Rest House food Sri Lanka


Underrated, unappreciated, unexpectedly delicious and affordable – even in these inflationary times. Colonial era institutions lost their grandeur to the shabbiness of crony socialism long before I came around. Yet I can’t recall ever encountering bad food.

Rest-houses were a fixtures my childhood’s many “outstation” trips. An attempt by my parent’s generation to re-live the road trips of their university glory days and photograph some invisible animal in the jungle. Base camp would invariably be a rest-house. A place to crawl back to from the afternoon heat for a late lunch.

A place I looked forward reaching after a morning of being stuffed and jostled around in a family friend’s jeep. Its not that I was a delicate type – just bored. All I saw were trees, trees, trees, the occasional dishevelled peacock, and more trees. There were the elephants of course. Always elephants and they looked the same. I felt we were rudely violating their peace and quiet with cameras and loud whispers. Only as an adult (after exile in cold grey places) have I realised the exoticness of these experiences.

Lunch is the unspoken “big meal” at most Sri Lankan rest houses. At Hambantota rest house lunch was served later than expected. For the very reasonably sounding reason that the fishing boats hadn’t come in yet. I have a fuzzy memory of watching (through a borrowed binoculars) the cook scamper down to the beach and returning with a few hefty fish. Carried by the kitchen boys of course. Lunch would be announced a few billion minutes later. During that interminable wait, us kids were warned against “ruining” our appetite by bingeing on snacks.

Rest-house lunches boils down to two words : rice and curry. Delivered with munition grade spiciness. Fried Chillies are served for those who wanted their ulcers sooner than later.
The presentation is never about winning Michelin stars but you end up eating more expected. In the old days, us offspring were expected to drink warm fizzy drinks in in-lieu of the un-boiled water that was available.

Hambantota rest house is the only one I remember that had a signature dish. Breaded fish “Steaks” – unburdened by anything else. Perhaps a bottle tomato sauce fresh from the fridge. I may be a plant eater now but that fish stole the show. What set it apart was not the taste as much as a sensation of freshness.

At the old Katharagama rest house I feasted one of the most delicious vegetarian meals in my life. Hit the road feeling stuffed yet happy. That was 4 years ago and I can still taste it. My father was so thrilled by it that he personally thanked the cook.

Kurunagla rest-house is perhaps the gloomiest I have seen and will clearly loose points on the decor. Yet their service for two vegetarians who didn’t even want fish was touchingly sweet. A lot of homely fussing about. The rice and curry was naturally very good. Chutney, extra Papadum and other off the menu items were produced so us veggies were not “deprived”.

I’ve always found such a insistence of service rather impressive about rest houses. There seems to be an earnest desire to ensure that the customer is well looked after. Even with the very limited resources at hand. Saw the same thing at the old Negambo rest-house – a place long past its glory days.

More recent times, there’s the lunch at the Tangalle rest house I have blogged about. Another pleasant find is the Dambulla rest house. Thrifty spousal unit insisted on sneaking in to one of Dambulla’s posh hotels to use the toilet before we sneaked back to the rest house for a great rice and curry feed. All for the price of a rum and coke at Kandalama.

Dinner at rest houses used to be a dull affair. Boiled vegetable interpretations of British/English cooking. One of colonialism’s unhealed wounds. Thankfully with a quiet word to the cook something simple and sensible could be substituted. Typically string hoppers and Sambol. Accompanied by Kirihodi with boiled eggs lurking in yummy pale yellow curry like sleepy hippos.

Rest house deserts are generally fruit-salad or curd and syrup (served in a gravy boat like gadget). Lately ice-cream has entered the picture. After all that rice and curry you’ll be lucky to have room for any of it.

I have also been through Anuradapura and Polonaruwa rest-houses. But I’m close to the time budget on this post so its time to wrap things up.

I have heard that the people who run the Galleface Hotel have got into the business of running rest houses. Supposedly this would mean upgraded facilities though I dread it would also mean boutique hotel bills. I’m not sure if that is a good trade off. Sadly escapades out of town haven’t happened of late to find out. What have your rest house experiences been of late?

33 comments

  1. I’m not too sure whether the rest house food can really be termed cheap though. At least not everywhere. Had lunch at the Ambepussa rest house last week and it came to 600 bucks, though I admit it was a R&C buffet.

