Varanasi is not known for its culinary finesse as far as the westerner's palate goes but Indians feel quite the contrary and eating here is almost as ritualistic as dipping oneself in the Ganga. Since many of these eats are catered essentially by street vendors or hole-in-the-wall establishments, we choose not to make any specific suggestions, keeping in mind the average Indian's strong immunity system. However, for the bold and adventurous, throw aside all caution and follow the crowds: in the mornings, you'll find the populace indulging enthusiastically (almost as if it's their first even though they do this on a daily basis) in what is called alu kachori (fried puff pastry or bread served with spicy potato curry). In the thick of the afternoon when all you want to do is faint, down a massive glass of badaam thandai -- almond-flavored sweet milk. In the evening ask your hotel for guidance to the closest and best chaat shop where you can have just about anything on the menu -- try the curd-based items as they mitigate the accompanying fiery chilies to some extent. After this, you can make a dash for any confectioner's shop which sells rabari -- thickened sweet milk which you eat with a spoon instead of gulping it. And although you need to be bolder and more adventurous than normal for the next one, it is a trademark of a visit to Varanasi -- the famous Banarasi paan (a leaf of a particular plant with a whole assortment of betel nuts and various other ingredients made in less than 20 sec.; insist they put no tobacco in it). On the safer side of the culinary fence, Varanasi's best and smartest restaurant is Varuna (tel. 0542/250-3001; only dinner), in the Taj Ganges hotel, which features a vast menu of Indian specialties (illustrated with chilies to indicate those that are superstrength), a comfortable air-conditioned interior, and helpful service. For the works, served on a traditional Varanasi silver platter, order the Satvik Thali (Rs 500). This is very much a hotel restaurant, and you may not be in the Cantonment area at lunchtime. The Taj's Chowk restaurant does dinner buffet spreads that are popular with foreign tour groups, and at Rs 575, the buffets offer very good value.
For a hygienic meal while exploring the Old City, your options are limited. Varanasi caters rather haphazardly to the budget Western traveler, with a split focus on affordability and cleanliness, presumably implied by the involvement of foreign management. If you want authentic Indian food, we recommend calling ahead to find out about the possibility of a meal at either Dolphin restaurant at Rashmi Guest House or Ganges View Guesthouse or head for the old stalwart Keshari. There's the rather iconic Bread of Life Bakery & Restaurant (B3/322 Shivala), established by James and Monika Hetherington, an American interior designer and a German flight attendant. The decor is very sterile (white-vinyl-top tables), and staff borders on comatose, but you can enjoy wholesome Western dishes and freshly baked breads and muffins knowing that you are making a positive contribution -- all profits from the bakery and the silk shop above (which, incidentally, has a good selection of scarves and linen made by local weavers) go to local charities, including the Mother Teresa Hospice. Daily specials include steaming-hot vegetable moussaka, chickpea goulash, ratatouille, and warm Portuguese salad. Hot dishes take awhile to arrive, so you can be certain that everything is freshly prepared and, in a city known for food-related mishaps, that hygiene is a priority Sadly, there is talk of shutting, but nothing had been decided at press time. Another favorite is the Brown Bread Bakery, conveniently located on Dashaswamedh Ghat (D5/17, Tripura Bhairavi; tel. 93-3546-5176 or 0542/240-3566). It's got a mouthwatering selection of breads, rolls, and pastries, as well as pizzas and a variety of Tibetan fare -- this could save the day if you haven't taken to the city's traditional cuisine. You could also consider laid-back Lotus Lounge (D14/27, Mansarowar Ghat; tel. 98-3856-7717), an open-air eatery on the ghats, benefiting from a bird's-eye view of the Ganges. Perfect for all-day chilling (lounge on floor cushions or sit at tables set with candles at night), the space is lorded over by a serene-looking Buddha mural and operated by an Indo-German couple, Martina and Atul, who vary the menu seasonally. Count on fresh ingredients and wide-ranging international choices: gazpacho (made with ginger), red Thai curry, impressive ravioli, and wonderful Tibetan-style momos (dumplings). While meat is generally an absolute no-no anywhere near the river, here you can even order fresh chicken. It's open September through mid-May.
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.