A 40-odd minute straight drive on the NH 8 towards Jaipur from the last station of the Gurgaon Metro (HUDA) is all it takes. As you leave the high rises of Gurgaon (or Lutyens of Delhi if that’s where you’re coming from) behind, you realize that the high rises don’t let go of you. Roughly 5 years back, once you left the industrialization if Manesar behind, and before the barrenness of Rajasthan began, there used to be greenery on both sides of this national highway. Now, the same land has been taken over, for our own needs no less, as roads become double, nay triple, in size and where once there were fields of crops we have hotels, apartment complexes, petrol stations, resorts, and some more industrialization. It’s human nature. We love money and will go to lengths to get it and then spend it; how else can I explain driving 45 minutes to eat food. But, another clear example of this need to commercialize and expand can be witnessed at Old Rao Hotel, our destination for today.
Whether Old Rao was a Dhaba in the truest form once, It’s hard to tell now, but I’m sure at some point it consisted of a small kitchen with a few tables laid out in front for weary travelers who only wanted to stretch their legs, make a nature call – which I’m sure someone in the car had been eager for – and good food to satisfy their rumbling stomachs. Maybe I’m romanticizing it all and it’s not fair to look at what things were because obviously the new business model that Old Rao has employed seems to be working well for them. There’s no question that this place is famous. It’s hard to miss primarily because of the large hoardings but also because of the line of cars that are parked outside it at any given time. It’s there on Google Maps too, but a look inside and the cacophony of stalls that make Old Rao Hotel is mind-boggling. There’s the quintessential Pan stall next to which is one that serves Pizza and Dosa, advertises that Chowmine is also available, but at the time I visited, the servers behind the counter were stuffing Samosas – multi-cuisine restaurants, eat your heart out. Then there are two sweets stalls, one for ice-cream and a large one for Mithai. I move inside to find a string of booths selling confectioneries, imported packed food, toys, some space for games – air-gun balloon shooting and hoola-hoop – and a massive dining hall if sitting outside is not your thing. Finally there’s the huge washing area – kitchen utensils, not for you – and an equally massive kitchen that was exiting outsized Naans and Rotis – think half the size of a of Bukhara Family Naan- every few seconds.
So there’s something for everyone, unless you’re looking for a true-blue Dhaba experience, in which case you’re better off trying one of the many other small establishments that dot this highway – I saw around seven or eight “proper” dhabas on the way back, but cannot at present comment on their food quality.
Old Rao Hotel serves only vegetarian food and has a nice enough “collection” of dishes that center around the usual suspects – Paneer, Aaloo, Gobhi, Lentils. The same is true for the breads, and even though I enjoyed what I ate, I couldn’t help but miss the Tandoori Paranthas of Chhabra Restaurant that I’d eaten only a few days back. The Handi Paneer and Aaloo Gobi that was served were both really good – I especially loved how they’d cooked big chunks of cauliflower rather than cutting them into smaller pieces – and their spice levels just about tolerable – if you’re a regular reader you’d know that I have a very low tolerance to spicy/chili food and that I can have it but detest when Chilies are added at the expense of flavour. However, the Gobi Naan, Lachcha Parantha, and Butter Naan couldn’t pack the kind of punch that one would expect from a Dhaba. It’s food that one doesn’t regret eating, not one bit, but because Old Rao Hotel is so busy and there’s so much going on in the kitchen as well, something somewhere has to take a back seat and in this case it was the breads.
The prices at Old Rao seem a little high – comparing them with other dhabas – at first glance, but the quantities are quite large – we actually got the leftover curries packed – and thus they can be justified. Although I must warn you, if you’re visiting with kids, who are of the age to throw tantrums – I’m hinting towards my kids here- you are more than likely to spend more on toys, games and sweets than on the actual food you eat.
With all the commercialization, bells and whistles, and the word-of-mouth popularity, Old Rao Hotel is definitely a place you’d want to stop and relax if it came in-between your journey, but is it a place I would make a special journey to, again, – honestly, I’m in two minds about that right now.