge crowds (Samuel Rajkumar/Mint )

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Walking into Bengaluru Cafe, a popular south Indian eatery in Jayanagar, one of the older neighbourhoods in the city’s south, Ajit Bhaskar sets a stopwatch before standing in queue to pay for a plate of idli-vada. A few minutes later, he comes out beaming, holding a steaming plate of one idli and one deep-fried vada swimming in mildly green coconut chutney (they add a little bit of coriander and mint leaves to it, he informs us) and triumphantly declares that it took exactly two minutes, 40 seconds to get the plate.

“That’s one of the most definitive things about a good darshini. You get your food fast and hot,” says Ajit (he prefers to use his first name) as we dig into the super-soft idli and perfect vada—crisp on the outside, soft and fluffy inside. “It’s really hard to get vadas right. They have to be double-fried and you have to ‘hear’ the vada before you taste it,” he adds—referring to the crackling sound the vada makes as you bite into it.

We are on a “darshini walk” in Jayanagar, exploring a few of the many options the neighbourhood has to offer when it comes to thindi, which loosely translates from Kannada to ‘snack’ or ‘tiffin’. Darshinis are a quintessential part of Bengaluru’s food culture—they are casual, no-frills, quick-service restaurants (QSRs); no self-respecting Bengaluru street is complete without at least one darshini (and one Iyengar bakery and one Hot Chips store, but that’s a story for another day). And in a city known for disruption, the darshini too is being reimagined.

Eat Street

The name darshini itself, unique to Bengaluru, came via a curious route—part of a brand name that later became a generic term. While similar establishments had existed for decades before the term emerged in the 1980s, it was Cafe Darshini, a QSR-style restaurant inspired by the McDonald’s of the world, that launched the term, and with it came a host of new eateries with similar names—Ganesha Darshini, Sri Krishna Darshini, Sri Darshini Veg, Indira Darshini. Eventually, the term came to mean a specific kind of casual dining restaurant—it was codified into official city terminology when the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) started issuing licences for “darshini type hotels” in the mid-2000s.

CTR or Central Tiffin Room is one of the older darshini-style restaurants in the city
CTR or Central Tiffin Room is one of the older darshini-style restaurants in the city

Always class-agnostic spaces where blue- and white-collar workers, retirees and home-makers stand shoulder-to-shoulder without a thought, the gentrification of darshinis has been a gradual but inexorable process as the city changed and even traditional pockets like Jayanagar started seeing a huge influx of students, IT executives and professionals from every sphere. The process started with the likes of Bengaluru Cafe, Taaza Thindi and South Kitchen adopting more Westernised names and deliberately rustic décor, along with a corporatised management style and greater emphasis on hygiene and standardisation.

“No seating, no service, a limited menu and a fast turnaround time—these are what define a darshini. And the quality of the chutney—customers are unforgiving if your chutney is not up to the mark. Most traditional darshinis don’t serve sambar, you see, it’s only the coconut chutney and it can make or break their reputation,” says Ajit. “In spite of the small menu, though, most darshinis become well-known for one or two signature dishes that people go there specifically for.”

Informal estimates indicate there are at least 1,500 darshini-style restaurants in the city, from tiny over-the-counter eateries to sprawling café-style outlets. The prices remain remarkably uniform across the range: no more than 50 for a plate of idli-vada and within 100 for a masala dosa. Popular ones like CTR in Malleshwaram, one of the iconic darshinis pre-dating the term itself, serve over 1,000 customers a day—the advantage of having a quick turnaround time with no incentive for the customer to linger overlong.

A research scientist with a PhD, heading the R&D team for tea at a consumer goods behemoth, Ajit is passionate about thindi and is the focal point of a casual thindi-loving group called Run for Thindi. “It happened organically—I live in Whitefield, where I don't find great options when it comes to authentic darshini food, and I am a runner, so on weekends I would run to Jayanagar (a distance of almost 24km) and reward myself with some amazing food. I started putting up photographs and recommendations on Twitter and people started reaching out, asking if they could join me. Soon we had a WhatsApp group of around 30-40 people, which just kept growing and now has over 300 members,” says Ajit. “It’s all very casual, really. Most weekends, I share where I am eating that day post-run and whoever is free comes and joins up.”

Just outside Bengaluru Cafe, Ajit introduces us to an elderly man standing near the eatery, a little apart from the swell of evening customers. Nagesh P.G., one of the partners at the eatery started by his nephews, used to be a foreman and manager at Robert Bosch Engineering and Business Solutions and he tells us how the team has applied process-management solutions and lingo to the business of thindi-making. “FIFO (First In First Out), JIT (Just In Time), CIP (Continuous Improvement Process)—these are all shop-floor concepts that we have applied to the café. We learnt a lot from TPS—Toyota Production System,” says Nagesh. “We have a DIR table at the end of every day—‘Do It Right’, you know—where we go over the day’s activities…what went wrong, what could be done better,” he adds, before taking a peek into a waste-bin nearby—“that will tell you more than anything else what customers are liking and not liking”.