    Definitely the best rest house R&C I’ve had is at Pussellawa. They even have wild boar on occasion.

    Ratnapura and Weligama aren’t bad either, nor Polonnaruwa, and the only rest house I’ve actually been disappointed with the food was at Habarana.

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  2. Its traditional fare that has not changed much-its much the same as it was half a century ago I think

    My favourite food, far better than the hotels. The breakfast is the best and the dinners can be pretty good. The lunch is the slightly weak point, but on the whole not bad.

    The otehr place where you can get similar food is in the estate bungalows, which are now getting pretty expensive.

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  3. Actually, the really good resthouses are teh upcountry ones, teh low-country ones tend not to be as good.

    GFH have been running a fair number of the resthouses (mostly upcountry)-whatever was being managed by the Ceylon Hotels Corporation, for a few years now. I think they bought the company in 2004 or 2005 amidst much controversy.

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  4. Rine:😀 oh come one – my key board pecking can’t trigger physiological reactions (besides nausea perhaps😈 Hope you can make it out of town for a RH RC feed🙂 Blog about it if you do😀

    David: 600/- Rs per person seems a bit steep. Me and the Mrs have fed for less than that. But like you said it wasn’t a buffet. I wonder if eating veggie is also cheaper. Haven’t been to any of the RH’s you’ve mentioned (I won’t call into Polonnaruwa RH on the water for tea count). They seem quite exotic🙂 Places to keep in mind. Thank you for that. So what exactly was the drama with Habarana RH?

    ddm: You’ve joined a long line of people (including Mrs C) who have sung the praises of Thissa rest-house. Scenic spot but don’t think I’ve stopped there for a feed (Hanbantota being the main feeding spot).

    RD:😀 Didn’t think I’d get this kind of reaction🙂 which is always a nice surprise. You should blog about the Ambepussa food. Stopped at Ambepussa so many times but never during lunch. Always its a brew stop after a pre dawn escape from Colombo or a late afternoon break on the way back.

    Jack: Haven’t been to the Hills beyond Kandy very much as an adult. Guess I’m a shockingly low country type who is missing out a lot🙂 Doin’t have too many recollections of the breakfasts – maybe I didn’t wake up in time for it after all those post dinner carom games😉 Many thanks for the info. Got a favourite RH of your own?

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  5. Well the R&H wasn’t very tasty, and they just compensated by adding more chillie. And once I went there for breakfast and it was really mediocre. Bad pol sambol, bland fish, etc. Maybe they just have a bad cook. I’ve avoided the place since.

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  6. What’s the R&H?

    Well Habarana wasn’t much better. The lunch was just spicy, but nothing else. Maybe they have a bad cook too, ‘cos I stopped there twice for breakfast and it was lousy. Sri Lankans rarely fuck up a breakfast, but these guys did.

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  7. Funny a couple of friends and I were just reminiscing about this subject this weekend…the rice and curry at rest houes are the best…Tissamaharama, Hambantota and the Polonnaruwa are my favourites. Especially the first one….back in the day when they had the baby crocs in the pond in front.

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  8. BlackWolf66 I’m with David on this – you’ll have to explain the “R&H” acronym🙂 As for the using chilie to cover up bad food – I haven’t had to deal with that – not that I can remember. Then again I tend to be fairly tolerant of about food.

    David: That’s serious.😐 If they can’t pull off a simple string hopper+ sambol (twice in a row) I wonder what they could do. Seems I’ve been lucky so far. Then again, I’m not an early bird to have sampled many rest house breakfasts😉

    N🙂 You ought to blog about it😀 And its good to see you lurking around🙂

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  9. Tissawewa Rest House is great. Nice big rooms upstairs and a balcony to sit out on. The monkeys join you on full moon nights.
    Polonnaruwa RH is another favourite. Thanks CERNO, another superb post.

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  10. How come no one mentioned lime and soda?🙂
    Thats one of the best things about rest houses IMO.
    Next to the string hoppers and the pol sambol that is.

    I’ve been to my fair share of rest houses when my grand dad used to take us on trips. Can’t remember any names though because I was too small then. Haven’t been to one in aaages.

