Vishalla – The Great Thali
‘So many celebrities have visited our restaurant over the years and today we have you too’, his eyes twinkling, 82 year old Surendra Patel ji welcomes me into his office which is in the premises of his famous rustic style Gujarati restaurant, Vishalla in the city of Ahmedabad, India.
Responding with an equally jocular – ‘I believe everyone is equal’, I find myself at the start of a very interesting conversation with this great person who has created and maintained this magnum opus of a restaurant for an impressive 42 years.
‘I agree. Here there is no VIP system. Everyone follows the same discipline and even my wife and I do not break the queue when there is a rush for meals’, says Patel ji. This is a man of principles, a Gandhian and a custodian of the environment and I am honored to be able to have this brief time with him.
My being here was fortuitous, since I happened to be an ‘Online discovery’ by Foram Thakore, while I was on a travel blogging assignment to a few of Gujarat’s heritage properties. Foram who is an artist and closely associated with Vishalla’s art gallery, saw my work on Facebook and sent me a message when she found that I was in the vicinity of Ahmedabad.
Having kept my last day free for any possible shopping or other personal work, I could manage to accept her rather determined invitation 😀 and this turned out to be one of the best hastily arranged experiences of my life.
So sit around the low wooden tables and join me in partaking of their huge spread, as I take you through the story of Vishalla.
It is no secret that the people of Gujarat love their food and their hospitality is likewise legendary. Ahmedabad, is a major city in this state and it dishes up a mind boggling array of cuisines that range from street food to global fare to their most prized traditional Gujarati thali (large platter), which not just visitors but even the locals do not ever seem to tire of.
The city certainly boasts of many popular and famed eateries, of which Vishalla is one of the oldest. A meal is not just a routine dining experience here but an entire entertainment package that envelops you with its charm and feeds not just your palate but also your senses.
Revel in its endearing rusticity and old fashioned traditional cuisine and delight in the decor and aura of the little model village that they have created right in the middle of the bustling city.
Meet the owner –
Vishalla was created in 1978 by Surendra Patel ji, one of Gujarat’s most well known architects and interior designers, whose studies in Human Environment led him to believe that spending time in the outdoors was conducive to good health and general well being. Thus was born Vishalla, a space where he intended the urban population to experience the joys of traditional life in the midst of nature.
Today at the age of 82, Patel ji is as bright and sprightly as ever, a testimony to his lifestyle and eating habits, which he has made available to all those who dine at his restaurant.
Passionate to the point of getting emotional, he expresses his desire to continue this tradition for as long as God permits him.
Apart from running this place consistently since the very beginning without compromising on his principles and quality, he also undertakes restorations of old temples and is an artist of great repute himself.
Full of energy and ideas, he has also established an astounding utensil museum and an art gallery and is in currently in the process of putting together a chair museum on the premises.
About the restaurant –
Patel ji is a devotee of Swaminarayan, one of whose disciples wrote a book with a mention of a location called Bhadri Vishal in the Himayalas. This is a place where disciples congregate to pray and Vishalla was named after it. Vishal also means large and quite embodies the huge space that it occupies and grand thali that it offers.
Keeping things as native as possible, the theme is eco friendly with Sal leaf plates, in-house fabricated kulhads (earthen glasses), ash instead of soap to wash hands, mud flooring, low wooden tables, ground seating, bamboo walls, absence of electronic aids like mikes and speakers for entertainment, natural light in the daytime, lanterns at night and other such natural elements.
The only recent compromise is the presence of cooler fans in the shacks to beat the intolerable heat of the summers.
Taking root from a humble beginning with just a couple of tents, Vishalla is now a sprawling 5 acre mini village that can seat 300 people and has seen the likes of celebrities like Amitabh Bachan, Sachin Tendulkar, the late Indira Gandhi, the late Atal Behari Vajpayee and so on.
Apart from the dining area, the establishment also encompasses an organic garden, compost pits, a small dairy farm, a pottery kiln, a stunning utensil museum, a party area, an art gallery and an upcoming chair museum.
Local artisans are also given some space to set up their shops in the evening so that they can sell their handicrafts.
The village ambience begins right at the main gate where a bullock cart laden with pots greets the guest. Sprays of water cool you as you walk down the long track to the entrance.
The name of the restaurant is displayed via an interesting collage that is composed of pictures of various locations in the premises.
The reception counter has the menu for the day displayed in Gujarati on a large backboard. Those who need the English version, fortunately also have access to a printed booklet.
A plethora of rustic elements like old chests, pots, bullock carts, a large friendly looking scarecrow, swings etc dot the entire space.
There are 4 temples on the premises and also a large kitchen where the food is cooked afresh at every meal. This is open to any guest who wants to take a look inside.
The seating area is scattered below the trees and consists of clusters of shacks, some of which have Charpoys (traditional woven beds), some low tables for ground seating and also a few tables and chairs for those who prefer regular seats.
The snacking area is usually at the charpoys near the entrance.
The main seating area for meals and thali is within the shacks that are further inside where there is ground seating at the low wooden tables.
A dhinchanyu or a knee support which is the red dumbbell like contraption, is also provided to make the posture comfortable.
There is a dedicated area for entertainment where there are performances of puppetry, singing and other folk dances every evening.
Swings and a children’s play area keep adults and children occupied.
At night 350 lanterns are lit across the place and there is no usage of artificial lighting.
Utensil museum – Vechaar
The acronym Vechaar stands for Vishalla Environmental Center for Heritage of Art, Architecture and Research.
This museum was set up in 1981 with the support of Mr. Jyontindra Jain, a well known anthropologist and the exhibits are the single handed collection of Patel ji over several years.
