Chennai bleg

by on December 12, 2012 at 8:49 pm in Food and Drink, Travel | Permalink

Your recommendations are very much welcome, including of course food.  It will be Yana (some shopping) and I, no Alex.

1 Alex December 12, 2012 at 8:56 pm

You mean Madras?

2 adam December 12, 2012 at 9:08 pm

I’m curious: when I was in Tamil Nadu recently visiting in-laws, I asked about the name change (which they said was of course the ancient tamil name for the city.) When I asked whether there was going to be a similar change to Salem, they said that no, Salem was always the name; a tamil word!

Does anyone know if the Salem in Tamil Nadu happens to have a name that sounds suspiciously british (doubtful)? Or why there is no groundswell of support for a local name for that city?

3 Sanjay December 12, 2012 at 9:17 pm

Salem in TN has always had that name. Looks like it had variations of the name (wikipedia) cheralam , Shalya, Sayilam and Sailam.

4 adam December 12, 2012 at 9:30 pm

Interesting. Any idea why there doesn’t seem to be enough vocal support to use the Tamil spelling that my cousins didn’t know about it?

5 Karthik December 13, 2012 at 12:43 pm

‘Sayilam’ meaning surrounded by mountains is a tamil word. That’s the name of the place.

6 Ashok Rao December 12, 2012 at 9:46 pm

It’s certainly Chennai today. People (especially people older than fifty) probably call it Madras, but most Indian cities have changed their names from British anglicizations.

7 mw December 12, 2012 at 8:59 pm


8 Joel December 12, 2012 at 9:21 pm

If you head out that way, make sure to stop at DIZZEE WORLD: “Where amusement park rides go to die, and where copyright law doesn’t exist!”

9 former Seoul-based expat December 12, 2012 at 9:00 pm

Been to Chennai a few times–I enjoyed Murugan Idli Shop; of course have the idli, but also order a ghee dosa. Wash your banana leaf with water you have brought from home.

10 Ashok Rao December 12, 2012 at 9:48 pm

The water they use at the flagship Murugun’s on Elliot’s road is fine – they even have Aquafina etc. for Rs. 10. Great food though.

11 doney joseph December 12, 2012 at 9:01 pm

For South Indian vegetarian thali:

Annalakshmi Restaurant
18/3, Rukmani Lakshmipathy Road | Egmore, Chennai (Madras), India

Delighted to see that you will be in India. Great work with mruniversity.

12 ram December 13, 2012 at 7:09 am

I second this recommendation!

13 skeptic December 12, 2012 at 9:02 pm

December is of course the music season in Chennai – focused entirely on Carnatic (South Indian) classical music. is a great resource to find concerts (there are roughly 2500 in a 15 day stretch from 15th- 30th so they are not hard to find). As a bonus the major concert halls have excellent canteens – and indeed, compete against each other on the food and filter coffee. You should definitely try out the Music Academy and the Narada Gana Sabha for free afternoon concerts (afternoon ones usually have junior artists eager to impress) and excellent food.

V Sriram – – conducts history and music walking tours, although the road construction makes walking impossible these days.

14 Ram December 12, 2012 at 9:11 pm

When I was 7, my favorite restaurant was The Verandah. Conditioning on this, the probability that The Verandah is terrible is reasonably high.

15 Shrini December 12, 2012 at 9:12 pm

Grew up in Chennai. Little known, but almost a must see – Cholamandalam, a recreation of life & culture as found in typical South Indian villages.

Kapaleeswarar Temple in Mylapore for the sights & sounds though it might be a tad overwhelming.

Anjappar for food. Spencer Plaza for shopping.

16 K December 12, 2012 at 9:24 pm

Me no foodie, but here is today’s list of awards from a magazine: I suspect you would want to try out south indian (inc. chettinad, andhra and kerala) cuisine.

We do like Annalakshmi and Cream Centre, and Anjappar is not bad (though a chain); but Crimson Chakra is the only intersection between the places our family usually goes to, and this list.

What are you doing in Chennai anyway?

