Cheap Eats - Udipi Cafe: New location, same great food

The story behind the unlikely Indian restaurant empire

Tuesday June 2, 2009 09:00 am EDT

You can frequent a restaurant for years and never know its story. Take Udipi Café (1707 Church St., Decatur, 404-325-1933, www.udipicafeusa.com), for instance. I’d always thought the restaurant was some corporate chain until revisiting to explore the new location. But I’m getting ahead of myself. …

Back in April, I received a handful of frantic e-mails from readers reporting that the restaurant had closed. But it hadn’t. The owner, Suresh Sheregar, relocated two minutes away to resolve the nightmarish parking situation that had deterred so many would-be customers for years. Now the restaurant has plenty of parking and a fresh look. But that’s not the only news. Udipi opened a second Atlanta location in Duluth about a year ago, which is smaller, but a welcome option for OTP folks craving vegetarian South Indian fare. December brought Moksha, an upscale non-vegetarian option in Roswell featuring a comprehensive menu of specialties from every state in the sub-continent. And Bay Leaves — a buffet-only spot with both vegetarian and meat dishes — will open in the old Decatur Udipi space sometime next month.

As impressive as Sheregar’s span of Atlanta’s restaurants is, the four establishments are just a small part of the big picture. After speaking with Sheregar, I learned the restaurant is not a traditional chain, but a complete family affair. Sheregar started working in the restaurants of Mumbai to support himself after his father passed away when he was a teenager. He eventually found a way to immigrate to the States and ended up in New York working in restaurants. In the spirit of the American dream, Sheregar decided to open his own place specializing in South Indian vegetarian fare in Boston. But that obviously wasn’t the end of his journey. He made the shrewd decision to target the communities near Hindu temples in other cities, and the amassed locations — Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Orlando, just to name a few — started to resemble an unlikely Indian restaurant empire. But Sheregar didn’t keep the success to himself. As his brothers, cousins, uncles and other family members trickled over from India, they’d all go to work in Sheregar’s establishments. After some time, Sheregar would sell the restaurant to the respective family member and continue onward with his expansion. Today, there are 15 restaurants all over the country run by various members of the family. And by the looks of Sheregar’s past, he shows no sign of stopping.

With so many restaurants, the natural presumption is that the quality must suffer. But Udipi’s new Decatur location is proof positive that expansion doesn’t equal dilution. All of the dishes — from Mumbai chaat (street food snacks) to crispy cylinders of lacey dosai (a crispy crepe filled with various fillings) to the Indo-Chinese Gobi Manchurian (fried cauliflower in a slick and slightly sweet sauce) — possess the same soul-satisfying essence they did at the original location.

Udipi’s consistently spot-on food in a wide-range of textures and flavors used to be my only reason for going. But the fascinating story behind Sheregar’s journey from teenage restaurant worker in Mumbai to family-centric Indian restaurant mogul has only made me a more loyal customer.

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