Today it boasts of 4500 vessels and other household articles that range from 100 years of age to even 1000 year old items and is said to be the largest of its kind in the world.
The items are made from materials like brass, bronze, silver, gold, wood, terracotta etc and span various utilities ranging from large storage vats for grain and oil, pots, pitchers, plates, tumblers, milking vessels, ladles, serving ware, spittoons, water carriers, flasks, betel nut crackers, scroll holders, pen cases, inkwells, betel leaf box, giant hairpins that double up as weapons :-D, ceremonial lamps, puja ware, make up boxes, hookahs, giant locks etc, all fabricated with skill and intelligence, in an era where there was no modern technology to assist.
Bal Bahadur who hails from Nepal is the guide here and has worked here for 11 years. He ably takes you through its various sections, explaining all the interesting aspects of the items and even demonstrating the carrying of pots and other implements. The fascinating and entertaining session takes about 30 minutes or more, depending on the visitor’s level of interest.
The museum is open from 3 pm to 10:30 pm and is closed on Mondays.
The charge for the entry of an adult is Rs 30 and for children aged from 3 to 11 years is Rs 10. The ticket price for Foreigners is Rs 100 per person.
Photography is charged an additional Rs 100 and videography, Rs 500.
Art Gallery –
In order to encourage young, upcoming artists and provide a platform to exhibit art works, Patel ji has also established an art gallery on the premises.
The dining experience –
Guests are greeted with a tikka on the forehead and a red rose as they enter.
Snacks from an a la carte menu are served through the day and the snacking area is usually at the charpoys near the entrance.
Dinner time has the biggest crowds and the restaurant being very popular, it is not uncommon to have long queues of people waiting to be seated.
Depending on availability, guests are seated in their area of choice or made to wait with a token number in the entertainment area, where the live puppet shows, singing and other folk dances are performed.
Considering the act of serving guests to be a divine one, the staff bathes and performs pooja before every meal and this process is followed rigidly everyday.
The serving ware is gorgeously traditional and the plates, cups etc are all bio degradable. The thali is loaded by a host of servers who appear seamlessly one after the other.
The cuisine is unmistakably traditional Gujarati and is fresh, nutritious, flavorful and healthy. The vast snacks menu offers various items like dhokla, patra, khandvi, handwo etc.
Do not miss the gloriously refreshing sugarcane juice and other fresh juices from the juice stall which is open through the day.
At lunch, set meals like puri shaak, rotis shaak, khichdi kadi and other small eats are served.
The star of the show of course, is the massive Gujarati thali that is served only in the night time. Vishalla translates to large and this platter certainly is an embodiment of the name. The meal begins with a fresh juice and buttermilk in earthen ware cups. This is followed by a tantalizing variety of appetizers that are served in Sal leaf donas (bowls) that include fresh vegetable salads, papads, exciting chutneys, jaggery, boiled gram and many such interesting elements.
The main meal is served on a large Sal leaf plate and the servers appear in a steady stream, dishing out local whole grain breads like bajri na rotla, makai na rotla, bhakhri and thepla, with a plump, generous pot of fresh white home made butter that they insist you should eat. 2 kinds of farsan (starters), 3 types of vegetable dishes, dals, kadi and other such items follow, along with a delicious khichdi that is made even more delightful with liberal splashes of ghee. 2 kinds of local sweets and an ice cream finally push you over into the realm of gluttony after which you can somnolently stumble over to one of the charpoys and collapse into a food coma.
And if that is not enough, you can also buy their take away snacks and chutneys.
My meal –
As mentioned, I was a surprise find by Foram 😀 and since it was a largely unplanned visit, I had already booked myself on the night flight out.
Hence I only had time to join them at lunch but they very kindly arranged for me to have the thali experience, minus the lights of the night and the entertainment of course. But then, the food is the highlight and that is what I was delighted to capture.
After appeasing my camera with several photographs and also getting my picture taken, with my attire coincidentally matching that of the servers :-D, I sat down to enjoy tiny portions of the vast meal.
Make sure to permit them to serve exactly what you can eat, to avoid wastage. My experiences with thalis always include an en guard posture where I am on high alert to make sure that they do not enthusiastically inundate my plate with more than what I can handle 😀
The various chutneys, salads, boiled nuts, jaggery etc were delicious and I could have made a meal just out of those. However, the main course beckoned enticingly and I ploughed through the bajri na rotla, makai na rotla, bhakhri and thepla, guiltily smearing butter that was too hard (or soft) to resist. The farsans for the day included a delicious Bottle gourd dhokla which I liked so much that I also bought a portion to take home on the flight.
A black channa curry, potato curry, khichdi, kadi, ivy gourd fry, khichdi etc were a part of the main course.
Sukdi and jalebi were the sweets on my plate, which I ate with super human effort because I was so stuffed. I refused the ice cream due to a bad throat but did manage a couple of glasses of absolutely glorious sugarcane juice that I can never say no to.
Vishalla offers a grand experience that one should not miss if ever in Ahmedabad and this experience was certainly a wonderful and memorable way to end my stay this time in Gujarat.
Vishalla, Opposite APMC Market, Vishalla Circle, Ahmedabad 380055, Gujarat, India
Phone – +91 79 26602422
Timings – Snacks – 11 am – 11 pm, Lunch – 11 am – 3 pm, Dinner – 7.30 pm – 11 pm
Open 7 days a week
Pure vegetarian and satvik
Alcohol – not available
Average Meal for two – Rs 1400/-
Parking – Available
Disclosure – My visit was on invite. The opinions expressed are my own.
March 4th, 2020