17 JettyBoy December 12, 2012 at 9:41 pm

If you want to eat where the locals eat, I would recommend Saravana Bhavan (be prepared for a madhouse). I second Murugan Idli Shop – their onion uthappams are divine. Highly recommend Kapaliswarar temple – go in the evening when the heat has died down a bit.

18 Ashok Rao December 12, 2012 at 9:44 pm

We live not two minutes from Crimson Chakra. It’s a great place though not a “must-see”, especially for someone coming from the USA. Same with Cream Centre. It’s a great place for reasonably priced international food, but I wouldn’t go there for something unique to Chennai. TN is, of course, known for its excellent dosas and idlis. I would recommend Murugun’s Idli Shop on Elliot’s Beach Road. The other ones are decent but not nearly as great and their chutney leaves a lot to be desired.

Also, towards the end of this year is what’s known as the Kacheri season which is just an amazing show of South Indian culture, specifically carnatic music. Check out Kalakshetra ( If this is something you are interested in please let me know and I’ll contact my parents for more specific details, they love it and could give you much more knowledgable advice.

I saw someone mention Annalakshmi and what an amazing suggestion. It’s run by a volunteer crew of fairly senior IT execs and all, and the food is excellent (pricier than most places, but very reasonable). However, you need a reservation 2-3 days in advance.

Where are you staying? If you’re staying the Taj Mount Road (my rec. very professional service and kind people) Annalakshmi is quite close by. At rush hour traffic can run to over an 1.5 hrs (and pray that Jayalalitha isn’t out and about).

I haven’t recommended much in terms of North Indian food but really the stuff in Chennai won’t be great compared to Delhi. However, if you go to Saravana Bhavan (all over – favorite of Chennai) you’ll find great North food in addition to excellent South Indian fare.

For some excellent grilled food with an Indian twist I’d recommend Barbecue Nation in T. Nagar, it’s a chain and there are similar joints up in Delhi as well.

19 VR December 12, 2012 at 10:33 pm

All good recommendations. Make sure you eat idli, vadai and dosai with sambar and chutney. Saravana bhavan is a good choice.They have many branches all over the city with more options than their nyc and bay area locations. Annalakshmi is great too. Do get a coffee at the end of your meal!

Check out a Carnatic music concert. The food at the music venues can be quite excellent (music academy is one prestigious venue). Do check out kapaleeswarar temple- I am not sure they let foreigners in all parts of the temple.

20 Ashok Rao December 12, 2012 at 10:36 pm

Well, they certainly allow brown foreigners and I can’t see them have different rules by race! 😉

21 Ashok Rao December 12, 2012 at 10:38 pm

Oh, and for slightly fancier if pricer South Indian fare, I’d go to Southern Spice at the Taj. It’s excellent, though without the street charm at Murugun’s.

22 VR December 12, 2012 at 10:48 pm

+1 for southern spice. The great kebab factory at the Radisson near the airport has great North Indian food.

Yana might be interested in shopping for silk sarees. If so, Nalli is probably the best. The kancheepuram silks are gorgeous. There is a govt handicrafts store named kairali. You can also get good stuff at the ‘Khadi stores’ throughout the city. They are called ‘Co-op tex’ stores, at least used to be until 10 yrs ago

23 Kris December 12, 2012 at 9:56 pm

I enjoyed browsing through Higginbotham’s books on Mount Rd – picked up some good recipe books and other interesting Indian titles (e.g. compilations of Tamil Pulp Fiction).

24 Rahul December 12, 2012 at 10:00 pm

Hey Tyler

I suggest visiting Dakshin Chitra ( comprehensive history and culture of the south in half a day ! For excellent and well laid out S. Indian cuisine, I would suggest – Kapila Dasa (

If you are here over the weekend, please do visit the Kapaleshwarar temple in Mylapore for feel of old Chennai.

PS: Any chance your readers in Chennai can meet you ?

