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Vol. XXXI No. 14, November 1-15, 2021

When Roxy meant a restaurant, not a theatre

by Satyan Bhatt

The story of the Neo Roxy Café, an extraordinary South Indian restaurant which plied its trade in the Madras of the 50s, is entwined with that of Champaklal Bhatt, a young Gujarati who came to Madras in search of a living in the late ‘40s, after the country attained independence.

Champaklal was hired to manage Roxy Café at a time when the establishment was struggling with losses. At the time, he was not new to the restaurant business – he had already amassed experience at the well-known South Indian eatery Arya Bhavan on Govindappa Naicken Street in Sowcarpet. The Daves, who were acquainted with the promoter of Arya Bhavan, were impressed by Champaklal’s knowledge and commitment; it was they who whisked him away to the Neo Roxy Café at Purasawalkam to help turn around the flailing business.

Champaklal Bhatt, of course, achieved the objective he was set; in fact, he did his job so well that he rose to become a partner. He eventually went on to become the sole proprietor of the establishment, whose success story actually began in the mid-50s.

Bhatt’s success mantra was quality, service and cleanliness. He believed that an eatery should be such that even its competitors turn out to be regular customers. Champaklal’s approach bore fruit slowly but steadily – word spread of Roxy Café and the hotel on Purasawalkam High Road gained popularity, attracting important clients like, for example, the well-known jewellers Bapalal, Surajmal and Chotubhai. Even the promoter of Dasaprakash, K. Seetharama Rao, used to send his driver to the hotel at least once a month to buy plates of masala dosai for the family.

Although the restaurant was located in an old building, the furniture was handsomely made of marble and rosewood. The hotel’s brass – and later steel – dabara coffee service set was also a first in this part of Chennai. As for the prices, a plate of idli at Roxy Café those days cost 7 paisa, vada 10, dosai 12, and coffee 15. In fact, the most expensive items on the menu were the sweets, which cost around 40 paisa. Come Diwali, the hotel would sell at least 200 boxes of sweets on a daily basis.

In those days, Purasawalkam and Vepery were dominated by Anglo Indians, who believed in enjoying life to its fullest. The locality’s Anglo Indian heritage is evident in the names of the roads and streets to the left of Purasawalkam High Road, from the clock tower onwards – Ritherdon Road, Clemens Road, Letangs Road, Thacker street etc. On the other side, the streets carry a different flavour of names – Mookathal Street, Tana Street, Kandappa Achari Street, Vellala Street etc.

Coming back to Roxy Café, Champaklal Bhatt, like most Indians, loved cricket. His friend Gopalakrishnan was a test umpire who served during the 50s and 60s. Both of them spent a lot of time at the Café chatting about the sport over endless cups of strong coffee. Bhatt was also proud of his good friend Dr Annamalai, then a leading heart specialist with a list of important patients. When Dr Annamalai left for England to continue his studies, it was at the Roxy Café terrace that the farewell party was held. Then there was Duraisingh Francis, then the SI at the G1 Vepery police station. He went on to become the Asst. Commissioner of Police, the highest post one could reach in those days.

When tourists came to Madras from Gujarat, tiffin at the Neo Roxy Café was a must-do item on their checklist, to Bhatt’s delight. Unsurprisingly, the hotel quickly grew very popular among the North ­Indian Circle in Madras.
Bhatt was a great believer in giving back to society. He was always ready to help the needy and poor. In fact, every Wednesday, when the hotel was closed to customers, he would organise full meals for about 25 rickshaw pullers. This was a ritual which continued for many years and many benefited from his generosity.

However, all good things come to an end and as fate would have it, the owner of the premises decided to rebuild the ageing building in 1970. Unfortunately, he passed away suddenly, marking the downturn of the Café. Nothing worked out for Bhatt or the NRC after that period and the hotel had to close its shutters. However, the goodwill and the quality of its service are still remembered by the older generation of patrons still living in Purasawalkam.

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