I didn’t really need to eat everything in front of me. But sometimes, the stomach wants what the stomach wants.
Like rasam, a bright, appetite-inducing soup of tamarind, lentils and spice. Or eggplant kulambu, a lush Southern Indian and Sri Lankan curry high on tomato and coconut. Or rava kesari, a comforting semolina pudding and an ideal gateway into the wondrous world of Indian sweets. Or the precious cargo contained in any of the nine aluminium katori (small bowls) arranged on the thali (steel plate) in front of me: a stick-in-the-eye to cookie-cutter “Indian” cooking around the world. Best of all, not only did the thali (over)feed me, it will also ensure others don’t go hungry.
This thali set meal is the newest chapter in the story of Annalakshmi on the Swan, the vegetarian Indian restaurant that’s been serving diners in Perth’s CBD since 1991. (Originally located on The Esplanade, Annalakshmi relocated to its current location at the Barrack Street Jetty in 2003).
Inspired by the Hindu teachings of its founder Swami Shatanand Saraswathi, the restaurant’s two calling cards are its “pay-as-you-wish” vegetarian buffet and an enviable address overlooking the Swan River. In light of new Covid-19-related health restrictions, Annalakshmi is no longer able to offer the buffet and has introduced the $15, set-price thali in its place. The suspension of the buffet, however, isn’t the only way the restaurant has been affected by the coronavirus.
Annalakshmi closed to dine-in guests in late March as per national Covid-19 guidelines. But whereas restaurants, cafes and bars were able to swivel to new business models, Annalakshmi’s style of dining doesn’t readily translate to takeaway or pick-up. Still, the restaurant remained open during lockdown and continued to cook and offer free takeaway food to the hungry.
But like all hospitality businesses, outgoings still had to be paid despite cash flow drying up. (The volunteer-run restaurant is not considered a charity and doesn’t receive any regular government funding. Its space is leased from the government, and the not inconsiderable monthly rent reflects its riverfront location). By the time Annalakshmi welcomed back dine-in guests in late May, the restaurant had, according to manager Arun Natarajan, amassed more than six figures’ worth of debt. (After contacting the government towards the end of the lockdown, Natarajan was able to temporarily suspend rent payments).
By Natarajan’s calculations, the restaurant needs to sell 150 thalis each day by the end of September to return to an even keel. Health restrictions allowing, he hopes the restaurant can reintroduce its buffet-based dining model in the future.
“We did this because, spiritually, it’s our belief,” he says. “We want to see the divinity and the spark in every human being. I have faith it will continue working. We’re not going anywhere. I want to keep it going. That’s my faith and belief.”
In Annalakshmi’s heyday, the dining room welcomed 3000 people every week. On Monday, 29 diners came in for lunch. Weekends, thankfully, are busier, with close to 150 guests regularly eating lunch and dinner on Saturday and Sunday. (Most of the volunteers work in the kitchen on weekends, with a smaller crew of “aunties and uncles” cooking during the week). Although the set-price thali is the only option available in the dining room, the downstairs kitchen continues to offer pay-as-you-wish takeaway – as it did all the way through lockdown.
Although Annalakshmi is driven by service rather than profit, it still runs very much like a restaurant. Reservations are taken. Table service is offered. Dietary requirements can be catered for with notice. (A vegan thali plate is always available). And like every restaurant, bar and cafe jostling for market space, Annalakshmi has been affected by both an oversupply of eating options in the city and the economic slowdown.
Despite the challenges, Natarajan remains upbeat and talks about plans for the future and even expanding into hot food deliveries. He’s confident the fates have his back and finds inspiration in stories of unexpected, moving generosity from guests. Like the first couple to dine when the restaurant reopened in May – two regulars who saved hard so they could not only pay for two set-price thalis for themselves, but help feed others doing it tough, as they had been for so long.
“These are the things that motivate me,” says Natarajan. “What can we take when we die? Nothing. We came with nothing, we’re going to go with nothing. Everything is given to us so that we can do something beautiful.”
Annalakshmi on the Swan (Barrack Square, Jetty 4, Riverside Drive, Perth) is open for lunch and dinner daily.