25 Tyler Cowen December 12, 2012 at 10:57 pm

Email me if you want to try to set up a meal…

26 ramblingperfectionist December 13, 2012 at 9:29 am

I second Dakshin Chitra… also, for good Indian beef dishes (not something you hear often, I guess) go to any Kerala restaurant and try beef olathiyathu. I promise you won’t regret it.

27 Randall December 12, 2012 at 10:04 pm

Definitely Mahabalipuram, and I’d continue on to Pondicherry.

If you want an excellent, comprehensive physical, you can get one at the Chennai branch of Apollo Hospitals for around US $100. It takes about a half day. The hospital cafeteria is good.

28 Ashok Rao December 12, 2012 at 10:53 pm

Oh, and for Yana…

Silkworm is a lovely little Saree shop in Nungambakam (where the best shops are). The owner is really charming and the store is well lit, bright, and very personal. Nalli is great, but if you want someone who will really give his time and attention I’d recommend Silkworm.

29 Tirath December 12, 2012 at 11:31 pm

Make sure you dine at the ITC Grand Chola – one of the grandest hotels India has seen

A review by Vir Sanghvi:

“And yes, it is a palace. The hotel is so huge and vast that after three trips to the property, I still find myself getting lost. But there is lots of signage and scores of well-trained staff to direct you from place to place in the 1.6 million square feet of built-up area.”

And yes, I dont use short links 😛

30 Vijay December 13, 2012 at 12:34 am

Depends on how long you have and what your priorities are while you (they, rather) are here…
Adyar and Besant Nagar have a lot of history and have a bit of Annie Besant’s history sticking out. Elliots beach is close by too [not clean though].
Has nice universities – the IIT and the Uni of Madras and scores more of colleges if you like walking through campuses.
The fort museum is close by and worth ones while if they like a bit of ancient history.
Yes, its the music season too if its December. Carnatic kuthcheris would be happening live in most of the music halls. There is an ancient church too [ Santhome’s, i think. Cant remember the one exactly]. St. Thomas Mount if you like.
If there is more time, consider Pondicherry too. About 165 kms from Chennai – has the Aurobindo ashram and also Auroville [the UNESCO heritage global village] amongst other things. [On the way, there is Mahabalipuram too which has its own advantages and high points of interest]
Chennai has a lot of malls too if shopping is a point of interest.
Like your sports? Try the Cricket Stadium and the tennis courts. Good un’s!

31 Paul Seabright December 13, 2012 at 12:47 am

Every December the Madras festival of Carnatic music has an astonishing offering of outstanding concerts, far more than you could ever go to, of this musical tradition that is much less well known outside India than it should be.

In addition to Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry, if you have time, make a visit to Tanjore to see the great Chola temple. A much less well known Chola temple, almost as fine but in a peaceful rural setting, is at Gangaikondacholapuram.

32 Saturos December 13, 2012 at 11:56 pm

OK, I was NOT expecting Paul Seabright to be an expert on Chennai…

Yes Pondicherry is quite nice.

33 rahul r December 13, 2012 at 3:12 am

For a truly local eating experience, try the Karpagambal Mess in Mylapore and Ratna Cafe in Triplicane (the idly-sambar here is legendary and I cannot recommend it highly enough). If you are really keen on being adventurous, there’s another great hole-in-the-wall place in Mylapore called Rayar Mess. I’ll be glad to accompany you.

Also strongly recommend catching some Carnatic music (preferably at the Music Academy) – this is the best time of year for this.

34 Balaji Sundaresan December 13, 2012 at 4:46 am

1. Go to T Nagar and check out how people buy gold – they have lots of gold stores and also Silk Saree stores. One doesn’t have to buy anything but I bet it will be a crazy scene with hordes of people doing everything.
2. Skip the Malls.
3. Check out a movie theatre – amenities are very good plus you might get a glimpse of why Chennai (Tamil Nadu) always had chief ministers from the movie industry.
4. Check out Marina beach – I think its the second longest beach in the world. I would love to hear from you what would have happened to Marina beach if India supported USA during the cold war.
5. I would recommend road side Dosa places… but I think its safe restaurant unless you find a local who can take you to small and much better place.
6. I would like to hear your take on the crazy “fly overs” all over Chennai.
7. Go to Mahabhalipuram (the commute will be long)
8. Well if you have time – automobile plants – Chennai I guess is India’s Detroit.
9. Yes, check out Carnatic music.

