P Rajagopal, who died on Thursday, was described as the “Dosa King”. It’s true that the dosas at Saravana Bhavan, the chain of restaurants started by him, have become the gold standard for South Indian restaurant fare, especially outside the region. Crisp, golden and stuffed with spicy potatoes, onion or cottage cheese and served with an assortment of tangy chutneys and hot sambar, these dosas have found devotees in places as diverse as Delhi, Muscat, Stockholm and Singapore. But the restaurant chain, whose first outlet opened in Madras in 1981, is as much of a draw for its deep-fried and soft vadas, spongy saucer-shaped idlis and stringy idiyappaams served with a delectable mix of vegetable kurma and sweetened coconut milk.
Born to a family of onion farmers in Tamil Nadu’s Tuticorin district, Rajagopal dropped out of school when he was in the seventh grade and moved to Chennai. He had to wipe tables in restaurants for a living, before starting a modest grocery business in the city’s K K Nagar area. A chance conversation with one of his customers about the dearth of quality eateries in K K Nagar moved Rajagopal to buy a loss-making restaurant in the area. Thus was born the first Saravana Bhavan outlet. Rajagopal used quality ingredients and paid his employees well, even when his outfit made losses. Eventually, word got around about Saravana Bhavan’s pocket-friendly fare. South Indian snacks became part of the eating out experience in different parts of the country — and the world. Rajagopal leaves behind more than 80 restaurants, 47 outside the country.
Rajagopal was convicted in a 2001 murder case. But he will be remembered for the food served at his restaurants. It’s a testimony to Rajagopal’s entrepreneurial skills that the waiting time at Saravana Bhavan outlets across the world exceeds half-an-hour at most times of the day.