Applying process and inventory management systems to running a darshini is what we would call a “Peak Bengaluru moment” and an indicator of how the business is transforming.

Over the next couple of hours, we walk to three other darshinis, carefully chosen by Ajit to showcase the variety and quality of darshini food, with each place yielding something memorable and unique from its limited menu—at the Chikkanna Tiffin Room near Bengaluru Cafe, it’s the Ghee Podi Idli (idli seared in ghee, with a generous amount of chutney podi smeared on top) and Bhaat Masala (a massive dish of dosa stuffed with masala rice—not everyone makes this but it’s a speciality at Chikkanna). At South Kitchen in nearby Basavanagudi, it’s the shavige bhaath (the regular semiya upma is transformed into a light-as-air dish sprinkled with freshly grated coconut and a squeeze of lemon juice), while at Hotel Dwarka across the road from South Kitchen, it’s the Khali Dosa—a zero-oil dosa cooked in steaming hot water, served with coconut chutney and a dollop of butter on the side (for 5 extra).

All the places on our map are a mix of old and new darshinis—while the Bengaluru Cafe and South Kitchen are barely five-six years old (the names are a giveaway), Chikkanna and Dwarka are both over 50 years old. What they do have in common is the minimalism of the menu, the reasonable pricing (no dish costs over 100) and the freshness of the food. They are also small and functional—at most, they have a few tables where people can stand and eat—and are tucked away in the lanes and alleys of areas with proximal pin-codes like Jayanagar, JP Nagar and Basavanagudi, neighbourhoods one would describe as “traditional” rather than “cosmopolitan”, where they stand next to temples and little shops selling puja items.

How APJ Abdul Kalam inspired a darshini

The next evening, I am at The Rameshwaram café @ Brookefield—a 14,000 sq. ft space with a garden area, a cavernous inner hall and a serious-looking open kitchen where uniformed cooks and kitchen staff serve specific dishes from assigned points at the counter. It is located in Brookefield—a neighbourhood on the city’s eastern fringe which developed in the 1990s and is dotted with IT companies, tech parks and gated communities.

The coffee-counter at The Rameshwaram Cafe in Brookefield, Bengaluru
The coffee-counter at The Rameshwaram Cafe in Brookefield, Bengaluru (Facebook)

Once inside, I walk to one of the digital kiosks in a corner of the hall, using a touch-screen to place my order and pay through UPI. I walk back to the kitchen counter to hand over a printed token, stand in line to take my plate of Ghee Podi Idli, a speciality here, and a masala dosa (served with two kinds of chutney and a bowl of sambar) and head to one of the few tables and chairs to sit and eat. Most of the other customers crowd around tall tables— in typical darshini style, there’s minimal seating.

The attention to process and detail and restaurant size of is understandable—the first Rameshwaram Cafe in Bengaluru opened in 2019 on Indiranagar 12th Main, one of the city’s most upscale areas for dining out, and immediately overwhelmed it with its surging crowds. The 800 sq. ft darshini overflows with people till late at night, catering to both families and pub-goers who want cheap, hot food after sipping on overpriced cocktails through the evening. It rubs shoulders with restaurants like Paris Panini and Burma, Burma. 

The curse of popularity struck when local residents complained about the littering and traffic jams. The café was shut down for a few days by the BBMP in December 2022—it opened after the owners promised to stop using single-use plastic and control crowds. The complaints have stopped.

Although purists and Bengaluru old-timers who can virtually map the city by its famous darshinis are not overly fond of it—they point to the mishmash of south Indian favourites on the menu rather than the traditional Bengaluru darshini menu and taste profile (the dosa is Bengaluru-style, thick and crisp, but the sambar and chutneys are Tamil-style)—the new-age darshini and its soaring popularity tells the story of a changing city and a shift in the demographic of those influential in its social and cultural life.

The Rameshwaram Cafe now has four branches—apart from Indiranagar and Brookefield, it has boldly opened in the heart of traditional Bengaluru, in JP Nagar and Rajajinagar, to predictable crowds and attendant traffic jams. The chain has become a crowd-puller through a combination of novelty, good marketing and great locations.

In Bengaluru, “disruption” is a viral phenomenon. Everyone wants to break things, shake them up, find new ways of doing. In a city where everyone talks of disruption all the time, Rao clearly felt someone needed to disrupt the darshini model.

