Having been a semi-regular at the Drive-In for the past 20+ years, I visited Woodlands last summer without knowing that it might (its not closed for sure) be the last of my visits. However, I knew one thing clearly - they weren't running a business. That was just an excuse to put up a joint, the kind which cannot exist anywhere but Madras. The compound walls of Woodlands Drive-In enclose a huge space full of trees and is located in what can be easily called as the center of the city. The restaurant is located in a small corner of this huge place. The place is dirty and the waiters are older than your grand parents. Occasionally when the cook feels like it he would give you a great Masala Dosai. He can cook magic but will not because he has done it all before and impressed the people he needed to. So for the most part you get good food that is few notches below awesome. But people don't care. They still come. This place is an anomaly.
When you enter this compound you enter a different world. A world that has no resemblance to the life outside the compound. Regardless of whether you sit inside the restaurant or order food from your car - you should know this. Things take time inside this world. You cannot hurry the waiter. He will patiently listen to you say "please hurry it up" and quitely walk to the nearby table pick up a used plate and go away. But that has no operational impact. The waiter has seen everything. He knows most of the customers by name, knows them well and probably even knows what they might order. You don't rush the waiter or complain about the service or the ambiance. He has served your father and grandfather. He has served mistresses, minors, majors, mamas and maamis. The people they want to serve will come regardless. If you are not the drive-in type - you are just an insignificant little Rs 27.75 that they don't care about. Food is just an excuse to be there. Just the way the restaurant is an excuse for those people to be there. The whole point of drive-in is not driving in or eating. It is just being there.
This unique package has been one of the most unchanging aspects of Madras. I saw a photograph I took there in 1986 and another one I took in 2005 the place hasn't changed a bit. Woodlands is the ultimate 80s middle-class man's evening destination. My uncle keeps saying that the drive-in is a 70s and 80s place. He disallows the 90s folks from entering this private nostalgia club. For employees of State Bank, Union Bank or one of the thousands of private industries around Madras that pays a pittance, for the man who own a Bajaj Super/Chetak scooter, has 2 children (one in front and one sitting between the wife and him) - the dream destination in the 80s for Sunday evening was Woodlands Drive-In. I first visited Woodlands when I was a Mylapore resident. Drive-In seemed like this cool place where the men who had too much hair above their ears (and the hair sort of bushed up near the ear and overflowed beyond it) and who wore in bell-bottom pants hung out. The name "Drive-In" suggested that you could do a little bit more in this restaurant, which you could not do in any other restaurant. It was sort-of true. Drive-In meant that food was also served in the Parking lot and you could eat in the confines of your car.
P.B Srinivas and Co - while regulars at the place don't define the place. However, as they pose for the odd photograph when requested for by fans they know what makes that place. Young men in their 20s and 30s come there to take a break from the daily travails of life. The few moments they spend under the tree or in the parking stand is a brief amnesia from their world. They do discuss the outside world here. If you ask the trees in that place it will tell you millions of giga bytes full of stories. Of love, life, frustration, joy, accomplishment, anxiety, travel, nostalgia, depression and many other 'sions' the psychologists haven't thought of. That is why the term 'restaurant' is such a misfit for this place, where the key point is not food but to get away from it all.
Sometimes a person's entire order is 1 coffee. He just sits there and stares at nothing for what seems an eternity. It almost seems like he grew a beard between the small sips of coffee he takes. What is more beautiful is that the waiter does not hurry the customer. If this were a *restaurant* like HSB the customer would have been kicked out. This is why drive-in existed. Getting spaced-out was the essence of the place. Men with thick moustaches, well-oiled hair and bell-bottom pants did not have bars, pubs, discos, king fisher (well you can factor out the few who went to the Diplomat bar near Luz signal) and bowling alleys. They had drive-in to lean on and cope with life. And in its own way it can never be replaced.