A Quick Jaunt to Southern India: A Taste of South Indian Food and My Hero, Park Hyatt Assistant Duty Manager Arun

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Chennai isn’t a tourist city the way that Delhi or Mumbai are (not that those are primarily tourist cities). Nonetheless there are certainly things to see and do there, a former colleague from there flagged especially Mahabalipuram a UNESCO World Heritage Site an hour and a half outside the city center, 11th century temple Varadaraja Perumal temple, 7th century temple Kapaleeshwarar,m and 8th century temple Triplicane where you’ll see elephants as well. Marina Beach in Chennai is the world’s second longest, and there’s Ashtalakshmi Temple which is on Besant Nagar beach. There’s plenty of shopping for silks, handicrafts, and jewelry.

I had organized for a guide, but the morning she was supposed to turn up the hotel rang to let me know she had called in sick. The person calling was an assistant duty manager named Arun who had a suggestion. We should talk for a few minutes about what I was interested in seeing, and he would be happy to show us around the city himself! The only catch was that he would be available come the end of his shift, so we would meet up for him about 5 o’clock.

Given that it was evening, we wanted to stay nearby, and my interest in South indian food really resonated with Arun he offered to take us to some of his favorite places, the restaurants he visits often. That sounded great to me.

Our first stop was Saravana Bhavan, a Chennai-based chain (they have 20 locations in Chennai) that has expanded internationally. There’s even two locations in New York and they’re in Dallas, I hadn’t heard of it but will need to try it here in the States to see how the South Indian vegetarian cuisine translates.

It was all locals, we were the only tourists. That, combined with my taking photos, made me something of a curiosity and the manager insisted on having his photo taken with me.

The food was fantastic — and cheap. For instance, the Idly Sambar Ghee was 70 INR (~ US$1.15).

We finished up the meal with Indian filter coffee, which I then ordered a couple of times at the hotel (always to the astonishment of staff), but as sweet as it is I wouldn’t have wanted it at all since.

Driving around Chennai at night, it struck me that the city was very much alive — it didn’t shut down at the end of the day — and unlike many cities around the world with similar shopping districts and similar construction, the shops were all lit up brightly.

We also tried another chain, Thalappakatti which has over a dozen locations in the greater Chennai area (but that hasn’t made it beyond the region).

We made a final stop for dessert.

Arun was fantastic, he shared his favorite places and foods and we spent hours talking about his experiences with Hyatt, his time working at other properties in the chain both in Chennai and in Goa, and he had great stories of general managers in the region. He had really gone above and beyond making himself available to us, and the cheap local eats he shared were great — the hotel does a good job with its food (outside of in the breakfast restaurant, I think) but this was better… not to mention a fraction of the price.

When we checked out of the hotel Arun was on duty. He had left a gift at the desk for us, a bag of gulab jamun mix so we could make at home the dessert we had enjoyed with him. But since he was there he came out to see us off. It’s people like that who really make a stay.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Excellent. I just went to the one in NY last week and those paper dosas looks exactly the same! Actually I was quite impressed to see that it was a chain based in India. They were super packed too! Glad you liked it.

  2. Glad you enjoyed Saravana Bhavan – the one in T. Nagar (not sure that is the one you went to) is their flagship location and where it all started. The food translates fairly well to other locations (we have visited all the Saravana Bhavans in North American) – the one on Lexington Avenue in NYC is especially good (and much better when compared to the one on the UWS). Chennai is also a busy city in the mornings.

    Hope you managed to visit Kapaliswarar temple.

  3. Have eaten at the Upper West Side Saravana Bhavan and it was quite good. It certainly does not give the impression of being a chain operation.

  4. Have also been to the Saravana Bhavan here in NYC (the one in Murray Hill on Lex), and it is indeed very good. It’s also good value for what you get.

  5. Meeting people like this in your travels — who show passion for what they do, who are proud of where they come from and want you to experience it through their eyes — really can make the trip, can’t they? I hope you wrote to corporate and praised this guy. Great job on his part. Did he even know you were a blogger? 🙂

  6. Pity you didn’t get to any of the Carnatic Music events during the December season. The http://www.kutcheribuzz.com/news/music site and the http://www.kutcheribuzz.com/december-season-home-2013 sites provide a wealth of information on these events. Add one of these classical music performances to the food you tasted, it would’ve been a complete experience. But then, I have never seen you mention music in your posts, so perhaps that’s not of interest to you at all.

    In any case, the December season in Madras is unique in bringing together several performers who are the pinnacle of their respective styles and instruments.

    I am trying to relate your ‘fried bread’ comment in an earlier post, to your visits to Saravana Bhavan and Dindigul ThalappaKatti. Not sure I made the connection. A Dosa is fundamentally a crepe and not quite a deep fried bread.

    Would love to hear your thoughts on other south indian food you tried, plus your trips to Mahabalipuram, Varadaraja Perumal temple and Kapaleeswarar.

  7. I’ve skipped to the end after I read that you went to saravana bhavan!! When we lived in silicon valley, my husband and I Loved the one in Sunnyvale. I always thought it was cool that they had just a few locations, but all around the world. It’s so interesting to hear that you’ve been to one of them.

  8. Gary, Legionaire is right.
    You visited Chennai in Dec and missed the Carnatic Music season less than a mile away.
    It is like going to New Orleans during Mardi Gras and not going to Bourbon St.
    And I hope Arun does not get fired for taking you our of the Hyatt hotel experience!

  9. Gary,

    I am not trolling, but I am wondering, how does Chennei compare to Mumbai or Delhi in terms of cleanliness, hygene and overwhelmingness of poverty? Does it feel as crowded?

  10. Maybe its my cheap Mumbai street food roots showing, but I consider ₹70 for a dosa to be on the expensive side! I remember my school days where you could get a dosa for ₹5-7 in Mumbai (it was even cheaper in what was then Madras city). Even today, I know places in Mumbai where you would pay only ₹30-50 for a dosa.

  11. Glad you had a good time in Chennai. The places you went to sample the food were truly authentic. Saravanaa Bhavan has two locations in NY and two in the Bay Area, even one in Paris, very close to the nord station.

  12. Another fan of Saravanaa Bhavan here–just had dinner at the Curry Hill (NYC) location on Sunday. Same dosa plates, but no banana leaf, and not as cheap–but really good.

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