The city has a dearth of independent fine-dining options, with almost all still remaining cloistered in the city's five-star hotels; of these the Great Kabab Factory at the Hotel Radisson draws a very vocal and loyal local following, despite it's inconvenient location near the airport. The 'Factory' offers a fixed menu featuring five melt-in-the-mouth kebabs (two chicken, two mutton, one fish), served with a delicious selection of specialty breads; it's challenging but try to leave space for the dal and choice of biryanis that follow.
Fine dining aside, we'd like to encourage you to experience the delicious and varied flavors of South India surrounded by Chennaites; better still, do so with your hands; other than heading for a Saravana Bavan outlet, there is the slightly more salubrious Woodlands Hotel option -- both Chennai institutions. South Indian restaurants in Chennai are usually vegetarian; if you need your protein, opt for a Chettinad restaurant, where meats are coated in intense spices. Aside from the atmospheric Raintree, there's Karaikudi: the original is at 84 Radhakrishna Salai (tel. 044/2491-0900) but there are now quite a few branches all over the city. It's by no means fine dining (for that Raintree is the ticket) but the food is good. Try the special Chettiar chicken pepper roast with appams, the Kadia (quail roast), or the Varuval (fried pigeon) and unbelievably good value: an average meal here will run you a mere Rs 100 to Rs 150 per person!
If you're bored with South Indian food, you'll also find many of the world's tastes well represented in the city. If you're mood is for the richer sauces of North India, Dhaba Express on Cenotaph Road in Anna Nagar is one of the best; offering good hearty, reasonably authentic Punjabi food (signature dishes include the sarson-da-saag and makke-di-roti), and an informal atmosphere, with alfresco table seating on "authentic" charpoys (woven beds); prices are better than the other highly rated North Indian restaurant, Copper Chimney, located on Cathedral Road (the benefit of heading to Copper Chimney is it's proximity to Zarra, a Spanish-style tapas bar that is a cool place to have a drink and people-watch before or after dinner). Opposite Dhaba Express is Cornucopia, serving a reasonable menu of European/Southeast Asian-style food, but if you're looking for a total break from the East, head for Bella Ciao (4 Shree Krishna Enclave, off Water Land Dr., Kottivakkam Beach; tel. 044/2451-1130), run by an Italian couple. It's a great venue -- the garden of an old converted house near the beach, with outdoor seating; while it's billed as the best Italian joint in town, this is a very relative recommendation. If you're downtown, the new Bella Ciao venue at 140 Nungambakkam High Rd. may suit you better; it's also alfresco (this time on a rooftop), and serves the same menu tel. 044/2833-0085).
The densest concentration of restaurants is on and around TTK Road; of these one of the best is Lemon Tree, the elegant Chinese restaurant located in the basement of the Raintree hotel, and serving a superb if pricy menu. Raintree also has a small roof top restaurant, Above Sea Level, which serves great views of the city along with average but tasty fare.
Finally, Chennai also has several shop-and-unwind stops worth considering as lunch destinations. Amethyst (Jeypore Colony, Gopalapuram; tel. 044/2835-1627), is set in a delightful old colonial bungalow where you can choose to sit indoors or outdoors under the shade of huge, century-old trees, sipping a decent cappuccino, after browsing for designer clothing in Western designs and Indian fabrics. Chamiers (Chamiers Rd./Muthuramalinga Rd., across from ITC Park Sheraton; tel. 044/2431-1495), situated in a charming bungalow, offers food similar to that at Amethyst: juices, and fresh salads and sandwiches served in the shade of an almond tree. It's attached to Anokhi, the leading Jaipur design store, where you can buy Western-style clothes designed in traditional India hand-block-print fabric. Both Moca Café and Chamiers (and the stores) are open every day of the week.
Tip: There is now a Metro Plus Food Guide available at bookstores, reviewing most of the major restaurants of Chennai, but we tend to follow the excellent advice of local foodie Rahul Basul; for this latest critique on the Chennai dining scene, visit www.imsc.res.in/Madras/eogc.html.
Eating with Your Hands
A superb and authentic introduction to South Indian cuisine is a meal at an outlet of Hotel Saravana Bhavan, where waiters wander around ladling the contents of huge pots onto your banana leaf (the one near the Egmore station may be most convenient, or the one on Khader Nawaz Khan Rd., which many locals rate best). We recommend that you sit in the large hall where the locals eat with their hands (there is usually a small, drab air-conditioned room where "refined" Indians and foreigners eat the same food with cutlery and plates -- not nearly as much fun, and pricier to boot). It can be a bit intimidating for first-timers to dig in with fingers for tools, given that many of the dishes are quite liquid, but use the rice as a mop and try a variety of taste combinations -- all hugely delicious; remember to use your right hand only, and wash at the clearly visible basins before and after your meal. If you find this daunting, or you're simply not sure how to proceed with the many courses that are piled onto your banana leaf (remember to rinse this with the water that's on the table), ask your driver (assuming you have one) to join you for lunch and follow his lead. Ask what each spoonful is, and by the end of your meal you'll have taken a crash course in South Indian food. It's also incredible value: The special Tamil Nadu thali is an assortment of 23 items for around Rs 100. If that much food seems overwhelming, order a mini lunch (an assortment of tasty items, including the "definitive taste" of Sambar, a gravy that is mopped up with a variety of pancakes) and a traditional South Indian coffee.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.