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  11. “Then again, I’m not an early bird to have sampled many rest house breakfasts ”

    Well, the only reason I was there that early was when I’d drive to Trinco, I liked to get there for lunch, which meant leaving Colombo well before dawn and having breakfast in Dambulla or Habarana.

    I’ve had breakfast at other resthouses on early morning shoots (Weligama and Polonnaruwa) and they’ve always been fantastic.

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  12. Tissa and Ambepussa. Yummy. Especially Tissa, place has improved through the years. And breakfast at Peradeniya is also a usual stop for us though the food is not all that great. Cerno, your post has brought about a craving for rest house in addition to nostalgia. Sigh.

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  13. Dominic:Thank you😀 Happy you enjoyed it! Seems I’ve missed out on Tissawewa Rest House despite a childhood of driving passed it. I guess my father is a Hambantota rest-house loyalist😉 After much brow furrowing I think I have stayed at the Polonnaruwa RH. I was very young and i remember the seeming the stars that came out at night. The place is surrounded on 2 or 3 sides by water. There was a lot of talk among the adults about the Queen staying there. That’s the place right?

    gutterflower: Lime and soda – seems to be another thing I missed out. Being a ginger beer person.

    David: Early morning rides to Trinco sounds very long haul. Looking back all my memories of early morning breakfasts mean eating packed stuff by the roadside. Usually around Marthara fort.😐 Guess I missed out on the rest house chow.

    sach: Hope its good nostalgia🙂

    Arielle Thank you for the link🙂 Hope you get to taste the stuff in its home ground.

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  14. Sorry I’m late with a reply, Ella Resthouse (now spankingly doen up as Ella Grand Motel) has a stunning view of the Ella Gap – just walk through the front door and onto the rear balcony and the view is breathtaking.

    It was done up during Mangy’s time so is a quite tasteful refurbishment.

    Upper Glencairn and Lower Glencairn (Dickoya) were not originally resthouses but are/were run by the Ceylon Hotels Corporation. They are charming colonial bungalows with the usual resthouse fare, Upper Glencairn being rather better maintained than lower Glencairn.

    Belihul Oya has is nicely sited by the river but the surroundings have got a bit overcrowded.

    The beauty of the upcountry resthouses lies in their siting- they almost always have excellent views.

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  15. Jack:😀 Better late than never!🙂 Glad you chipped in. Recently heard of this Ella Gap place. I’m not much familiar with the mountains. I suppose I should rectify that at some point… I don’t suppose that these Glencairn places are not anywhere related to a place called “Adisham”. Supposedly a huge British mansion built by an English guy during the colonial days?

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  16. Hey Cerno the mountains are the best places in the country and nothiong is more beatiful than Haputale and the Knuckles region. Try the drive from Matale to Rattota, teh best views in the country and stop off at a place called Riverstone and enjoy what is called the mini worlds-end (walk a couple of hundred yards to the end of the cliff).

    Adisham is in Haputale and I think fairly close to Dickoya, perhaps a half day drive. I think I stayed at Upper Glencairn on the way back from Adisham if I remember correctly.

    The place is being ruined by hordes of day trippers. There is some info at the following links:

    http://www.lankalibrary.com/heritage/adisham.htm

    Its a monastary now and run by the Bendictine Monks. You can stay there if you get a recommendation from your local parish priest and provided you promise to adhere to the rules of the place – basically not to create a huge racket, dont complain or disturb the monks.

    The terms are :you share the Monastery with them, they will give you what they can cook which is fairly good and simple, you cant order stuff like in a hotel and dont disturb the place.

    All correspondence is by post and they don’t really take kindly to strangers ringing them up either, but once you visit once they are a bit more flexible.

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  17. I’m surprised no one mentioned Kithulgala yet. I mean, no one remember the “Bridge on the River Kwai” stories?
    Belihul-Oya is oft-visited stop. Even spent the night there once, was quite pleasant. Only problem was it was sort of hard to fall asleep with the river roaring by.🙂 Surprised it took so long to mention it.
    And Ella is firmly on the list after last year. Definite second choice is Bandarawela Hotel is not available during FoxHill next year.

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  18. Jack: Thank you for that very useful info😀 Looks like you are a gold mine for this kind of knowledge! The hills is not familiar territory. And its looking less likely. Mrs C isn’t too fond of the cold, or heights😐 Actually same goes for weakling me😉 Vut tu du kno?

