Saravana Bhavan is saravan bhavan because of its sambhar. Everything else in HSB takes a back seat. I had Sambhar Vadai and Masala Dosai here in Atlanta and I can assure you Ladies and Gendilman, the sambhar had the HSB stamp on it. The only perplexing thing in this HSB was that the owner, waiter and everybody else spoke (only) in Hindi. The menu had North Indian spellings for Vadai and Dosai (they were calling it Vada and Dosa). Completely Un-Saravana Bhavan like. Maybe they thought the thamizhs would come to a HSB regardless. Apart from these minor cosmetic blemishes everything else was up to normal HSB standards.
HSB was introduced to me by my chitthapa with great enthusiasm many many years ago. He wouldn't stop raving about their coffees. HSB quickly began to take Madras by storm with their Aqua Guard water, clean environment, uniformed waiters and that Manager guy. There was a time when a group of friends and I had Saravana Bhavan kshethradams. We visited every HSB in Madras on a serial basis and compared items. I had my weird preferences on HSB items. Some examples were; I always felt the mixed-chat paratha was better in Radhakrishnan Salai branch. Vadapazhani branch had fantastic Dahi Puris. Something HSB is not known for - but one's got to give credit when it’s due. After eating in every HSB in Madras, the horizons expanded to Kanchipuram and Connought place, Delhi (it’s freaking expensive). Nowadays HSB is a far cry from the 'maleevu vilai unavagam' (cheap & best) it was in the 90s. Nowadays, the operations folks in HSB have found ways to make more money. The size of dishes (and side-dishes) has drastically shrunk and the prices have doubled. I don't blame them. People still flock both the Saravanas and the 2 floors of HSB A/c located 10 yards next each other in Ashok Pillar. There is still a 40 minute wait to get a parcel in T.Nagar HSB on a Wednesday afternoon.
The kshethradam continued in the US. After eating in Lexington Ave NYC ( called Saravanas, since the one called "Saravana Bhavan" was the fake-one and we struggled before getting the correct one ), the bay area and now Atlanta. They have changed the side-dish for Barotta in the US. Instead of the standard issue Korma, they serve anything from a funny mushroom curry to Kidney-beans/Rajma thing. This has completely killed the Barotta dish and made it pretty ordinary. However, their sambhar, masala dosai, and vadai continue to excel and cause orgasm among the taste buds. When people are asked what they like most in Saravana Bhavan, the answer is many times some esoteric dish. Adai Aviyal as a favorite dish always annoys me. Their sambhar vadai and Masala Dosai is pretty much their best dish by a huge margin. Their consistency and quality has always amazed me. Be it Shanthi theater HSB or Central station HSB - the homogenous taste is just awesome. I hope there is a case study created on HSB somewhere.
Side-note1: the Mixed Chat Paratha now popularly sold in HSB was made in a restaurant called Nandhinis. Nandhini is located near T.Nagar bus stand. It’s a sweet shop with a small chat restaurant in the top-floor. Nandhinis also made a pizza variant (full of ghee) that was just fantastic. I used to order parcel of mixed-veggie-paratha and pizza from them. HSB started selling Mixed Chat Paratha long after Nandhini did. But I would recommend this to anybody. This is a fantastic dish. One has to order extra-Raitha and just savor the dish.
Side note2: Some people will say that things have changed today. Yes, there have been some regressions in quality. It is not the same anymore. Nothing ever is. There might also be other restaurants that are just as good or even better, HSB always has had an emotional presence in the minds of thamizh folks.