If you have lived in Pune for even a fortnight, chances are that you have visited Vaishali restaurant on FC road at least once to relish the traditional south Indian snacks or the famous SPDP. This cozy eatery, established in 1951 has achieved a place of honor and affection in Pune’s history and culture since last 65 years. Along with Roopali and Amrapali, Vaishali form the trilogy of restaurants built by Mr Jagannath Shetty fulfilling lacs of appetites on a daily basis.
I was pretty apprehensive of eating out at Vaishali last week, due to the obvious crowd and waiting period. I had my old parents and a hyper active daughter with me and at around 8 in the evening, I thought it foolish to go. There would be no place to even put down a foot and the actual time to eat would be extremely long. Yet, I decided to take a chance and asked the cab driver to take me to Vaishali.
The initial 5 mins were as expected, we had to stand in the already crowded tiny corridor looking at random faces entering and exiting the place. Plus, for the initial 2 mins, I kept searching for the manager/waiter/anyone who would provide us the table. In the entire chaos, I managed to find couple of deserted chairs for my parents and once they were seated, I went checking for a table – my two year toddler in my arms. After asking a couple of cleaners and then the customers (I think !! ) I finally managed to get hold of the “manager”.
Me: “Sir, kiti vel lagel ? 4 member ahet” (How much time it will take? We are 4 people).
Manager: “(In the obvious polite Puneri Marathi) Vel lagel. Thamba jara (Wait a min. It will take time).”
Me: “Ok. Naav tar lihun ghya.” (Atleast write down my name)
Manager: “Mi sangto na. Thamba jara” (I will tell you. Wait for a while)
Me: (Thinking there is no point in arguing with a hard core Puneri dukandar) OK. Sigh !!.
I was still unsure how will he identify me correctly when the table is available and with people entering the already crowded place at a speed of 2 people per 10 seconds. Not in a position to let go of a single chance, I kept on lingering nearby the manager, throwing curious glances at him once in a while – so that he doesn’t miss me.
My daughter was getting restless by now and my hands had started to pain with her weight. I took her a little aside to show her the fishes in the fish tank. Almost 30 seconds of the fish view and I heard the manager shout “Oh madam. Ya na loukar ikde (oh madam, come fast)”. The absurdities of life !!!
Finally happy to get my place of honor, I as good as dragged my old parents with all of our shopping bags to the table. The table was one in the interior of the hotels with those cushioned velvet seats. My father – an old fat man he is – found it impossible to just slip inside. I had to push the table almost a foot backwards to make enough space for my dad to enter and sit. Plus the daughter was shouting excitedly. The entire confusion had already made the neighboring customers to throw disapproving glances in our directions – the Puneri attitude again.
Finally, we settled down and I could lay my hands on the menu. May be it was the hunger prangs I was feeling inside my stomach or the irritation of the last few minutes – I was really disappointed with the menu. Only south Indian, chat and sandwiches? No north Indian dishes, no pav bhaji, no Chinese? I thought like many of the other restaurants we have in Pune – Vaishali might also have a mix of different Indian cuisines. But the list of limited items on the menu already killed a part of my appetite. But then Vaishali proclaims to serve some of the best south Indian dishes. So we decided to order Vaishali special masala Dosa, cheese onion uttapam, the famous cutlet and SPDP and finger chips for the daughter.
I must agree, the staff was very fast. The moment I ordered my food, the waiter there almost snatched the menu out of my hands. Of course – owing to the unbelievable crowd, its natural they want to get over with the customers as fast as possible. Order once and for all. No second orders. Guess I was not aware of this system and asked the waiter to give me back the menu. We might order some soft drinks later. He did, with a typically Puneri “These lazy “eatoholic” people !! ” expression on his face.
Thankfully, the food arrived shortly. And we started with the anticipation to savor the famous and delicious Vaishali food. My enthusiasm here as well received a huge jolt. To start with, they “sprinkle” finely chopped raw onion on the cutlets. EWW. That already was a huge turn off. Plus, it was served with the south Indian coconut chutney ?? WTF !!! Cutlet, deep fried and crispy, can be best enjoyed with a ketup or to some extent a veg/cheese dip. But here I was having what can be called as the “south Indianized chaat” version of the veg cutlet. On the very first bite, I thought I was chewing on raw beetroot and onion– with the amount of beetroot and carrot used, it was nothing remotely near “veg” cutlet. Somehow, I managed to nibble on a couple of morsels, but the taste of chutney killed the remaining of my interest. I just couldn’t have another bite.
I thought of trying the famous dosa/uttapam to at least provide some energy to my empty tummy. But there again was the same story. Dosa was crispy, yes, but the potato curry – extremely oily with half cooked onions. The sambhar was – to say the least – spiced colored water. I have never tasted sambhar so sweet with such thin consistency. And chutney – best not to comment.
After enduring such attacks on my taste buds, I couldn’t feel like tasting the uttapam. And that proved out to be good decision. My mom confirmed my apprehension – it was no good. It was a mix of oil and sugar. No taste. I thought at least the SPDP would be a saving grace. But to my utter disappointment – it turned out to be the worst choice of food. What I tasted was just SWEET CURD. Nothing else. No sev, no batata, no puri. The final straw in the leg, the finger chips arrived – not fresh and crispy but cold, damp and oily again. There was no salt, pepper – nothing at all and my daughter didn’t eat even a single piece.
My parents were unhappy, my daughter was cranky and I was angry. My evening was ruined and I was still hungry. Yet, I suggested we order some juices or shakes to end it on a sweet note. But looking at the expressions of my parents and the prices on the menu, I decided against it. We asked for bill. It came, and with it, a group of 5 people – who were supposed to sit on our table after we get up. It took around 60 seconds for me to swipe the card, put it back in the bag, pick up my daughter and start walking out. But even those 60 seconds seemed unwelcome for the over enthusiastic group of friends waiting for their turn. Sigh !!
Well to each his own. I know thousands of people love Vaishali food – obvious from the crowd seen there. But I felt extremely let down by the entire experience. Its really hard for me to understand what exactly people enjoy at this place.
- There is no originality – the sambhar was nothing near to the original taste of any of the four south Indian states – I can pretty much distinguish between the authentic taste and a fake one.
- There is nothing new at all – Since the last 20 years I have been visiting Vaishali, the menu hasn’t changed even a bit. No new additions, no changes or twists to the existing dishes, no experimentation, nothing to look forward to in fact.
- The crowd is not just irritating, but utterly disgusting. It’s extremely rude to wait in front of the table when people are already sitting or about to leave. As if they are eating on one of the restaurant’s charity event. Why hasn’t the management devised a strategy to manage the waiting people yet? There is a huge space in front of the main entrance where a good waiting arrangement can be done. Or maybe the owners consider it as their USP that customers will wait there, in spite of all the inconvenience.
- Finally, in spite of being one of the favorites of the hard core Punekars, I find this place extremely impersonal. It works as a factory treating the customers as products. I would anytime prefer the smaller and cozier Roopali.
So, I am sure now a lot of flak is waiting to come my way – I have hurt the sentiments of many of the Vaishali loyalists. Yet, I guess a little criticism might turn out to be what the restaurant really needs. I am a big optimist. Next time when I go to Vaishali (and I will) I might just order a coffee and feel happy. Cheers.