    Pericles: I haven’t forgotten the “Bridge on the River Kwai” stuff🙂 I remember going to Kithulgala as a kid (stopped on the way for lunch). Lots of Black and white pics on the wall and the view of the river. Heard there’s white water rafting in the area. Is that true? And what’s “FoxHill”.

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  19. Hey Cerno mate, What the dickins !!! How come ya never mentioned Hatton Rest House by World’s end ? My fam. when we went there oohh ! The cuisine was awesome we even thanked the cook ! He garnished the fried rice with… get this…..rice crispies baby ! Have ya seen the graden there ? No…well, dammit bubba get your ass over there and put some pics up! Pronto ! I’ll be baaaaack !

    BTW : I think the most picturesque Rest House I’ve been to….Kantale boy…it’s perched over the Kantale Lake and geez… if heaven looks like this buy it ! We swam rock steps leading to the Rest House awesome…but, dammit fellas I slipper and whacked the back of by head ! Crap ! Why me !

    Loved the post bro. funny !

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  20. Hey Cerno mate, What the dickins !!! How come ya never mentioned Hatton Rest House by World’s end ? My fam. when we went there oohh ! The cuisine was awesome we even thanked the cook ! He garnished the fried rice with… get this…..rice crispies baby ! Have ya seen the garden there ? No…well, dammit bubba get your ass over there and put some pics up! Pronto ! I’ll be baaaaack !

    BTW : I think the most picturesque Rest House I’ve been to….Kantale, boy…it’s perched over the Kantale Lake and geez… if heaven looks like this, buy it ! We swam to the rock steps leading to the Rest House awesome…but,we were warned of Crocs !
    That day, Dammit fellas I slipper and whacked the back of by head ! Crap ! Why me !

    Loved the post bro. funny !

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  21. Oh , I forgot Cerno… I met an Emirates Airline manger from Dubai 2 days ago and the bugger says Colombo food iz the best anywhere ? Really ? Is that true ? I’ve heard of some great lankan Chefs but, Colombo cuisine ?

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  22. Hey Cerno mate, What the dickins !!! How come ya never mentioned Hatton Rest House by World’s end ? My fam. when we went there oohh ! The cuisine was awesome we even thanked the cook ! He garnished the fried rice with… get this…..rice crispies baby ! Have ya seen the garden there ? No…well, dammit bubba get your ass over there and put some pics up! Pronto ! I’ll be baaaaack !

    BTW : I think the most picturesque Rest House I’ve been to….Kantale, boy…it’s perched over the Kantale Lake and geez… if heaven looks like this, buy it ! We swam to the rock steps leading to the Rest House awesome…but,we were warned of Crocs !
    That day, Dammit fellas I slipped and whacked the back of by head ! Crap ! Why me !

    Loved the post bro. funny !

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  23. Cerno my man, you need to steel yourself and head for the hills next April or August, its not really cold at that time of year and as for the heights – well unless one is actually standing at the edge of a cliff its not really frightening at all. Its not like climbing a tree or a ladder, one’s feet are always firmly on the ground and one can admire the scenery from a safe distance from a cliff edge.

    I’ve gone off Kitulgala Resthouse a bit now, maybe becuase I’ve stopped there too many times. Nicely sited but I thought food quality was slightly below the average ?? Maybe I was’nt in the mood or something but fellt something was wanting.

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  24. rajarata: Never really been in the hills as frequently as the south and North Central parts. Thought I was taken to Hatton when I was a baby🙂 (parents have black & white photos to prove it even though i don’t remember.🙂 As for “Colombo cuisine” that’s hard to pin down. Happy you liked the post though😀

    Jack Hmm something to persuade the Mrs with😉 As for the cuisine at Kitulgala – hope its not turning you in to a food critic😉 after being spoiled by all the yum food in other rest houses😀

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  25. […] Overnight stays meant rest houses or circuit bungalows with pink or blue walls, creaky fans and mosquito nets. Where my father insisted everyone, executive and driver a like eat at the same table. For some this took some time to get used to. Along with the family trips, these journeys cemented my familiarity with the world of Sri Lanka’s rest houses. […]

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