Woodlands Drive-In restaurant was a well known landmark in Chennai that was Madras. Old-timers miss it badly to this day. Partab Ramchand goes off on a trip down memory lane and recalls his memories of a place that suddenly disappeared one day
I am sure I echo the sentiments of thousands of people in Chennai that was Madras when I say that I miss Woodlands Drive-In Restaurant badly. For decades, it was both the eating place and the meeting place for just about everyone – boys and girls, young and old, office-goers and, most of all, for the family it was an opportunity for an outing. The ambience was casual, the fare served varied and sumptuous and the waiters friendly and courteous. It was a place where everyone was comfortable – from the wealthy driving their imported cars to the lower middle-class families arriving on two-wheelers.
The place was frequented by even prominent citizens of the city. I well remember that well-known singer P.B. Srinivas was a regular visitor. He would sit by himself in a corner table in the self-service section and keep writing what were obviously the words for his next melody.
In that vast open space dotted with trees and plants, various kinds of service were provided. The traditionally minded preferred the regular service while those opting for a quick bite could proceed to the self-service section. Those having time on their hands preferred to beat the heat and enjoy the tasty snacks in air-conditioned comfort while there was also a lawn service. But best of all was the service in the car itself. You could drive in, park your car and order the food of your choice. And while you sat in the vehicle discussing the weather or the latest cricket match, the waiter would arrive with your food served piping hot in the tray making for a pretty good balancing act. The balancing act was even more pronounced in wet weather for he also had to carry an umbrella to keep the rain from falling in the food.
The restaurant was open roughly from 6 am to 9 pm and everything was nicely divided. So, in the morning, it was time to tuck into idlis, vadas, pongal (a sweetened dish of rice boiled with lentils) and dosas and in the afternoon one could have the traditional rice items along with tandoori items and North Indian dishes. The evenings saw the bondas, bajjis (South Indian snacks that have sweet and spicy versions of it in different regions) and chaat (savoury snack) items make an appearance while in the night it was time again for idlis and dosas while the rice items remained more or less constant. Even for those foodies wanting something to munch at odd hours there were items like bread peas masala, khichdi (preparation made from rice and lentils), special vada, curd vada and so on.
On Sundays and public holidays the place wore a festive look. Parking space was at a premium and all sections were occupied. It was difficult to find a table but the old faithful would wait patiently. I well remember that on Sunday mornings the regular and self service sections would be full with families arriving for breakfast after morning mass at the nearby St George’s Cathedral.
I have spent many enjoyable hours at Woodlands Drive-In or Woodies as it was popularly called and I am sure I speak for several of the city folk. I remember there was a tree near the inside entrance and many of us would just sit down after our meal to have a quiet smoke and then jump on our two-wheelers and be on our way. There was also a paan-beeda shop on the premises, an ice cream and cool drink stall and a playground for children while parents could sit down on the benches and keep an eye on them. I well remember how my friends who had lived in Madras and had gone abroad for studies or professional duty would always say, “let’s meet at Woodies” whenever they returned. It had emerged as the third most well-known landmark in the city after Marina Beach and Mount Road.
As the cliché goes, all good things have to come to an end (I don’t know why though!). A few years ago, the government took over the premises to build a garden which I believe is quite pretty though I have never been there myself. All the same, every time I pass by Cathedral Road I look askance at the place and take off on a trip down memory lane.
(The writer is a senior journalist who had covered sport and cinema for The Indian Express for many years. He is based in Chennai.)
April – June 2017