The traveler in India will encounter endless places to eat — but more and more often, especially in the southern part of the country, the humble “darshini” is where they’ll wind up.
Darshinis are small, roadside cafes associated especially with the city of Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore), identified by high steel tables, open kitchens and limited menus.
For legions of loyal customers — from office drones to day laborers — they’re prized for quick, affordable, self-serve meals.
Hot fluffy idlis (a savory, disc-like cake,) crispy vadas (lentil donut) and cups of thick filtered coffee are darshini staples — you can usually get them all for under $1.
The birth of darshinis
Few such casual eateries existed in Bangalore before the 1980s.
R. Prabhakar is the man credited with bringing the concept to India after traveling in the West and being impressed by the fast food available during his travels.
In 1983, Prabhakar helped set up Cafe Darshini (now closed) in Bangalore’s Jayanagar neighborhood.
It was the first such cafe to use the term.
But it was an entrepreneur named Janardhan Airodi who first used “darshini” as a generic term.
Opened in 1989, Airodi’s touchstone Upahara Darshini inspired a wave of darshini copycats.
Still in business, Upahara Darshini is the oldest darshini in operation today.
“When we opened, our customers were thrilled to see the coffee being brewed in front of them and being served in a cup and saucer within minutes, at a cost of just 1 rupee,” says Airodi. “At 10 rupees (16 cents), the coffee at UD or any other darshini is cheap even today.”
Darshinis have since proliferated throughout southern India. It’s estimated that there are more than 5,000 in Bengaluru alone.
Here are a few darshinis that serve an authentic version of the local Kannadiga cuisine.
Upahara Darshini, the oldest darshini in town, serves the best shavige bhath, a savory rice vermicelli.Upahara Darshini has opened a second popular branch Bengaluru, but the charm of the original store — a focal point of darshini culture — remains strong.
Here the steel tables have given way to granite tabletops, but the food is as delicious as ever.
The shavige bhath is recommended — it’s a savory rice vermicelli with curry leaves, mustard and split black gram served with a generous drizzle of lemon.
Another favorite is the button idlis (the size of a large button), dipped in lots of sambar (a vegetable broth made with pigeon peas).
Upahara Darshini, 73/2, DVG Road, Basavanagudi, Bangalore 560004 India; open daily 7.30 a.m.-12.30 p.m., 4.30-9p.m.
Ganesh Darshan is known for its 25 innovative dosas, delivered in a hurry.
Dosa’s consist of a savory base made from rice and split black gram that’s garnished with various toppings.
The restaurant’s signature dish, Banaras butter sponge dosa is topped with croutons seasoned with cashew, coconut and sesame seeds.
Ganesh Darshan, 244, 27th Cross, 9th Main, 3rd Block Opposite Bus Stop, Jayanagar, Bangalore 560011 India; +91 80 4150 5554; open daily 7 a.m.- 10 p.m.
At South Thindies, you might be temped to order every house favorite displayed at the counter — it all looks that good.
Among those not to be missed, however, are masala dosa (which goes well with sweet-sour kokum juice) and halbai, a sweet wholesome cake prepared with jaggery, rice flour and coconut.
Payasam is another good choice — it’s a rice pudding prepared with jaggery, coconut milk and split green gram.
South Thindies, 10/6, Kanakapura Road, Basavanagudi, Bengaluru; +91 80 2662 2660; daily 7:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m, 4:30-10 p.m.
SLV (Sri Lakshmi Venkateshwara) Corner
Khara bhath at SLV Corner.Sri Lakshmi Venkateshwara Corner (formerly Lakshmi Venkateshwara) began life in 1974 as an eatery selling an extremely limited menu in a 400-square-foot space.
Since then, it’s grown to twice the size and converted into a darshini.
The khara bhath (a savory snack prepared with roasted semolina seasoned with spices and vegetables) comes tempered with a special mix of spices unique to SLV, giving it a taste that’s earned the shop a loyal following.
SLV, 79/4, Vani Vilas Road, Basaranagudi, Bengaluru; +91 80 2650 9423; open daily 6 a.m.-9.30 p.m.
The most recent addition to K.N. Vasudev Adiga’s roster of 26 eateries in and around Bengaluru isn’t a conventional darshini.
A vibrant ambiance heralded by imaginative movie-style posters (“The Good, the Bad and the Idli”) lend character to the place.
Among authentic Bengaluru fare on the menu is the signature tawa podi idlis (steamed savory cakes of split black gram and rice, sauteed in red chutney powder).
Vasudev Adiga’s, 44, SB Towers, Church Street, MG Road, Bengaluru; +91 84 9491 2612; daily 7:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
Brahmins’ Coffee Bar
Yes, it pre-dates the darshini movement, but this eatery is included if only for attracting crowds ever since it started serving cookies with coffee in a small space in 1965.
To add flavor to the mix, the founder, the late K.V. Nagesh Rao, introduced homemade idlis to the menu in 1970.
Within a matter of years, Brahmins’ was serving vadas, khara bhath, kesari bhath (a sweet made with semolina, sugar and clarified butter) and tea.
Even with just a few items on the menu, Brahmins’ is packed with loyalists throughout the day.
Order a combination of idli and vada with kaapi (coffee) brewed in copper filters and you’ll know why.
Brahmin’s Coffee Bar, Shop Number 3, Ranga Rao Road, Shankarpuram Basavanagudi, Near Shankar Mutt, Bangalore 560004 India; +91 98 4503 0234; open Monday to Saturday, 6 a.m.-noon, 3-7 p.m.
Meals at Roti Ghar often begin with badam halwa.Locals start with dessert at Roti Ghar.
A pack of badam halwa (bite-sized sweetmeat made with almonds, sugar, milk and clarified butter) from the counter outside sweetens the wait for a table inside.
When you’re inside, kotte kadabu (flavorful idlis steamed in a jackfruit leaf cup) is the best order.
Roti Ghar, 17, Gandhi Bazaar Main Road Basavangudi, Bangalore India; +91 80 26629734; open daily 7.30 a.m. to 10.30 p.m.
Rural Karnataka cuisine is the order at Halli Mane.
Ragi (or finger millet), a high protein, indigenously grown grain, is used extensively to prepare treats such as ragi mudde (finger millet flour balls). Break it into small bites before dipping in sambar.
A meal at Halli Mane is only complete with an akki or ragi roti (Indian breads made from rice and ragi flours).
Halli Mane, 3rd Cross, Sampige Road, Malleshwaram; +91 80 2346 9797; open daily 6.30 a.m.-10.30 p.m.
Om Sai Skanda Dosa Camp
Everyone loves the masala dosa at this restaurant near a temple, but it’s the melt-in-the-mouth thatte idli (plate idli) that most customers come for.
Thatte idli is basically a larger version of a normal idli, so it’s best to order just one if you’d also like to enjoy the dosas and the khara bhath.
Om Sai Skanda Dosa Camp, 115, 5th Cross, Ulsoor, +91 94 4817 5340; Monday to Saturday, 7:30 a.m.-1 p.m. and 4:30-10 p.m.; Sundays, open mornings only
Opened in 1996, this darshini is known for its avarekalu dosa, which is dosa with vegetables including diced broad beans grown in Karnataka in southwest India in winter.
The banana and sesame-laced Mangaluru bun (fluffy sweet buns) and holige (sweet flatbread stuffed with jaggery and coconut) are top sellers.
Halli Thindi, 3, Deepak Building, Bull Temple Road, Basavanagudi; +91 94 4808 3171; daily 7 a.m.-3 p.m. 5-11 p.m.
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