27 Jun Raheema Restaurant in Cinnamon Gardens, Where Colombo Locals Eat
For as long as it has existed, Cinnamon Gardens, Colombo 07, has been the city’s most sought after address, a location of choice for the rich and famous. But what about the people who work there? The drivers, gardeners, maids, and waiters? What is their story? What do they like about the place? We go to the Raheema Restaurant on Thurstan Road, one of the city’s most beloved cafés to find out.
Raheema goes back over five decades, founded by one Shahid who named it after his wife Raheema. Don’t let its hole-in-the-wall appearance façade of this roadside eatery fool you. Raheema is Cinnamon Garden’s go-to place for biriyani, that quintessential South Asian dish, an aromatic one-pot dish with tender chicken or meat and fluffy fragrant rice. No, really, these guys make a mean biriyani that’s hard-pressed to find anywhere else in town. The aroma of spicy goodness hits you even before you enter the premises. Raheema is constantly bustling with activity, with waiting staff practically tripping over each in their haste to serve the rapidly rotating patrons. Despite its Muslim name and halal menu, Raheema attracts diners from all faiths, communities, and walks of life. Raheema is especially popular among the kids from the nearby public schools, but you are as likely to find yourself sitting next to a trishaw driver as you are to a cabinet minister.
“So many old royalists and thurstanties still come here for an ‘after school’ parata. Just like when we were kids” – Vijaya Raja, Raheema Restaurant
They say Raheema in Cinnamon Gardens has the best Chicken Briyani in town
We talk to Vijaya Raja from Gampola, who has been working at Raheema restaurant for 30 years. As someone who oversees the day-to-day operations of one of the busiest eateries in town, Raja sees hundreds of new faces every week. “We get all sorts coming here, and there’s no telling where they’re from. This is a Muslim restaurant, but we get Muslims, Sinhalese, Tamils and everyone else coming here to try our biriyani, parata and kottu. We get people from various backgrounds, and there is no shortage of rich people either. Still, I don’t feel like I really know the people who live here very well.”
But Vijaya does know the kids in Colombo 07, home to the city’s oldest most prestigious schools: Royal College and Thurstan College. “I know a bunch of old boys from these schools. They used to come here all the time for their after-school parata. Today, they are businessmen, ministers or work in the navy and the police, but so many old Royalists and Thurstanites come here still.”
Raheema Restaurant on Thurstan Road is one of the city’s most beloved roadside eateries
“I like it here, it’s a quiet and peaceful environment” – John Baptist, Gardener
At Raheema, we meet the seventy-eight-year-old John Baptist who has spent the past five years doing odd jobs at a residence near Flower Road. Hailing from Kelaniya, John tends to his employer’s garden, paints the house when needed and is on call for any household chore or repair that might crop up. John, a father of four, got hired by this family upon a recommendation of a friend of theirs. Two of his sons drive trishaws for a living. “The family trusts me, they’re very nice people, and they treat me well.” He’s had to get used to the relative neighbourly introversion though: “It’s very different to where I’m from, where we live as a community, here people like to respect each other’s privacy, they don’t really talk to each other, they mostly mind their own business. There’s no gossiping. There are eight houses in the vicinity and no one really bothers the others unless they need some help with something,” he says. “But I like it here, it’s a very quiet and peaceful environment.”
Want to discover the “other side” of Cinnamon Gardens?
Find the Raheema Restaurant and other local favourites in Colombo with an iDiscover Guide. It has four handcrafted itineraries that bring you the honest and authentic in the city’s most historic neighbourhoods: Pettah, Fort, Slave Island. and Cinnamon Gardens. Plus, our guide comes with a free navigational app so that you can travel like a local.
Explore the hidden gems of Cinnamon Gardens with the iDiscover Colombo App&Map
Words by Himal Kotelawala
Himal is a writer and journalist. He covers politics and culture for the Himal Southasian, but his articles have also appeared in the New York Times and Daily FT. His hobbies include travelling when he can afford it, and writing when he isn’t doing it for a living. Follow him at @himalkk
Photography by Kesera Ratnavibhushana
Kesara has been documenting cities for close to 20 years. His photographic practice is based in Colombo but also works internationally. His hometown is changing, rapidly, sometimes faster than even Kesara – a quick adaptor – can keep track of. He spends hours walking the streets recording its history and urban reality. www.kesaraphotography.com