In 2007, a friend of mine suggested we meet for breakfast. I was fairly new in town at the time, and lived around 25 km away from the place he had suggested – Vaishali.
This was the era of 2G internet, with no Olas and Ubers where I could feed in the location without having to worry about the directions. I asked my friend to give me a landmark or any other details to guide the auto wala, but he insisted, “Just say you need to go to Vaishali, and he’ll drop you. Everyone in Pune knows the place.”
And so I hired an autorickshaw, doubtfully giving the name to the driver. Without further questions, and 45 minutes later, I was standing outside what I now know is the city’s most iconic restaurant. This eatery, which is always brimming with a bustling crowd, has become one of my favourite places to dine in the city.
Over the last 14 years, I’ve come to be known as a loyal customer, and the forever-busy staff always pause to give a friendly nod whenever I visit the place. So imagine my disappointment in realising that I had no clue about the humble beginnings of this landmark until the demise of its founder, Jagannath Shetty.
On December 19 this year, the 89-year-old breathed his last at Prayag Hospital in Deccan, after a prolonged age-related illness. The man who gave the city what is arguably its most loved restaurant, began his journey when he was only 13 years old.
Building a food empire
Jagannath was born on 8 October 1932 in Bailur in Karnataka’s Udupi district. “When he was 13 years old, he left Bailur with his uncle Shridhar, and arrived in Mumbai. Here, he worked under his uncle for a salary of Rs 3 per month,” says Ganesh Shetty, Jagannath’s brother-in-law, in conversation with The Better India.
In 1949, the duo moved to Pune and opened two restaurants, Madras Cafe and Cafe Madras, both located on Fergusson College (FC) road.
“Jagannath was 17 years old and worked almost 19 hours a day. However, the sudden death of his uncle due to an accident put the responsibility of running the business on him,” he says. Sometime later, he married his uncle’s daughter Shakuntala.
Jagannath toiled for 20 years to shape Vaishali and Roopali, another one of his restaurants, into the iconic names we know today. “Cafe Madras was re-coined Vaishali, while Madras Cafe became Roopali. Apart from the name, he renovated the restaurants to give them a fresh, modern look. From a simple South Indian food place, these became restaurants with welcoming interiors,” he says.
Apart from the conventional table-chair indoor settings, Jagannath also gave both restaurants a quaint backyard full of greenery, for which customers sometimes wait up to 30-45 minutes.
He also tweaked the sambar recipe, making it suitable for the Puneri palate. “The basic sambar recipe was the same, but now had a Maharashtrian twist that would be more acceptable to the locals,” says Ganesh.
Jagannath also brewed a unique blend of filter coffee, Ganesh notes, adding that while traditional varieties offered by competitors had 80% coffee and 20% chicory, Jagannath’s version had the proportions tweaked to offer a different flavour altogether. “The same blend of filter coffee is served to date, and is hugely popular among customers across all ages,” he says.
This new avatar, in addition to new items on the menu, helped the popularity of the restaurants to skyrocket. And as a variety of customers came in, demands for different food items increased as well. Jagannath catered to these evolving tastes, but not entirely, Ganesh notes.
“My uncle introduced bhel, sev puri dahi puri (SPDP) and dahi wada, but did not offer pani puri. He offered sandwiches and pizza as well. But he was against adding Punjabi dishes or pav bhajis to the menu, because he wanted the south Indian dishes to dominate the menu,” the nephew explains.
A restaurant loved by generations
Today, Vaishali sees hundreds of customers every day – they start trickling in as early as 7 am, and the crowd sustains till late evening. Their filter coffee, Mysore masala dosa, idlis and mouthwatering vegetable cutlets are a must-have.
Over the years, the restaurant has gained even more popularity due to an increased presence of college students from the neighbouring Fergusson College, Brihan Maharashtra College of Commerce (BMCC) and Modern college.
“Some students went on to become famous in their fields, and helped Vaishali become a brand for the youth,” Ganesh says. The eatery’s proximity to Congress Bhavan has also invited the likes of Sharad Pawar, Raj Thackeray and others.
Lal Narang, a retired RBI officer and frequenter at the restaurant, recalls, “The first time I visited Vaishali was in 1980. It was a small place without the lawn, but was bustling with joyful youngsters.”
The retiree says that since his first visit, he has kept coming back to Vaishali because the food’s taste and quality have remained unchanged over the years. “It was a very leisurely place for senior citizens who stopped by for their morning cuppa after a jog or a game of badminton, as well as for college students who bunked classes to hang out with their friends. It has become very crowded now,” the 79-year-old notes.
Not a week goes by where he doesn’t order his favourite idli sambar from Vaishali through Zomato. “I can’t travel because of my old age, but make sure not to miss out on the taste. At times I order an extra sambar to have it with rice,” he says.
Meanwhile, Ganesh says that Jagannath, besides being a celebrity in the hospitality industry, also deeply cared about social issues, such as dowry. “He conferred gold medals to couples who marry without accepting dowry. It is an annual event to discourage the practice. He has also given generous donations to his school back home, and other development works in his native town,” Ganesh says, adding that his uncle also donated Rs 1 crore for the Chief Minister’s COVID relief fund.
The restaurant is well caught up with changing times and has decided to open new outlets across the city.
Ganesh says, “Some of our customers travel 30 km or more from the far end of the city. We have only one restaurant to cater to all of the city’s population. Jagannath’s daughter Nikita has recently entered the business, and the young blood has decided to make the services available across the city.”
As we conclude our conversation, Ganesh emphasises that even as the legend who changed Pune’s culinary landscape has passed, his restaurant will continue to provide its best food services for generations to come.
Edited by Divya Sethu