Kodai is known for its fine weather and misty mountain views, but rarely do people return with stories of great meals—a pity, because it has some unique experiences to offer. Our list includes tried-and-tested favourites that serve not only great food but also a sense of place and culture that is rooted in this landscape. Some are restaurants that serve excellent Tamil fare (ghee roast! filter coffee! mutton biryani!), some are cafes that let us soak in the splendid views, and some experiences give us a chance to connect to the landscape, like picking wild berries in summer. All in all, they are the kind of recommendations that we seek as travellers and resident-lovers of this beautiful town. Dig in!
Ghee roast at Astoria Veg
Tamil Nadu takes its breakfast very seriously, and Astoria Veg is a great place to experience the crispy, fermented delights of this cuisine. Begin with a plate of medu vadas: brown on the outside and pillowy soft within. Then move on to ghee roast, a rocket-shaped dosa that’s both flavourful and shatter-crisp. And if you still have place, round things off with some savoury pongal: a khichdi of sorts, with whole black pepper, curry leaves and lots of ghee. The chutneys, podi and sambar that come as accompaniments are all excellent too, as are the idlis, puris and uttapams. Needless to say, filter coffee is a must.
Astoria Hotel, Bazaar Road, Kodaikanal (98421 46524). Open daily 7.30am to 9.30pm. Meal for two Rs 200–400.
Pasta at Passiflora Ristorante Italiano
Located near Poombarai village (18km from Kodi town), Passiflora checks all the boxes for a cafe in the hills: The decor is a dreamy mix of plants, books and handmade artwork, the walls are made of glass and the view is an always-changing montage of mist, terraced hillsides and small, multi-coloured village houses. The day’s menu is scribbled on a large blackboard and includes burgers, steak and a long list of pastas that puts the spotlight on Kodai’s cheese culture. The blue cheese penne, the prawn and chorizo spaghetti and the beef carpaccio are especially good, and the steak is decent too. All in all, a great place to visit with friends, though service can be on the slow side, so don’t arrive too hungry.
Passiflora Ristorante Italiano, Mannavanur to Kodaikanal Road, Poombarai (85909 87067). Open Wednesday–Monday 10.30am to 8pm. Meal for two Rs 600–1200.
Biryani at Mann Manam
Mann Manam is a modest, airy restaurant that serves meaty Tamil fare, such as biryani, brain fry, and naat kozhi varuval, a spicy dish of country chicken cooked in a thick masala of onions, black pepper and curry leaves. (They also do simple vegetarian meals but really, this a place for meat eaters.) All the food is cooked by women and served in terracotta cookware on banana leaves. Don’t miss the fragrant mutton biryani, made with a local short-grain rice variety called seeraga samba, or the nethili fry: tiny fish slathered in chilli powder and salt, and fried so crispy, you can eat the whole thing, bones and all. PS: They’re only open for lunch!
Mann Manam, 29, AH, Venus Cottage, Observatory Road, Kodaikanal. Open daily noon to 5 pm. Meal for two Rs 400–800.
Vegetarian thali lunch at Hilltop Woodlands
There’s no better place for a traditional Tamilian thali when in the hills than good old Hilltop, a favourite spot for many a local and tourist. Located right off the central hub of Seven Roads, this is a Kodai stalwart. Avoid the breakfast rush if you’re tired of idli-dosa but still crave a healthful ‘pure veg’ meal, and make your way over to Hilltop at lunchtime. Plentiful stir-fried vegetable poriyals feature alongside curd and curries such as tasty vatha kuzhambu, a delicious tamarind gravy made with sundakkai (small berries bursting with flavour, also called turkey berries). For dessert, a small dish of payasam, and a hot filter coffee to finish off your meal.
Hilltop Woodlands, Hilltop Towers, Club Road, Kodaikanal (04542 240413). Open daily, 8 am to 9 pm; lunch is served from 12:30 to 4:30 pm. Lunch for two Rs 500-600.
Picking wild berries
Come summer, many streets along Kodaikanal are flush with bushes of wild raspberries (Rubus occidentalis), studded with yellow, red and deep purple fruit. The berries are tart-sweet and the thrill of picking them is a rare kind of joy, especially for those of us who do our shopping in supermarkets or online.
Before foraging, acquaint yourself with this seasonal treat by looking up images of Rubus occidentalis. Notice the shape of the leaves, the stem and the size of berries when you do this. Then take a mindful walk, looking for the bushes, and confirm you’ve found the right one by asking people around—most locals are familiar with the plant. As always, when foraging, take less than 20% of the fruit, so there’s enough for other humans, birds and squirrels to enjoy. Eat your berries with cereal or chilled curds, or, best of all, pop them in your mouth one at a time. They are a delicious reminder of the generosity of nature when she has the space to bloom.
The road outside the Tamara has plenty of bushes, as does the road to Vattakanal, near the waterfall. Boxes of pre-picked berries are also available at Sahaya Mary’s fruit stall, on PT Road. Rs 400 per kilo.
