It is a hot Tuesday afternoon. Customers stream into the restaurant non-stop. Near the entrance the cashier hands out bills and tokens at an almost robotic pace. The waiters, dressed in blue and pink shirts scurry past. One is on his way to a table, expertly juggling several plates of perfectly golden and triangular dosas along with steaming frothy coffee in glasses of steel. Another man rushes in with idlis and bowls of chutney and sambhar. There is so much going on at the moment that it is surprising no one collides with another. The air inside is heavy with the aroma of 90-year-old recipes whose fame has spread far and wide.
That’s Bengaluru’s Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (MTR) near Lalbagh Main Gate for you, a restaurant that has become not just a brand but also a landmark in a city that is constantly changing and evolving.
"People often say how they used to come here with their grandfather when they were kids. And now they come here with their children," says Vikram Maiya, co-owner of MTR restaurants.
The story of MTR’s owners is similar. A third generation Maiya running the family business, Vikram inherited the business that his grandfather and his brothers set up.
In 1924 Parameshwara, Ganappayya and Yagnanarayana Maiya hailing of Parampalli near Udupi town started Brahmin's Coffee Club, which would later be renamed MTR, near the Lalbagh Fort Road.
Vikram’s grand uncle Yagnanarayana later took up the reins of running the family business and it was operational as a joint family unit till 1983. However, as the family expanded and the second generation came into the scene, the business was split.
In 1994, Vikram’s father Harishchandra took over the restaurant business, and his uncle Sadanand got the MTR Foods brand, which was sold to Norwegian consumer food giant Orkla in 2007.
In all these years, MTR’s aim has been to serve “good food consistently” to customers and for which customers return.
Of these dishes is the rava idli, which may have been invented by Vikram’s grand-uncle. Story goes that rice was in short supply during World War II and MTR was finding it difficult to make rice idlis. That is when they substituted rice with rava and the rava idli was born.
"There was no rava idli around that point and one of my granduncles experimented with rava then,” Vikram recalls, but says he has no clue if MTR is indeed the real inventor of rava idli.
Rava idli continues to be one of MTR's hotsellers
There are more stories of quirky relatives and Vikram is only happy to tell them. His father Harishchandra Maiya once came up with the "crazy idea" of serving select customers in gold plates and glasses, which Vikram says, later went on to become a security issue. "It was a lot of gold, around 5 kg. The cashier frankly told my father that he could not take responsibility for the security of the utensils after which it was stopped."
But that wasn’t the end of it. His father then decided to use plates made of silver, a phase which lasted for two years, Vikram laughs.
Black-and-white photographs in wooden frames adorning the off-white walls of the restaurant capture some aspects of MTR’s history, but some of the best parts only in memory.
Legendary Kannada cinema icon Rajkumar used to often drop by, but "always from the back door for obvious reasons". SM Krishna and actor Anant Nag, Vikram says, also used to be regulars. Besides, the rooms in the restaurants are often booked by politicians during elections, Vikram says.
MTR opened its first branch in Rajajinagar in 2004 and at present has nine restaurants across Bengaluru along with one each in Singapore and Dubai.
“If my dad was here today, he would be happy with just one restaurant,” Vikram says, adding that it wasn’t just about scaling up. "People would come to the restaurant from all corners of the city and wait for over two hours in a queue just for a meal. It was almost bordering on sadism."
MTR is planning to expand across the country in the next few years, something they were not comfortable in doing all these years due to “logistical constraints”. The restaurant also employs around 500 people across all its branches including those working in its bakery and catering services.
Many new dishes and varieties have been added to the MTR menu over time but the hot sellers continue to be rava idlis, masala dosa, kharabath and MTR’s signature coffee.
The recipe for many of their dishes has also been kept a closely guarded secret. Only a few in the family and business know the recipe for the bisibele bath mix, the rava idli mix and the rasam powder.
The menu has been tweaked over the years, but the owners maintain that their core remains the same.
Vikram often feels that running a restaurant is a thankless job. “You cannot constantly please and satisfy everybody. Some go to a five-star restaurant and spend Rs 700 on a dosa and then come here and crib about spending Rs 75 on the same dosa,” he says.
But life at MTR has had its moments too.
One such moment was when Singer Pamela Chopra, who is also the wife of late film director Yash Chopra, once came to MTR along with her friends.
“This was a few years before Yash Chopra passed away in 2012. She asked the manager to serve some dish in a particular way. The old manager, who had no idea who she was, flatly refused. Pamela Chopra then gave her card to the cashier, which he passed on to another manager, who realised who she was and in turn called me.”
Vikram reached the restaurant and got them all settled.
Three days later, he received a card signed by Yash Chopra and a CD of YRF’s latest movie. "It was pretty neat,” he smiles.