35 freethinker December 13, 2012 at 5:40 am

In chennai x I recommend you shop in Spenser shopping complex on Mount Road. It is the most famous road in the city so no problem locating it. This this complex has many shops and a good bookshop ( good for Indian standards!) with a good music section. Try the Indianised McDonald and Subway items there.
I suggest this shopping complex because on the same road you can visit the Connemara Library in Commander-in Chief Road.

1) The oxford University press book shop ( next to American Consulate.)

2) The US consulate,has a library. The British Library is also on Mount road.

2) The Higginbothoms book shop ( general books on the ground floor and textbooks on the 1st floor) . It was started by an Englishman during the Raj days.
3) It has been ages since I went to Chennai but see if Giggles bookshop in Connemara Hotel ( not to be confused with Connemara Library I mentioned above) , right next to Spenser complex , is still around. A very frivolous name for a very scholarly collection. Lots of researchers, including western researchers, used to visit it when I was in Chennai. The lady who owns it is quite well-read herself. Hope it is still there.
3) Victoria Technical Institute sells great handicrafts

For food, I strongly recommend you eat only in 5-star hotels. . For breakfast got to the buffet room so you can try Indian food. Idli, Dosa, Pongal, Oothappam and Upma with dips and a gravy called sambar are typical south Indian, more specifically Tamil, breakfast items. For lunch ask for a “South Indian vegetarian Thali” so You can eat the way south Indians do. For dinner go for a buffet . And please do eat with your hands and not with spoons. Indian food tastes best when you use your hands.
The 3-wheeled transport , called autos, are interesting contraptions but they loot you. Hope you have a local guide.

I repeat : please eat only in 5-star hotels. I have American, I mean WASP, relatives and they suffered a lot when they deviated a from the 5-star only rule in Chennai. We Indians are immune to even road-side eateries , you are not.

36 Ashok Rao December 13, 2012 at 1:43 pm

You know, from my experience, I find Americans to be the most outgoing and interested people when they come to Chennai. Europeans and even many of the wealthier Indian locals are not nearly as engaged with the culture around them as most Americans are.

I went to the International school in Chennai, and most of them were entirely OK not just eating at 3/4 star restaurants (which are perfectly healthy and clean) but also at the street chai-kadais. Now, I wouldn’t recommend the latter, but anyone restricting themselves to a 5-star meal is missing out on a lot in Chennai, if for nothing else than the fact that 5-star hotels in Chennai aren’t really the best. Where Chennai stands out is places like Murugun’s Idli Shop (which has a huge foreign clientele and hence an incentive to be clean) and places like Woodlands (which is perfectly clean for an American).

37 Saturos December 14, 2012 at 12:03 am

God bless the British and American libraries in Indian cities… Just sayin’.

Tyler probably knows about South Indian food already, no way he’s never had dosai before. He’s probably chugged a few panipuris in his day too, I’ll warrant.

There is nothing to recommend about the Indian menus of McDonalds and Subway. Nothing at all. And Tyler is *very* unlikely to find music to his standards at an Indian department store.

38 Careless December 17, 2012 at 12:32 am

who would have guessed that the last guy Tyler would take advice from on what to do in India would be Indian?

39 Ramagopal December 13, 2012 at 5:45 am

Freethinker’s reply gives the impression that Commander-in Chief Road, the location of Connemara Library , is on Mount Road. it is another road, just a few minutes drive from Spencer’s . All other shops mentioned in freethinker’s reply are on Mount road. I would add you try the “Indianised ” items in Pizza Hut. You may not get them in the US

40 gayathri December 13, 2012 at 7:28 am

Grand Sweets – is a big shop selling food, and better still – ‘rice mixes’
I live off their stuff – when finding nothing else to eat – I just make some rice, mix in some of their pulikachal mix and eat it with yoghurt on the side.
its a clean safe place to try a lot of vegetarian south indian cuisine that chennai is so famous for – masala dosa’s, idli’s etc.

