The Mavalli Tiffin Rooms are an institution. Not just a Bangalore institution either. People come from all over the world to eat at "MTR" as it's called. At most places in Bangalore, if there's a line (yes, it's called a queue here. I'm from the US, I'm going to use US terms till I get assimilated.) people will just go some place else. At MTR even locals willingly line up and wait for hours. MTR started in 1924 with the restaurant, but now is known even more for their line of prepared foods. So this could be like going to "The Rice-a-Roni restaurant" but I don't think locals would line up for hours to visit some over-the-hill brand-identified over marketed has been tourist trap, would they?
I don't know for certain if they would but I certainly wouldn't, and I will be back to the Mavalli Tiffin Room. We ate at some of the fanciest five-star hotel restaurants, some of the most recommended "name" restaurants in Bangalore while were were there, and the most memorable meal was here.
You start downstairs at the iron barred cashier's cage. After deciding if the chalkboard written menu of the day suits your taste, you pay up front a fixed cost per person and get your receipt. Upstairs is a large waiting room, filled with people sitting on benches and a lone gatekeeper at a podium next to the door to the main dining area. Occasionally he calls out a number or series of numbers, and people file in to be seated on plastic chairs at marble topped tables. We wait in this picturesque waiting area for almost an hour, watching a stream of different people come in and occasionally enter the dining area. It's fascinating people watching, and I only wish I knew more about how to recognize their differences and similarities. Everyone is polite, there is no crowding or complaining (though my friend and co-worker from Bangalore who's our guide for the afternoon informs me that people are cheating. They slip in with other groups even though they have not yet been called. I am amused.)
Finally we are allowed in. As we are led to our table I notice the basins for washing your hands, and the rows of shiny stainless steel buckets holding the food we're about to be served. The three of us are seated at a table for eight, along with a family of three NRI (non-resident Indians) from London who have made the pilgrimage to MTR. The son peppers his father with questions about "is this how it was when you came here?" It's clear that they're as excited as we are to be here. We sit down and a stamped stainless steel plate with various indentations is placed in front of each of us.
The parade of food begins. Servers circulate precisely between the tables, following the same route. Each one carries a bucket, and dishes it up precisely with no nonsense. First a silver tumbler of sweet juice - tangerine? Then a spoonful of potato curry seasoned with black mustard. It reminds me of the potato curry inside masala dosa, but wetter. Then in quick succession a green chutney, a dry vegetable dish (cabbage with coconut and white sesame), anther dry vegetable dish of carrots and dal, and a poori.
Next comes a small side dish with a fried dumpling in a salty yogurt, and a famous local rice dish whose name I've shamefully forgotten that was both tart and pungent, served with a scoop of yogurt with diced red onion over it. A crispy yellow hard fried sweet "pretzel" that had been soaked in sugary syrup was placed on each of our plates by the dhoti clad server, and before we could finish it, a scoop of pristine white rice. This had ghee drizzled on it, and then a scoop of vegetable curry. I thought I was going to burst. To top it off, two more scoops of rice, one we were told to make an indentation for rasam (a soup) and the other for curds (like thick chunky yogurt). Both were delicious and a welcome complement to the other flavors.
Finally to end there was a dish of fruit salad topped with ice cream and a cherry. As we were wondering if there was any more to come, we got our answer. The server placed a cellophane packet with paan at each of our places. Our local friend told us that in the past MTR had let people in the front, but they exited out the rear through the kitchen - something that was unheard of at the time, but MTR had wanted to display the uncharacteristic cleanliness of their kitchens. This was no longer needed - their reputation had been long established by now - but we still exited through the kitchen to take a peek.
I regret not getting a photo of the chalkboard menu, and we still need to experience their breakfast dosa. We also avoided the nearby MTR supermarket, all of which lacks will be repaired on a future visit, because we will be back!