Why let the safari suits have all the fun? The Akashwani MLA Hostel Canteen, which is open to the public, offers cheap and cheerful meals.
In a quiet, leafy lane behind Mantralaya is a place that offers more than 300 dishes to at least 2,000 hungry customers, six days every week, over the course of 15 hours each day. The cheapest snack on the menu is parotha, for Rs12, and the most expensive dishes are the pomfret tawa masala, and chicken triple fried rice, both for Rs100. (The delivery/takeaway menu also lists mutton handi for Rs350.) Starting from the top of the eat-in menu above the coupon counter in the main dining hall, diners can see that there are Maharashtrian items such as sabudana vada and missal; all manner of dosas and sandwiches; non-vegetarian snacks that run the range from boiled egg to chicken garlic fry and fish chutneywalla dry; and standard Indian dishes such as veg Jaipuri, dal Kolhapuri, and chicken Hyderabadi biryani. Then there’s the Chinese section, the sides and drinks.
If you haven’t been told about the Akashwani MLA Hostel Canteen, or passed by it and discovered it yourself, you would not know about it. (It’s only called Akashwani MLA Hostel because it’s diagonally across the street from the All India Radio Broadcasting House.) I came across it about a month ago, discovered that it was open to the public and since then have eaten five tasty and inexpensive meals there.
The canteen was set up shortly after the building was constructed in 1959, mainly for resident and visiting MLAs, occupants of the hostel, and all its staff. That said, you will spot students from nearby colleges and bank employees stopping by for a bite. “This is run very differently from a regular [restaurant],” says Swapnil Dongre, F&B manager. “[There,] a VIP may show up once in a while. Here, we have VIPs walking in all day.” He counts home minister R. R. Patil, deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar, Opposition leader Eknath Khadse, and senior police officers, including ACP Vasant Dhoble, among his customers.
The canteen has three dining rooms. The first, situated right off the street, is the largest and seats 500 people; it looks and is run like an Udipi with a coupon system. The second room, down a short corridor alongside the kitchen, is mainly for hostel staff. If a guest has a tiffin, they are encouraged to sit in this quieter 150-capacity area. The third room, which boasts large windows, tablecloths and air conditioning, is only for MLAs and their accompanying staff and guests. Dongre says that all MLAs get a 75 per cent discount on their bill, and that a large part of running the canteen well is about managing egos and expectations. The management trains the staff to not be intimidated by their powerful and connected customers and to ask for the money due to them. Dongre added that very few non-Maharashtrians choose to work at the canteen because MLAs prefer conversing only in Marathi.
On the days that the house is in session, the canteen feeds up to 5,000 customers. According to Dongre, politicians from all over Maharashtra, Jalgaon, Nanded and Nagpur come to eat the pitla and bhakri. Other best-loved items include the methi masala, bhendi fry, stuffed simla mirch and baingan dishes. The chef in charge of Punjabi food takes pride in his mutton Marathwada made with spicy goda masala. On Wednesday and Friday, the canteen serves specials such as the neer dosa thali and kombdi vade thali. Though momos sold very poorly and were discontinued, the launch of burgers is imminent.
Is all of it authentic? Not really. Is it delicious? Most of it is. The South Indian thali that I sampled had a sinus-clearing tomato-based rasam that I could have had five bowls of; a coconut curry-based tendli sabzi that I had never tasted before but grew to love; and stir-fried beans poriyal, that like everything else on the plate, was light and non-greasy. During another visit, the rawa crusted pomfret fry was a textural symphony. If I’m in Churchgate craving fluffy, perfectly steamed idlis made from a batter that would pass muster in Matunga, I can get my fix here for Rs20. The sambhar wasn’t as sweet as Shiv Sagar’s and certainly more complex. I still have to venture into the non-Indian part of the menu, but I’m guessing it will be as good as cheap Chinese gets in this city.
For its prices, quick and unfussy service, and the simple, satisfying quality and variety of its food, the Akashwani MLA Hostel Canteen is hard to beat. It’s a wonder it has stayed under the radar all this while. (You won’t find it on most restaurant listing websites.) If you’re confused about what to order the first time you visit, peek into the plates of your neighbours. Even if they are white safari-suited or Gandhi-topied government employees, it’s unlikely they will mind.Tags: Akashwani MLA Hostel Canteen, The Tastemaker
Akshwani MLA Hostel Canteen
Opposite Mafatlal House
Phone022 2282 6809, 022 2282 6810
HoursFrom Monday to Saturday, from 8am to 11pm; Sunday closed. (Second and fourth Saturdays, from 8am to 5pm.)