Sipping coffee at a table outside (standing-only) at the Brookefield café, Raghavendra Rao, the 38-year-old co-founder and CEO of Altran Ventures Pvt. Ltd, the F&B business which owns the café chain, says his vision was to take darshini food “to the next level” and to a new audience—one made up of young people and new residents who come from across India and the globe. “The vision is to provide premium south Indian food in a QSR format. Over 80% of our customers are youngsters and they need something different, something cool and casual, with an emphasis on hygienic food,” says Rao. “Lots of people advised me not to open on Indiranagar 12th Main. They said it was too posh, that a darshini would not do well there because that’s not the kind of crowd it draws. But I was convinced that our model would work because this generation wants traditional food in a new format.”

In Bengaluru, “disruption” is a viral phenomenon. Like Mumbai, people dream big here, but unlike Mumbai, they don’t dream of becoming rich—or not just that. They want to break things, shake them up, find new ways of doing. In a city where everyone talks of disruption all the time, Rao clearly felt someone needed to disrupt the darshini model.

A crowdsourced list of Bengaluru's best darshinis
A crowdsourced list of Bengaluru's best darshinis

The Rameshwaram Cafe chain also has an Instagram page that churns out slickly produced reels and posts. Its outlets are arguably the first darshinis in Bengaluru to take social media by storm—while you will find YouTube videos and Facebook posts about old favourites like Vidyarthi Bhavan, they are usually made by fans, the owners of these places being too old-school to bother with social media. But Rao says he wanted to make the café chain as cool as Western-style restaurants—and part of that phenomenon is being on social media.

Incidentally, while there are several Reddit and Twitter threads dedicated to discussing the origin of the name Rameshwaram Cafe, Rao laughs at the suggestion that it points to a Tamil Nadu connection—not something that goes down too well in Bengaluru thanks to the history of hostilities between the two states. “I have been inspired by (the late scientist and former president) Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam all my life and as a sign of my admiration, I named it after his birthplace, Rameswaram,” says Rao. “He taught me to dream big and I want to take the café to all states in India— starting with the southern states, then going to Gujarat, Mumbai and overseas…”

While most darshinis operate from a single outlet, it is clear that entrepreneurs like Rao are hoping to take a successful local business model global, which is not surprising in a city where fledgling startups earn million-dollar valuations overnight and where businesses like Swiggy and Dunzo have travelled cross-country on the back of food delivery.

Darshini or European café?

Across town, a vintage darshini has been inspired by the Rameshwaram Cafe to give itself a modern makeover. Samrat Restaurant at the Chalukya Hotel was one of those iconic eateries where business deals and political issues would be thrashed out over its famous dosas. Located in the heart of the business district, Samrat was a stone’s throw from the centre of power in Karnataka—the Vidhana Soudha, housing the state legislative assembly—and its clientele included government officials, MLAs and MPs. Former chief ministers S.M. Krishna, H.D. Deve Gowda, Siddaramaiah and B.S. Yediyurappa could often be spotted there, and it was a huge favourite of the family of Kannada superstar Dr Rajkumar as well, says Santosh Shanbhag, the second-generation owner of the restaurant which had to close down in September last year.

The Chalukya Samrat Cafe in the city's central business district
The Chalukya Samrat Cafe in the city's central business district (Samuel Rajkumar/Mint)

Its lease at the hotel had ended and the shutdown inspired many an obituary in the local newspapers. Since last month, though, it has started serving its famous dosa from a new location and in a new avatar—as the Chalukya Samrat Cafe on Church Street, housed in a new luxury mall, 1 Sobha, opposite the Church Street Social pub. “We looked at the new-age darshinis like Rameshwaram and thought why can’t we also do this?” says Shanbhag, sitting at one of the tables outside the European café-style restaurant, with its French windows, blue trim and cast-iron furniture. “Our motto is ‘new place, same taste’.”

“There is a change in the market. People want a fine-dining ambience and they are willing to pay a little more…we saw the new darshinis and realised that you can charge 200 for a dosa, which is more than double of what we used to charge at the old place. We wanted to attract a more upscale clientele and more young people,” says Shanbhag. “If you ask me, the darshini model is over. It came from Udupi and was all about getting quick food at low pricing. Today people have the power to spend more money and they want a clean ambience, hygiene…. My father, Mr Maruthi Shanbhag, established Samrat in 1977 and I am only carrying (forward) his legacy, and I believe this is the way forward.”

Recently, a poster came up opposite The Rameshwaram Cafe in Jayanagar—it shows a popular meme format featuring Canadian rapper Drake and asks, “Bengaluru, why do you want to stand and eat your dosa when you can sit and eat your dosa?”, in a clear attempt to out-cool the other. It looks like Bengaluru’s darshini wars are just hotting up.

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