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by Siddharth Kak June 13 2024, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 7 mins, 21 secs

“I think it would be impossible to search for the best Maharashtrian Thali in Pune because Thalis are culture or ‘sanskriti‘ on a plate, so it would be unfair to judge one over the other,” says Siddharth Kak.

But I can try to bring to you what I feel is one of the most popular Maharashtrian Thalis that you can get in the city of Pune, from a restaurant that is more than 50 years old. This is Shreyas restaurant in the hotel of the same name, located in the bustling Deccan Gymkhana area of Pune.

First, let us agree on the criteria for a good Maharashtrian Thali: authentic cuisine, fresh ingredients, wholesome taste, good hygiene, and finally, an affordable family meal with unlimited helpings, right?

I was recommended Shreyas by my Maharashtrian colleague at the MIT World Peace University in Kothrud, Pune, Dr. Sanjay Kamtekar, a US-based Maharashtrian academic who is the Chief Administrative Officer there. He remembered his first visit here when he had come to Pune from the US after many years. It brought back memories of the delicious usal bhaji and masala bhat that he enjoyed at home in India when he was young, before leaving for America.

I happen to be an Advisor at MIT, and we meet often. Sanjay not only gave me the pleasure of his expert advice but also his company over a meal at Shreyas to confirm his impressions. I had the additional benefit of a running commentary over lunch from my live wire Punjabi colleague Dr. Akshay Malhotra, the dynamic Academic Director at MIT. With his jolly Punjabi appetite, he relished puris, sabzis, wadas, and chaach in the Maharashtrian Thali.

For Akshay, the dedicated chapati and puri lover, trying patra ni bhaji and pakora, or more accurately kothimbir wadi, for the first time, with second helpings, was a revelation.

It was 2 pm on a Thursday, typically the leanest day, when we reached Shreyas. However, the crowds were already overflowing, occupying every single table, every single waiting space, plus standing room, and spilling out onto the modest courtyard. Families, husbands, wives, children, and grandparents all waited eagerly but patiently, with typical traditional dignity, for their turn. I can understand why pre-booking with such an enormous waiting list is impossible.

Here is where the experience and efficiency of the restaurant staff come into action. The front office staff expertly handles the waiting list, which seems to never stop moving because the service is so fast. And the service doesn’t stop for a moment. The dozen or so servers serve scores and scores of customers in a non-stop assembly line, carrying different combinations in handheld four-cornered food trays, managing every conceivable special request, because the thali is unlimited. Not only that, the impeccable and speedy service means an amazing turnover of people and dishes. The puris, chapatis, the rice, varan, ghee, the popular patra ni sabji, usal, papads, masala bhath, drumstick curry, chaach, and even what is considered part of an innovative Maharashtrian service, golgappa ki chaat, disappear down the hatch to be replaced with equal speed.

I spoke to Komal Shah, a regular customer, about why she came here so often even though she is not herself Maharashtrian. She told me, “I live nearby and I love the hot, authentic food, particularly the chaat and golgappas as part of the thali." It seems Shreyas has discovered a popular twist, a contemporary highlight for a traditional clientele.

The system’s efficiency in handling the waiting crowds, the turnover, the superfast service, and the equity in the waiting line means that not a single complaint or fracas breaks out despite standing room only for the waiting customers. Perhaps it is also something to do with the good citizen qualities of the average Pune resident.

The skill of Shreyas’s service and turnover is a lesson in management and customer care. Like the famous Dabbawalas of Mumbai, I think the staff of Shreyas Hotel can offer valuable nuggets of management wisdom to our MBA aspirants in a university class. MIT University professors, take note.

So, is Shreyas the best Maharashtrian Thali in Pune? Perhaps determining the best thali may require more research, but it is certainly a popular thali. Depending on the day you arrive, the menu changes. One day you may have solkadhi; on another, you may have Birda, a Lima beans specialty. You may have the hit Alu chi patal bhaji and be served puran poli—it’s all the luck of the draw.

But the crowd’s appreciation from the traditional Maharashtrian families never abates. Human traffic jams occur in an ever-rising crescendo from Thursday to Saturday, with perhaps 500 to 600 people at every meal.

Sanjay Kamtekar relished the patra ni bhaji, usal, puri, dahi wada, and ended with masala bhath. Akshay Malhotra stopped short of the rice but enjoyed repeats of various kinds of puris with different sabjis and downed them with chaach and, of course, the chaat. Meanwhile, I loved the chapatis, wadas, fresh green chillies with chaach, the dahi vada, and bharali wangi (stuffed brinjals), and particularly the delicious varan bhat at the end with an extra dollop of ghee.

But is this the best and most affordable Maharashtrian thali in Pune? I am not sure of the former, but I can say with confidence that it is certainly the latter. Despite its popularity, or perhaps because of it, the Maharashtrian Thali at Shreyas is about Rs 360+, cheaper than other Maharashtrian thalis elsewhere at popular restaurants like Shabri, where it is about Rs 500+.

A drawback is that no sweet dish is included in the Maharashtrian Thali, although masala pan is a given. Perhaps the cost-conscious traditional Maharashtrian customers like this, along with the Golgappa chaat, which is a new item for them. Not only that, the overall focus is on the unlimited, no-frills Maharashtrian thali. Economy is important to austere Maharashtrian families.

Overall, I found the food a bit sweet, but the third-generation owner, Shweta Chitale, assured me that this was the most authentic thali based on recipes written by her ancestors three generations earlier. As I spoke to her, I remembered that I had visited this hotel earlier, and even my Surabhi team (a long-running series I produced that explored Indian culture for many years) had stayed here, perhaps 30 years ago. In those days, it was a quiet, picturesque lane with no milling crowds, clean and hygienic, and its entrance shaded with trees.

There was so much joyful conversation, and the food came so fast, that we were full before we realized it. We remembered that we had missed out on the Aam Ras only when we exited the crowded restaurant and discovered the owner, Shweta Chitale, starting her scooter to leave in the small courtyard outside. She is as humble and simple as her clientele. No fancy car, just a scooter. She truthfully declares that she doesn’t cook herself at the restaurant, only at home. Some of the recipes served in her restaurant were written by her grandfather and translated by the cooks of that time. “Our most popular dish,” Shweta says enthusiastically, “is the Alu chi Patal Bhaji (a green potato curry with a thin colocasia gravy). That and Aamras. Hope you had some?” Unfortunately, no. Today was not the day for the Alu chi Patal Bhaji, nor was Aamras being served. And the next day I was leaving Pune. Her embarrassed manager apologized.

Both promised us Aamras if we came back in the season and guaranteed us their most popular dish, Alu chi Patal Bhaji. If these items were served today, the crowds arguably would have been unmanageable!

In such simple things is manifested true joy. Zaikak says, “Like Indigo Airlines in the air, the unlimited Maharashtrian Thali of Pune is a best seller on the ground. It has a single-minded focus on economy, service, hygiene, courtesy, taste, and more economy. And like Indigo unveiling a limited business class service, it seems the chaat items are adding concrete value to the unlimited experience."

Zaikak adds quizzically, “How do you determine the best of anything? It is subjective. What many people like the most eventually becomes the best. For example, the worst film for some, when patronized by many, becomes the best over the years. You know what I mean?!”

Zaikak concludes, “For the thousands that visit Shreyas every week, and have been doing so for more than 50 years, it is the best Maharashtrian Thali. Join the queue and give your verdict.”

My verdict: 7 1/2 out of 10. On my part, Shweta, I am looking forward to the Alu chi Patal Bhaji and Aamras on my next visit to top the meal and make it 9 out of 10!

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.