Coffee at Daily Bread Pastry Corner
Pastry Corner is about nostalgia and good cheer. The bakery on Bazaar Road does old-school treats like butterscotch pastries, cream buns, natural ice-creams and white bread chutney sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Nothing fancy, but everything is made with good ingredients and really hits the spot. Pastry Corner also has the best filter coffee in town, evidenced by the perpetual crowds outside.
In the pre-Covid era, it had wrought-iron benches outside where residents would stop by for a cup, lingering long after the coffee was done. The benches are gone, and it’s strictly take-away now, but Pastry Corner remains a source of comfort for everyone, thanks to its delicious bakes, cheery service and inexpensive prices.
Daily Bread Pastry Corner, Bazaar Road, Kodaikanal (04542 240 485). Open daily 10.30am to 2.30pm and 3.30pm to 5pm. Meal for two Rs 100–200.
Picnic in a Park
A picnic in a park is a great way to soak in the beauty of Kodaikanal, especially if you make your way there early in the morning, before the crowds gather. Stock up on cheese at the Kodai Cheese Shop, get some bread from The Hoopoe Shop, maybe some fruit from the market, and take a leisurely walk to Bryant Park or Chettiar Park until you find a quiet spot. For a lunch picnic, get a take-away from Weewake’s Kitchen, which serves comfort food like burgers, butter chicken, quesadillas and lasagne with meatballs, parcelled neatly and efficiently in entirely compostable packaging. And remember, when picnicking, always leave the place cleaner than when you arrived.
The Hoopoe Shop, near Seven Roads Junction, PT Road, Kodaikanal (94803 22881). Open daily 10.30am to 7pm.
Kodai Cheese Shop, Lake Road, near BSNL Exchange, Kodaikanal (99945 43837). Open daily 9am to 5pm.
Weewake’s Kitchen, Gymkhana Road, near Sterling by the Lake (89797 89393). Open daily Wednesday–Monday 11.30am to 8.30pm. Meal for two Rs 500–1000.
Falafels at Altaf’s Cafe
Located in Vattakanal (6km from Kodai town), Altaf’s Cafe has one of the most spectacular views of the Palani region. Depending on the weather, you might see a chain of hills extending all the way to the plains, a haunting panorama of mist and mountain, or perfect blue skies with puffy clouds that belong in a Renaissance painting. The kitchen serves backpacker fare such as hummus, falafels, schnitzel and Nutella pancakes, and the ambience—basic furniture, mellow electronic music, murals on the wall—echoes cafes in Himachal and Goa. The food is good, the service is cheerful and attentive, and the prices are wallet-friendly. Ideal for small groups of friends and solo travellers, keen to do some journalling with a glass of ginger-honey-lemon by their elbows.
Altaf’s Cafe, Dolphin Nose Road, Vattakanal (94871 20846). Open Thur-Tue 11am to 8pm. Meal for two Rs 300–700.
Cocktails at the Tamara
For a swanky meal with cocktails, small plates and eucalyptus views, head to the Tamara, a luxury hotel set in a heritage structure that dates back to the 1840s. The Tamara has two restaurants: Providence and Bistro 1845, both of which serve a range of cocktails and cuisines. There are drinks that muddle gin with passion fruit, a bloody Mary with a rasam twist and a hot toddy with pepper, cinnamon and cloves that’s pitch-perfect for a cold evening by the roaring fire. The kitchen has range too: Providence serves up elaborate multi-cuisine buffets, while Bistro 1845 has an a la carte menu of pizzas, pastas and sandwiches, as well Indian fare such as Chettinad pepper fry biryani, and mutton shorba. The Indian food is better than the European fare.
The Tamara, St Mary’s Road, Kodaikanal (80710 77701). Open daily 11am-11pm. Meal for two (with cocktails) Rs 2500–4000.
Bakery treats at Iyengar Bakery and Sweets
Tamil Nadu has a thriving traditional bakery culture, characterised by sweet and savoury goodies to be enjoyed with your 4pm tea or coffee. Sample these delights at the Iyengar Bakery near Anna Salai Road (the one next to Aman Cold Storage), where the shelves are loaded with packets of murukku, thatai, chilli-smacked tapioca chips, cashew pakodas, endless varieties of mixtures and flaky puffs (or pups, as they are called) stuffed with peppery mushroom, egg or vegetable masala. They also do a wonderful selection of biscuits and cookies, from nankhatais and coconut macaroons, to more unusual treats such as a spicy ragi biscuit, flavoured with green chilli and black sesame.
Wash it all down with a cup of coffee, and indulge in a sweet treat or two—there’s plenty to choose from.
Iyengar Bakery and Sweets, Anna Salai Road, lane opposite Amman Broilers, next to Amman Cold Storage. Daily 9am-8pm. Meal for two Rs 100.