The traffic is endless on Bengaluru’s Lalbagh road. But inside Mavalli Tiffins Rooms (MTR), time seems to slow down. Patient families throng in the waiting area, others chitchat over filter coffee and idlis in the next room. The kitchen is bustling and busy. The story of this eatery dates back to the early 1920s, when three brothers — Parameshwara, Ganappayya and Yagnanarayana Maiya — ventured out of Parampalli near Udupi in Karnataka. After working as personal cooks in Bengaluru, Ganappayya and Parameshwara set up the Brahmin Coffee Club in 1924 at Lalbagh Fort road, serving coffee and idli. When Parameshwara died, Yagnanarayana, who was lovingly called Yagnappa, was called in from Hyderabad to help out.
It was under Yagnappa’s care that the eatery grew and found fame. He had travelled to England in 1951 to know more about restaurant culture there. “His major takeaway was hygiene. After he came back, he kept booklets on all tables with a set of rules for customers. If one is drinking coffee, the cup has to be kept back on the saucer, or if one is having upma, curry leaves shouldn’t be put on the table, but on the plate,” says Vikram Maiya, his grandnephew, who runs MTR restaurants along with his sister Hema Malini and brother Arvind. MTR was one of the first in the city to have steam-cleaning. “We use a lot of ghee in our cooking, and there are hundreds of plates to wash. Just water and soap won’t do, hence one needs hot water and steam. This is what he saw there and implemented here,” he says.
MTR got its present name after it moved to Mavalli in 1959, and running the eatery was a family affair, says Maiya. The family used to live nearby in Sudhama Nagar. “But later, many became engineers, doctors and bankers. When Yagnappa died in 1969, due to cancer, his son and my uncle Sadananda was only 17, hence my father Harishchandra looked after the business,” he says.
Back then, the menu included five to six dishes like idli, vada, masala dosa, rava idli, khara bath, and kesari bath. “It remains our core menu. Slowly and steadily, we started experimenting and added wheat and ragi dosas, along with akki or ragi roti. If you see our masala dosas, it has a darker hue as we use red rice. The proportion of urad dal also varies in our recipes,” he says. It is popularly believed that Yagnappa invented the rava idli. “During World War II, rice was being rationed across India as it had to be sent to the soldiers. But Yagnappa didn’t want to stop making idlis. He started experimenting with semolina and that’s how rava idli came about,” he says.
It started with the restaurant, but MTR became famous for its ready-to-eat mixes and food. “That also came about during a time of strife,” says Maiya. The central government had put a cap on prices during the Emergency due to which many places shut down. “My father and uncle decided to remain open. They used to write their daily losses on a big black board outside,” he says. They eventually shut after three months and they decided to sell mixes of rava idli and khara bath. When the business took off later, Sadananda decided to pursue MTR Foods while Harishchandra stayed put with the restaurant.
MTR decided to branch out in 2004, when Maiya saw crowds coming from across Bengaluru and waiting for over three hours for a 25 minute meal. With nine branches in the city, one in Udupi and franchises in Singapore, Dubai and Kuala Lumpur, Maiya seems content. “We’ve had offers to branch out in other cities, but the process is labour intensive and we don’t want to compromise on the quality and consistency,” he says.
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