41 RR December 13, 2012 at 11:08 am

Have not been to Chennai for many years , so some of the recommendations are new to me.and I can’t comment on the specific locations. But I am surprised that any reader of this blog would recommend 5-star hotel restaurants to Tyler. Or even North Indian Food .
Whatever the location choices, the items should include Idli, Dosa, Sambar , Chutney and Filter coffee breakfast and at least once the South Indian Thali for Lunch or Dinner..

42 freethinker December 13, 2012 at 12:08 pm

RR, When I visit Chennai I prefer the good old south Indian vegetarian restaurants like Palmgrove and New Woodlands, not five star hotels. I also never miss Grand Sweets shop. But my American friends and relatives tell me to recommend only 5star hotels for westerners who visit India because only these hotels maintain hygiene standards Americans and Europeans are accustomed to.

43 JJD December 13, 2012 at 12:24 pm

Unbeknownst to most, Chennai’s part of the Fairfax-Seoul-Chennai triangle. Being a stranger to neither Fairfax nor Seoul, you definitely need to go to one of the Korean restaurants there, at least for comparison’s sake. I seem to recall that the one I went to was atop a supermarket.

I second someone else’s recommendation to try Keralian cuisine.

And if you will be going to Mahabalipuram, there’s a very good mess-hall-like place serving vegetarian South Indian not so far away from the entrace to the temple complex – cheap ‘n’ delicious (but be sure to skip the meat-serving place next to it).

44 Ashok Rao December 13, 2012 at 1:38 pm

The Korean places can be hard to find. Inseoul ( is the only one I’m familiar with and it is an experience. One of the few restaurants where you feel entirely removed from India. Seemed very popular among Korean businessmen who were busy gambling and making deals I suppose.

45 JJD December 15, 2012 at 3:48 am

Inseoul is indeed the one and it is indeed perched on a grocery store; Kyungbok is another.

The Kerala place I have a mighty fine recollection of is Ente Keralam.

46 sesha December 13, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Having grown up in chennai, I’d recommend a visit to the locality of Mylapore and the Kapaleeswar temple located there. Mylapore also has an old Portuguese church (Luz Church) located on (where else?) Luz Church Road! . You can get a delicious traditional south indian meal at Mylai Karpagambal Mess located right across the street from Kapaleeswar temple. The place may not look upscale, but the food is excellent.

For shopping (both window and actual shopping), I suggest a visit to the bustling clothing and jewellery stores of T. Nagar. And no trip to Chennai will be complete without a trip to Marina Beach and a ride in the three-wheeler auto rickshaw!

47 Barkley Rosser December 13, 2012 at 2:52 pm

Yes to Carnatic music, the Luz church (built in 1516 by the Portuguese), and Mahabailipuran, where one can see the succession of control by different religions, keeping in mind the split in Hinduism between the Sivaites and the Vishnaites. Also, Government Museum where one can see world’s finest collection of Dancing Shiva bronze statues, magnificent.

Regarding the name, both “Madras” and “Chennai” are simply shorter versions of pre-British names of villages near Ft. St. George: Madraspattinam and Chennapattinam. Take your pick.

As for other major Indian cities, most had/have names that were/are not Anglicizations of previous names. “Bombay” was Portuguese for “beautiful bay.” “Calcutta” was an Anglicization of “Kolkata,” but “Delhi” is the old pre-British Moghul name that has never been changed and almost certainly never will be.

48 vikram kumar December 13, 2012 at 4:50 pm

If Yana likes fabrics and other trinkets, Kalpa Druma and Fab India might be worth visiting (not particularly the cheapest stuff, but good quality).

My last visit, I really, really enjoyed eating at Mahamudhra ( Absolutely awesome authentic south indian food. The place looks swanky, but it is surprisingly cheap. Also, maybe get an ayurvedic massage there.

If you are in the Mylapore area, try eating at the Karpagambal Mess. A very good hole-in-the-wall kind of place.

