Saraswathi Lodge is a bustling wayside saivar food haunt that serves people from all walks of life. From hungry students, street sweepers to rich entrepreneurs, Saraswathi Lodge has been an ever present foodie haven for over 70 years.
I was first introduced to Saraswathi Lodge by my husband (AKA minisa), who thinks it is the best eatery in town. Saivar, loosely translated is vegetarian and that is what you can get at Sarasawathi – South Indian vegetarian food.
Saraswathi Lodge is a diamond in the rough and it is not for the weak hearted. Food is served on stainless steel plates, curries are stored in … well … buckets that are heaved and plonked on tables. Once you enter its doors everything is a blur. From ordering, eating, paying and leaving I don’t think you have time to blink.
So, off we went to breakfast at Saraswathi Lodge. Of course, old timer that I am, I rattled off the Sarasawathi Lodge Etiquette to the team which has been repeated to me over and over again by the minisa but well, never followed by me.
Here it is:
- Be aware of what you want and be specific to your server
- Don’t expect the server to answer all your questions
- Don’t change the order on whim
- Don’t try to chat up the server for more information
- Know that if you sit down stairs, some random stranger will sit next to you
- You do NOT engage in friendly chats with said strangers
- You make no eye contact with other patrons
- You keep your head low and chomp away
- Don’t be shocked by the service
- Do NOT use extra vadai to make your food photo pretty and put it back on the tray.
- Try not to take food photographs
- Do not jump in surprise everytime the curry buckets are slammed on the table.
- Wipe your hands with white paper without blinking an eye
- Thank the server by way of a polite nod and thank you, nothing more
Pffft… Who listens to his guidelines. Still looking around, that seems to be the etiquette. My sunny smiles were returned with blank looks. The floor was scattered with used white paper. No one was engaging in conversations. But everyone was eating in lightening speed. Buckets of curries whizzed past and it was a hub of activity. There is a universal truth that states that any restaurant with a large customer turn out means that the food served is fresh and clean and I think that is true.
We were lucky to get a table with four seats. While we quickly sat, another gentleman joined our table. While the servers were not the friendliest, they were certainly swift. I wanted uppuma but apparently it was sold out. Saraswathi Lodge opens at 6.00 am so if you need Uppama, make sure you are there on time.
We ordered wheat flour string hoppers, vadai and a plain thosai with two light teas.
To our right was the serving station, with people manning the takeways and refilling the curry buckets, and of course regular orders.
Right next to it was this steaming chrome device that was truly intriguing. Serving as both a plate rack and a plate warmer, this device has a hot water bath that the servers dip the plates in before they plonk it in front of the customers. I think it serves as a germ killer cum plate warmer. Remember to tilt the plate to drain the extra water off your plate. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Soon after the food is served, in comes the sambar curry ( A dhal curry swimming with vegetables such as murunga, onions, carrots, beans, pumpkin, potatoes and sometimes chickpeas) and the red and white chutney buckets with long spoons. Remember to dip the spoon well in to the bucket to get the veggies. If the curries are dripping from the sides of the buckets. Just ignore.
Saraswathi Lodge might mass produce food and it might be served with zero smiles. But the food has soul and that speaks to everyone. The string hoppers are massive and really 10 feels like twenty regular ones. While we opted for the plain thosai, our table partner had a ghee thosai which also looked delicious! I saw neighbouring patrons gobbling down boiled chickpeas. It was a food fiesta. I asked our table partner how his ghee Thosai was and he gave it a thumbs up. I would have spoken to others but got some disapproving glances from my breakfast partners and heard my minisa’s voice in my head saying ‘ETIQUETTE!’ (Hmpf)
While our servers weren’t always the chatty sorts, they were extremely efficient and observant. If we need extras they would bring it and our teas were miraculously waiting for us while we moved to wash our hands.
The tea is served in glasses and boy-oh-boy were they hot. The light tea has only a hint of tea to flavour the milk which was sweet and frothy.
Our bill was ready before we knew it and obviously it was time to leave. We were quickly ushered away while the table was rapidly wiped and the next patrons grabbed a seat. So you collect the bill from one counter and pay at another and there we spotted the menu.
At the entrance are also sweets you can choose from. We were so full, we really couldn’t try anything more. But if you do, please let us know what your favourites are.
Did we love Saraswathi Lodge? Yes, we did! Will we come here again? Yes, again. Somehow, food with no frills and trappings can sometimes be soulful and just what you need. Do not judge it by the papers on the wall or the dripping buckets. Once we were the last customers at Saraswathi Lodge close to 11.30 pm and the staff basically washed and scrubbed the entire store, walls and all with water and disinfecting the whole store from front to back. I have never seen anything quite like it in my whole life.
In all, this vegetarian meal cost us less than Rs 600/-. So, go to Saraswathi Lodge. Seriously, just go there!
As for the minisa who would eventually read this; he would just shake his head and pretend he doesn’t know me.