What makes Bangalore's darshini cafes so special?

Homestyle cooking and a pared-back menu serving top-quality food are among the reasons darshini cafes are so popular in South India

Brahmins' Coffee Bar in Bangalore. 
Powered by automated translation

Sparkling stainless steel tables, but no chairs to sit on. Swift service, but no waiters. High quality, low pricing. Brief menus, long queues. That's how a visitor to Bangalore would describe the quick-service cafes typical to the South Indian city. To us Bengalureans, it's a darshini, where we get our fill of thick filtered kaapi (coffee in Kannada, the local language), soft fluffy idlis, crispy vadas and crusty masala dosas within half a mile of our home, and priced at less than a dollar.

What are darshinis?

Conceptualised in Bengaluru in the 1980s, darshinis were meant to serve quick and wholesome grub to the city’s always-pressed-for-time working middle class. However, as their popularity grew among locals and tourists alike, so did their number, and currently almost 5,000 darshinis dot the 700-square-kilometre city.

A darshini is a great social leveller. It is perhaps the only eating space where a chief executive and a cobbler can be found sharing a table. “Darshini means you just look at the picture and select the food; there is no language barrier there,” says R Prabhakar, 67, a consultant who is said to have conceptualised darshinis. He is referring to the visual menu on display boards that these cafes are known for.

In 1983, Prabhakar designed Cafe Darshini for his brother-in-law, which is believed to be the first such quick-service eatery in the city. It was sold six years later and morphed into Upahara Darshini, one of the most popular outlets serving South Indian food in Bengaluru even today.

During his trips to South-East Asia and Europe, Prabhakar was impressed with the hygienic self-service fast-food chains he saw there and made up his mind to introduce them in his city with a South Indian flavour.

Accordingly, most darshinis have glass doors for their kitchens, to give a view of the cooking process, primarily to exhibit their high standards of hygiene. Every night, the staff use hot water to clean the counters and steel utensils. Spoons and forks remain simmering in a clean vat of hot water throughout, until picked up by a customer to dig into their idli or vada.

How it became popular

With the success of Cafe Darshini, hundreds of other people interested in the industry came to Prabhakar for help to open their own outlets. "He modified my cooking equipment for efficiency, stressed on keeping the food additive-free and advised me to keep the kitchen bigger than the eating area," says BM Dhananjaya, whose darshini South Thindies is well-known for its variety of dosas. "We work on the economies of scale," says Santosh Prabhakar, R Prabhakar's son, who opened his first darshini – South Kitchen – in 2011, after being privy to hundreds of conversations on the food industry over the years. "It was time someone in our family opened our own darshini," he adds.

Like most others, South Kitchen has just four snacks on the menu, apart from tea and coffee. Idli, vada, khara bhath (a savoury snack prepared with roasted semolina seasoned with spices and vegetables) and kesari baat (a sweet made with semolina, sugar and clarified butter) are staples found in every ­darshini. Sticking to a limited menu keeps the inventory small and ensures no wastage, while the low pricing – Vasudev Adiga's, one of Bangalore's most successful darshini chains, for instance, serves its snacks for 50 rupees (Dh2.5) – is made up for by high volumes resulting in quick profits.

Masala vada at South Thindies
Masala vada at South Thindies

While Prabhakar gave them the darshini format, quick-­service cafes such as Brahmins’ Coffee Bar and SLV Corner Restaurant, have been in existence in Bengaluru since the 1970s. The former is perhaps the oldest in the city, earlier known simply as an “idli hotel”. It started life in January 1965 when Nagesh Rao rented a car garage in Basavanagudi to sell coffee, with buns and pastries outsourced from a city bakery.

Five years later, he added tea, idli, vada, khara bhath and kesari baat to the menu and stopped serving the baked products. Every day – even now – the lentil and rice for the batter are soaked and ground in his home and transported to the cafe where the items are freshly prepared. The concoction for filter coffee is prepared in copper dispensers, and Rao's 87-year-old wife still makes the chutney for the cafe, while one of his sons is always around to oversee the cooking and customers.

Why people love them

Soham Shoney, a food photographer has been doing the rounds of SLV Corner Restaurant in the Basavanagudi neighbourhood since he moved to the city in 2011. “Nothing has changed at SLV in years. The idlis and khara bhath still taste the same,” he says. “And somehow, surprisingly, food is always ready on time.” When the eatery opens at 8am, every item on the menu is available. “I’m never told an item is unavailable because the staff did not arrive on time.”  

Podi idli at Adiga's
Podi idli at Adiga's

Shoney visits a darshini ­whenever he wants to grab a quick meal. “It is the best option for someone who wants hygienic, homestyle food served in three minutes or less,” he says. He loves that he can finish a meal and walk out 10 minutes later.

Quick service aside, a darshini’s success ultimately lies in keeping the quality of its food and service consistently stellar. “A darshini-goer looks for accuracy and consistency in his order,” says Santosh. “Everyone is a connoisseur of our cuisine; after all, they eat the same food at home every single day.”