As other people have noted, the music and dance festival will be in full swing. Try to attend one at the Music Academy or Narada Gaana Sabhaa. Added bonus: You get awesome south indian food at both venues.

Also, pretty good advice here:

49 Barkley Rosser December 13, 2012 at 5:30 pm

Hmmm, nobody but me here (including Trip Advisor) pushing Dancing Shiva sculptures (Government Museum). I note that in the Vishnaite tradition dominant in northern India, the Creator-Preserver-Destroyer trinity is given by the three gods: Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, who are also a la Christian triinitarian doctrine declared to be all one (and Buddha was subsumed into Vishnu when it disappeared in India 1000 years ago when the Muslims first invaded, curious coincidence), whereas in the Sivaite tradition more dominant in the Dravidian South, Shiva contains all three of those functions, which are depicted in the Dancing Shivas, even as many think that he only represents Destruction. Not true at all in the Sivaite tradition.

Those sculptures are magnificent, and this collection is simply head and shoulders above anything else like it in the world. The stone scupltures at Mahabailipuram are nice, but one can see somwhat similar things elsewhere in the country, with the oldest ones showing Buddhist influence not all that different from what one sees in the Ajanta Caves.

50 RR December 13, 2012 at 11:31 pm

Thanks for the pointer about the Dancing Shivas ; despite 10 years in Chennai , had not heard of them earlier.

51 Barkley Rosser December 14, 2012 at 1:10 am

Probably do not have time, but three hours south is Pondicherry (now Puducherry) ruled by French from 1670 to 1954. Special food there is unique and dying Franco-Indian cuisine, which is also apparently available in London. Tandoori foie gras anyone? Hard to find in restaurants, although lunch buffet at Open House, GRT probably as good a shot as any.

52 Nirmal December 14, 2012 at 4:24 am

1. Mahabalipuram (a.k.a mamallapuram) – 30 miles from city – lunch at “Moon Rakers” there
2. Shop for silk / jewellery in T.Nagar
3. Local food – Idly and Dosa – best had at “Murugan Idly Shop” (and many others come close second)
4. Local food – “Chettinadu” cuisine (will be spicy, even by Indian standards) – at “Karaikudi” / “Anjappar”
5. International cuisine (mostly Italian) – “Tuscana” / “Pasta Bar Veneto” / “Kryptos”
6. (North) Indian food – “NH1” / “Bombay Halwa House” (vegetarian only) / “La Shakahaari” (vegetarian only)
7. Multi cuisine – “The Crown” (at Hotel Residency Towers) – good views, decent food / “Cream Centre” (vegetarian)
8. Visit St. Thomas Mount (has some history and a nice view of both the city and the airport)

And of course, do not drink water from the tap.

53 Nirmal December 14, 2012 at 4:31 am

And yes, do visit the “Marina Beach”, known to Chennaiites across the globe as the second longest sandy beach in the world. However, nobody knows for sure which this the longest.

54 Vivek December 14, 2012 at 4:35 am

Take an auto to Marina Beach after 5.30 PM. You should try the “maanga-thaenga-pattani sundal”.

55 freethinker December 14, 2012 at 9:53 pm

Can any Chennaite confirm if that wonderful used book shop on the street in Mylapore is still around? And is Moore Market still the Mecca for used books? If so Tyler, a bibliophile, should visit them

56 rec1man December 15, 2012 at 9:48 pm

Moore Market got burned down 25 years ago, and is now part of Chennai Railway Station

is the website for Giri

They are the 1 stop for traditional books, music, DVD and they can burn Indian classical music into IPOD

57 rec1man December 15, 2012 at 9:49 pm

Giri Trading is near Kapileswar Temple in Mylapore

58 rec1man December 15, 2012 at 9:50 pm

Music Academy, near US consulate, you can watch live performance of Indian music and arts

59 Nirav December 16, 2012 at 9:11 am

Murugan idli shop, Saravana bhavan for vegetarian snacks.
Try chettinad cuisine for meat

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