The only service that is delayed in Bestotel is billing, so goes a popular saying among those who love the hotel-cumbakery. Neither the customers want to leave the hotel after food nor does the management wants to see them off in a hurry by presenting the bill.
For over 67 years, Bestotel, at the heart of Kottayam town, has been a witness to history. It was the place for film stars and famous writers. Legendary songwriters and novelists penned their masterpieces in its rooms and political leaders hobnobbed together in its lobbies.
Sadly, the pandemic has claimed this landmark hotel too. The shutters of the historic hotel will be downed permanently on August 31.
The modest hotel with 22 rooms had housed a number of luminaries throughout its time, including Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, Ponkunnam Varkey, A K Gopalan, Kanam E J, G Aravindan, P Padmarajan and John Abraham, among others.
During his younger days singer K J Yesudas used to stay here whenever he was in Kottayam. Dileep Kumar, Saira Banu and Balraj Sahni had come here lured by its exquisite cuisine. Shammi Kapoor played billiards in its parlour. Satyan, Prem Nazir, K P Ummer and Sheela used to drop into the well-known landmark whenever they passed by the town. Vayalar Ramavarma and G Devarajan created the classic revolutionary anthem ‘Balikudeerangale’ in room number 7 in this hotel and Thakazhi wrote ‘Randidangazhy’ while residing in room number 9.
There was something magical about the appam and mutton stew and the meals with dried prawns chutney, fish in coconut gravy and the caramel puddings as well as the approach of the staff and management that made the hotel a favourite haunt of its famous customers.
In fact, the hotel once had everything except a bar. Besides a bakery and a restaurant, it had a parlour for billiards and table tennis. It was started in 1954 by Mambally Raghavan, popularly known as ‘Sixer Raghavan’ for his big-hitting skills in cricket. He was the first captain of the Thiru-Kochi cricket team that played in the Ranji trophy circuit. Raghavan’s father Gopalan was the nephew of Mambally Bappu who baked the first cake in Kerala in 1883. Thalasserybased Mambally family spread out across the state and opened various outlets continuing the legacy of Bappu in baking cakes. That’s how Raghavan started the bakery and later expanded it into a hotel.
It was the food that drew the crowd. Bestotel was the first eatery in Kottayam and neighbouring areas where Chinese food was served for the first time. The cook was a Tamilian who was earlier working in Hong Kong.
Writer C R Omanakuttan, who retired as a professor of the Malayalam department in Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam in 1998 is one among those who has been saddened to learn about Bestotel’s imminent closure. He used to frequent the hotel as a young boy to have a glimpse of the famous people who used to frequent it, he says.
“The memories about Bestotel are precious,” he adds. Apart from the times he spent with directors Aravindan and John Abraham, he recounted the several meetings conducted at the hotel’s balcony, including a reception given to actor Achankunju after he won the best actor award in his very first film.
It was the Central Theatre that was converted into the hotel, says Omanakuttan. “It was in the heart of the town and the crossroad close to it is still known as Central Junction,” he said.
“I saw the closure of the Central Theatre and the beginning of Bestotel. Now, I have to witness Bestotel’s closure,” he says ruefully.
P M Varghese who retired as the hotel’s manager after 47 years of service says the original structure of the theatre was not altered significantly. Varghese, who joined the hotel when he was 16 years, says the theatre’s balcony continued to be called so after it was converted into the hotel and that the restaurant was set up in the first-class area. It also served as a venue for press conferences before the press club was established in Kottayam.
He recounted that the hotel prepared food for a party of engineers who arrived from Canada for the construction of the Idukki Dam.
“AKG used to stay here whenever he arrived in Kottayam. He was a close friend of Raghavan, the hotel’s owner, He was not charged for the rooms,” says Varghese.
Varghese remembers each celebrity had their own unique habit. Ponkunnam Varkey wanted Dinesh beedis, Muttathu Varkey wanted “pan” and Kanam EJ, liquor, he says.
A P M Gopalakrishnan, Raghavan’s son, who manages the hotel now says he had no other option other than downsizing his business. Apart from the blow from the pandemic, there is none in the family who could carry on the business. He has two daughters, one settled in the US and the other in Kozhikode. “Though we will close, we will continue to supply our bakery products and food through some outlets,” says Gopalakrishnan, who too was a cricketer like his father and has represented Kerala in Ranji Trophy.
It was a tough decision to sell the nine cents and the around 5,000 square feet building to a jewellery group, he says.
Human rights activist Jomon Puthenpurackal talked about the long hours he spent at the restaurant meeting scribes and discussing the Abhaya case over a coffee. “A journalist interviewed me for the first time in this restaurant years ago and it was here that again I met a few reporters two days before the court gave its verdict in the case,” says Jomon.
“It is a blessed place. Things we plan or discuss here will be successful,” says Jomon.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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