We may be in an age of bhavan decline: a fanciful eater might imagine that the rumblings of the federal system are expressing themselves in the lunch options of the capital, housed in the dingy bureaucratic state “bhavans” — official guest-houses, workspaces and meeting rooms for visiting state officials — built between the 1950s and 1990s in Lutyens Delhi.
Just recently, Jakoi, the terrific restaurant in Assam Bhavan, shut shop, depriving diners of the pleasure of one of the most sumptuous thalis in Delhi. Bikaner House, now better known as a frou-frou event venue and home to the beautiful Kashmiri restaurant Chor Bizarre, used to serve up a pretty decent Rajasthani thali from a late and lamented restaurant on its ground floor some years ago. The tiny Maharashtra Sadan, where you could once go eat thalipith with homesick Marathi cops on Delhi duty, has given way to a blazing marble tackfest that looks like a four-star hotel on the Mumbai-Pune highway.
This our guide to what’s good at the best and most authentic of the dining rooms
But like all centre-state relationships, things are up one day and down the next. Over the last couple of years, the state canteens of Bihar and Bengal have stepped up to the plate admirably, while long-dormant giants such as Gujarat have started to pull their weight. Below, find our guide to what’s good at the best and most authentic of the dining rooms of the welfare state.
The staff here is from Telangana and the thalis bear the rich, fragrant stamp of the food from the interiors of the region. Order a mutton fry with your vegetarian thali and don’t forget to ask for ghee to go with the podi at the table. (PS. Don’t forget to call them in mango season to keep aside a box of Banganapalle mangoes for you.)
Go here: 1, Ashoka Road, near India Gate, call 011 2338 2031, Rs 110 for a mutton fry.
Food from the beautiful Pot Belly Café, served in the most charming of pastel-painted cafés. A plate of smoky litti chokha will slay you, so be sure to order a basket of meat pakoras to bring you back to life.
Go here: The Potbelly Café, 15 Bihar Niwas, Chanakyapuri, call 096504 66476, Rs 240 for a meat pakora basket.
This kitchen is outsourced to Calcutta’s famous Bijoli Grill and serves up the creamiest, most comforting aloo posto to be found in central Delhi. Ignore the slightly outlandish table settings and focus on eating it with fragrant rice and greasy, puffy, immensely satisfying luchis.
Go here: Bijoli Grill, Banga Bhavan, 3 Hailey Road, call 8506002255, Rs 120 for aloo posto.
Mr Patrick’s Viva O’ Viva serves the best pao we’ve eaten in Delhi. Paired with his Goan chef’s flavourful prawn balchao and a coconutty fish curry with rice, you might almost believe you’re near an ocean.
Go here: Viva O’ Viva, 14 Goa Niwas, Bir Tikendrajit Marg, behind Akbar Bhawan, Chankyapuri, call 2611 8370/71, Rs 20 for a plate of pao, Rs 350 for mixed seafood pulao.
Once absent from the radar of Delhi diners (who used to prefer the very slightly more dynamic Gujarati Samaj canteen in Civil Lines), changing power dynamics and an infusion of new energy appear to have made this a viable lunch option. Achche din! Nearly all Gujarati restaurants in Delhi are unspeakable, so come here for a slightly watery but light and largely healthy vegetarian meal with kathod, khichdi-kadi and chaas.
Go here: Gujarat Bhawan, 11 Kautilya Marg, Chanakyapuri, call 4627 3200, Rs 140 for a special dinner thali.
Inside this gleaming architectural monument to Maharashtra’s ego (and its wealth), find a canteen that promises much, from Kolhapuri meat dishes to spicy, crisp snacks such as sabudana vada and thalipith. If you don’t call ahead to check, however, the kitchen might just be serving a simple thali of dal-rice-bhakri-bhaji on the day. Leave the sabudana kheer well alone.
Go here: Maharashtra Sadan, next to Baroda House near India Gate, Kasturba Gandhi Marg, call 2338 0309, Rs 360 for a full chicken curry.
Jammu and Kashmir House
The rogan josh here might be the best in Delhi, richly textured but mellow to taste. Call ahead to make sure they’re serving it before you go.
Go here: J&K House, 9 Kautilya Marg, Chanakyapuri, call 2611 2022, around Rs 800 for a big meal for two.
Communism has helped keep prices at this lunch room down to amounts that seem fabulous even by bhavan standards. Alas, Marx hasn’t yet solved the problem of delivering great sambar to hungry workers in North India. Stick to a meat curry and heaps of red rice, or bring home a mild, home-style avial on the weekends.
Go here: Samridhi, Kerala House, 3 Jantar Mantar Road, Janpath, Rs 50 for a veg meals plate.
The Chanakyapuri guest house opens for lunch at 1 sharp, and serves up one of our very favourite dishes: bai, the leafy Mizo stew (available both in vegetarian and pork versions) that must be one of the freshest things you’ll eat in all of India.
Go here: Mizoram House, off Kautilya Marg Diplomatic Enclave, Chanakyapuri.
Before the rise of Humayunpur, Nagaland House was the best place to go for home-style smoked Naga pork and rice that you could afford even on a student’s budget. It still has something most places in South Delhi or North Campus don’t: loads of space and light.
Go here: Nagaland House, 9 Aurangzeb Road, next to Race Course Metro station exit and Tughlaq Road Police Station.
Tamil Nadu House
Don’t go to Tamil Nadu Bhavan expecting Chennai-quality idli and dosa: Delhi has plenty of cheap and cheerful tiffin spots for that, anyway. A porotta and chicken kurma is the meal to sit down to here, not quite what you get down in the beautiful South, but a very respectable approximation.
Go here: Tamil Nadu House Canteen, opposite Chanakya Theatre, Chanakyapuri, call 2419 3470, Rs 200 for chicken kottu porotta.
This story was contributed by the team at brownpaperbag.in, a culture and lifestyle portal in Mumbai, Delhi & Bangalore.