Chennai’s first restaurant chain
Eating out was a strict no-no in conservative Madras for a very long time. The Udupi hotels were to change this scenario and the man who began it all was K Krishna Rao.
Financial circumstances drove Krishna Rao to Madras very early in life. Here he worked as a cleaner, a waiter and a flour-grinder in the busy George Town area in various eateries. His diligence was noticed and his employer put him in independent charge of a branch. Krishna Rao managed it successfully and soon his thoughts turned to running a restaurant of his own. His first venture in that direction was the Udupi Sri Krishna Vilas set up in 1926/27 on Mount Road.
The Rajah of Ramnad, Shanmukha Rajeswara Naganatha Sethupati, owned Woodlands, a fine bungalow set amidst 16 ½ acres of parkland in Royapettah. This was purchased in 1937 by Muni Venkatappa, a building contractor with a view to convert it into a hotel. He was however unsuccessful and gave it on lease in 1938 to Krishna Rao who was by then well known as a restaurateur. Krishna Rao named it the Woodlands Hotel. It had 45 rooms for occupation at a rent of Rs 5/ a day. Krishna Rao would himself solicit guests by waiting at the Central Station!
Krishna Rao convinced the Music Academy, which then had its office opposite the hotel, to conduct its 1938 annual conference in Woodlands. This ensured that the hotel received good patronage. It also began the canteen tradition of the December Music Season when the food offered is as important as the music.
Interestingly, during the Second World War, a light plane crashed in the garden! In 1947, Rajaji celebrated independence by giving a tea party here. The lease of the property ran out in the late 1940s and Krishna Rao had to move. He purchased The Laurels on Edward Elliots (present day Radhakrishnan) Road, belonging to industrialist Murugappa Chettiar and set up the New Woodlands Hotel there in 1952. This later became a successful world-wide chain. In 1962, Krishna Rao set up the Woodlands Drive-In in the Agri Horticultural Society Gardens on Cathedral Road. This closed recently.
The old Woodlands Hotel in Royapettah survives, though low profile and overshadowed by a theatre of the same name. It is a heritage structure with some wonderful art-deco furniture in it, all worthy of conservation.