Stepping away from the chaos of the traffic around Majestic Bus Terminus, I enter a small blue wooden door in Cottonpet. I am instantly transported to the 1960s, when soot covered the walls of brick and mud homes with red-oxide flooring. I feel like I have returned to my grandmother’s house, but I am actually at S. Govindrao Military Hotel.
Almost as soon as the server makes a brusque announcement of the day’s menu, I get to dunk fluffy idlis into piping hot kaima curry (meatballs in gravy). The firmness of the meatballs belies the softness of the hand-pounded meat as it bursts into a medley of flavours on my tongue. My patri (dried-leaf plate) is invaded by a big hand that ladles steaming mutton biryani on to it. The silence from my fellow diners, who could be auto drivers, beat policemen, or local politicians, is an indicator of how good the food is. “The biryani is ready by 6.30 a.m. and we serve anyone who cares to walk in,” says Murali, the head chef/server/bus boy (No. 4, 1st Cross, Cottonpet; 6 a.m.-2 p.m. for biryani, 1-4 p.m. for meals; closed on Sat and Mon).
My interest in Hindu “miltry” (local pronunciation) hotels is inherited from my father. When I was a child, he would regale me with stories of his days at an engineering college in the city. His fondest memories involved sneaking away with friends to a military hotel, to tuck into some great mutton palav (pulao) and meat fry. Years later, as I got off a bus at Majestic at the crack of dawn, I was assailed by an enticing aroma, which I traced to the revered S. Govindrao Military Hotel. As a food writer, I’ve savoured elegant dishes made from edible flowers, waited patiently to be served the slow-cooked Arabic biryani, mandi, at a basement restaurant, but when a rustic meal is what my heart craves, I head straight to a military hotel.
The hallmark of these family-run restaurants is the limited menu, consisting of dishes made from closely guarded recipes. The eateries are typically tucked away into the city’s by-lanes, but most began in what were once prominent parts of town, such as Kalasipalya, Majestic, and Malleswaram. In the busy heart of City Market lies the N.V. Naidu Military Hotel, whose small entrance leads into a broad corridor lined with stone tables and chairs. My favourite is the peppery chicken fry that will wake up sluggish taste buds, best paired with the piping hot mutton palav: the meat can be teased away from the bone with just two fingers. I never leave without slurping loudly on the lemon rasam that heralds the end of the meal (No. 14, Venkatachaliah Lane, City Market; Tue-Sun 8 a.m.-4 p.m.).
Despite the excellent, wholesome meals served at military hotels and their obvious popularity that cuts across class lines, it’s rare to find these remnants of Bengaluru’s culinary history on top of any recommendation list. There isn’t a definitive historical account of their origin either. According to some, military hotels appeared around the 17th century to cater to Shahaji Bhonsle, and his successor Shivaji’s meat-eating armies (you can almost taste Kolhapur in the smooth meat gravies). Another legend states that when the bubonic plague struck Bengaluru in the late 1800s, women and children were sent away to distant villages, and military hotels started providing sustenance to farmers who stayed back to tend to their fields. Yet another story pegs their foundation in the early 19th century, when they began serving the warring armies of Tipu Sultan, and later, the British. Old Bangalore, what we know as the Cantonment area, did not have any meat-serving restaurants. The prefix Hindu denoted that beef and pork were not served at these establishments. Country liquor was once on the menu at most military hotels. Now however, hearty meals take precedence and alcohol is no longer served.
Over the years, the hotels have remained true to that legacy. Patrons still flock to Gowdru’s in Indiranagar, Chandu’s in Malleswaram, and Rajanna in Kamakshipalya. Ranganna Military Hotel has moved to a new sunlight-filled outlet in a commercial complex in Jayanagar, but diners still come for their fix of thale mamsa (head meat), paaya (trotter soup), and kaima ball fry. “Our spices come from K.R. Market and are ground fresh at the premises,” declares owner Muniranganna. While you’re stuffing your mouth with mudde (ragi balls), Muniranganna will ask if you have ever tasted anything as good as his food. Prod him a little further, and you will soon be hearing of his wrestling triumphs from the ’60s (61, 1st Floor, K.R. Road, 7th Block, Jayanagar; Tue-Sun 7.30 a.m.-4 p.m., 7-10 p.m.).
Ranganna’s laidback vibe, which allows patrons the luxury of savouring a meal, is an anomaly. It is quite the opposite with the esteemed Shivaji Military Hotel. The mounds of aromatic mutton palav brought in donnes (dried leaf cups), make me forget even the impatient eyes of waiting patrons who stare me down, hoping to grab my seat the instant I burp with satisfaction. In the past, I’ve shared tables with blue-collared patrons, students, and executives with loosened ties (780, 1st C Main, 45th Cross, 8th Block, Jayanagar, Banashankari; Tue-Sun 8 a.m.-3.30 p.m.).
A few days later, I stand on the first floor of SGS with my donne full of chicken palav looking at the open kitchen below. Nothing seems to deter those in the kitchen: not the continuous flow of orders, not the furnace-like heat from the vessels, not even the immense noise the hungry patrons are making.
Over time, I have witnessed several military hotels embrace progress, by way of switching from wood fires to gas burners, moving from dingy mud structures to brick and mortar buildings, and from floor seating to polished steel tables. What remains unchanged, since my father’s time at least, is the quality of the food and the spirit with which it continues to be served.
TIP Most military hotels are located in busy and cramped alleys, making parking virtually impossible. It is best to use public transport and walk the last few metres. An average meal for two is between ₹250-300.
Appeared in the February 2015 issue as “Enduring Appeal”. This story has been updated in March 2016.
Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is a Bangalore-based freelance writer. She writes for several publications on food, travel, lifestyle, interiors, parenting and architecture. She enjoys telling the stories of people who have contributed to a range of fields, and chronicling interesting experiences that don't find a place in the rush of the mainstream. An avid food lover, Ruth loves to explore a city through its food, and runs a restaurant blog.
Nirlek Dhulla thrives on using photography to document travel and cultural experiences. He thrives on interacting with people and spaces, discovering connections and stories and emotions that best represent them.