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Pune: South Indian Mess, established in 1933 to provide accommodation and meals to people from South India in Pune, has now transformed into a prominent landmark in Rasta Peth, attracting customers from all corners of the city.
In 1971, L S Moorthy, a 24-year-old graduate eager to explore opportunities beyond his family’s catering business, arrived in Pune. Hailing from Palakkad, which comprised 18 villages at the time, each with its own temples and distinct cuisine, Moorthy faced a challenge in finding authentic Tamil Brahmin food in a city dominated by Maharashtrian influences.
Fortunately, the answer lay in the South Indian Mess, operated by the South Indian Urban Co-Op Hostel Society, situated in Rasta Peth. Here, Moorthy could satiate his hunger with idli, vada, or a cup of coffee, all reminiscent of home-cooked meals, priced at just 50 paise each. They also served dosa for Rs 1, along with pongal, uthappa, and thalis consisting of rice, dal, vegetables, & dessert.
The wholesome and mild flavors that once attracted Moorthy now draw a new generation of customers from diverse backgrounds and professions. Three resident doctors from Tarachand Hospital, hailing from Solapur and other parts of Maharashtra, visit the mess three or four times a week for a breakfast of masala dosa before starting their OPDs. They reside in a PG accommodation in Rasta Peth and appreciate the taste and hygiene of the food. One of them states, “We are regular customers, so the staff knows what we want.”
Another adds, “The restaurant has maintained its quality all these years,” echoing the sentiments of the third doctor. V C Ganesh, the secretary of the Society, believes it is crucial for newcomers to understand that the restaurant is one of the oldest establishments serving traditional home-style South Indian cuisine in the city. Initially, the restaurant was founded in 1933 to assist South Indian individuals with accommodation, which included dormitories above the restaurant, and meals.
An old board displayed at the restaurant harks back to the early days when it was classified as a ‘Grade B’ establishment with “free permission to all communities” to enter. This was a time when a considerable number of young men migrated from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh to work in government offices in Pune.
Rasta Peth gradually became a hub for professionals from the South, earning the moniker ‘Little Madras’ for the area. Moorthy, now in his seventies and serving as the vice-chairman of the Society, reminisces, “One could walk around in mundus, and the air hummed with South Indian accents. The South Indian Mess stood tall, watching over the communities and providing food and shelter. However, with the rise in private sector jobs and the desire for privacy and larger flats, South Indians have relocated from Rasta Peth to other parts of Pune.”
Despite deviating from the norms of the modern hospitality industry, the mess has stood the test of time. It proudly lacks ostentation. The narrow steps leading to the second floor and the white-tiled walls contribute to its unpretentious ambiance. The mess strictly adheres to specific timings: breakfast is provided from 7 am to 11 am, followed by lunch from 11:30 am to 2:30 pm, and snacks from 6:15 pm to 9 pm.
Every day, approximately 200 people visit the mess. On Sundays, the number of visitors in the mornings alone reaches 200, often resulting in a brief wait for a table. Families from all over Pune come together, patiently queuing outside the mess, eager to savor the authentic flavors it offers. Established patrons fondly recall S S Vasan and V S Lakhsminarayana, who played pivotal roles in the Society for years, serving as mentors to the current office bearers. Moorthy shares, “Whenever my son hears that I am visiting the restaurant, he asks me to bring back some vada. According to him, they taste better than those from other establishments.”
The dining area exudes simplicity, adorned with plastic chairs, sun mica-topped tables, and counters displaying gleaming steel plates, kettles, and containers filled with chutney, pickles, and sambar. The restaurant’s sole focus remains on the quality of food, disregarding the embellishments often associated with the commercial hotel industry.
Ramesh Iyer, the head cook and manager realize the old-school humility he imbibed while growing up in Karaikudi, Chettinad, Tamil Nadu. Twenty-five years ago, after arriving in Pune, he successfully established a catering business called Shri Annapurna, specializing in South Indian weddings and events. However, driven by a desire to give back to society, he chose to work at the mess. “I take pleasure in feeding people. It feels as if my ancestors, who were also involved in catering, bless me as I prepare meals for numerous individuals at the mess,” he shares.
While Ramesh has picked up some Marathi during his time in Pune, his partner Sanjay, who arrived two decades ago, is fluent in the language. Together, they have been running the restaurant for about four years, keeping the menu unchanged due to its enduring popularity among customers. As a result, they do not offer delivery services through platforms like Swiggy & Zomato, as the demand for food keeps them fully occupied.
Ramesh explains that the taste of South Indian cuisine varies across the five states, even for common dishes like sambar, dosa, or vegetable preparations. Each state boasts its own unique flavors, such as the generous use of coconut in Kerala, the spiciness of Andhra cuisine, and the incorporation of jaggery in Karnataka dishes. “In Tamil Nadu, we maintain a delicate balance of all the ingredients,” he adds. Third Sunday of every month, the mess presents a feast reminiscent of a wedding, featuring an array of 13 to 14 dishes. The feast includes kootu, avial prepared with seven vegetables, masala vada, pachidi, and payasam, among others.
Some customers specifically visit the mess for this grand thali experience. Ganesh emphasizes that their fundamental principle is to fulfill the needs of those who come to dine at the restaurant. In doing so, South Indian Mess has carved its niche as a beloved and enduring Pune landmark, perpetuating the rich culinary heritage of South India.