As an ostensibly Buddhist country, Sri Lanka has a strange relationship with meat. We are not by and large vegetarian, unless dried fish is a vegetable. Most buth kades will offer fish gravy if you ask for veg. Even many dhanes have some sort of meat, like shrimp, which we guess is more ambiguous than most animals. Guiltless and proud meat, however, is also hard to find. Many places will exclude beef and pork to keep the clientele coming in. It’s not easy to be a dedicated herbivore or carnivore in Colombo, but here are a few places you can go, depending on what sort of dinosaur you are.
Top Veggie Spots
Attidiya Road, Ratmalana
011 2 717 211
On the Attidiya Road, there’s a small spot that has the best vegetarian food we’ve had in Sri Lanka. Perhaps the best Sri Lankan food. For Rs. 150 you get unlimited rice, kos, pollos, eggplant, potato or whatever they have on offer, plus homemade achcharu, lunuthe and papadum. And a heap of either fruit or curd and honey for dessert. Dunhinda itself is non-descript, almost blending into the environment. Once you find it, however, there’s a wealth of good, healthy food for cheap.
First, finding. Attidiya Road connects Colombo and Mount Lavinia inland. If you’re coming from Colombo there is this place on the left selling kola kanda and other things. It looks a bit like a normal roadside stall, but if you walk in it’s a series of simple huts and a lotus garden with many labeled plants. In the front you can get kola kanda and soups, to the side you can get traditional sweets and fresh fruit and vegetables, and at the back you can get lunch.
The lunch is a good, healthy vegetarian rice and curry. The dishes change, but they always seem to use the best ingredients, prepared lovingly. It feels healthy and, more to the point, delicious.
53/3 Ramakrishna Road
011 2 361 384
The classic vegetarian option is, of course, South Indian. Pre-eminent among Sri Lankan South Indian is Shanmugas down Ramakrishna Road in Wellawatte. They do a good lunch thali and chaat after 6 PM.
The food is very good - although the South Indian menu is significantly better than the North. The black dahl, oothappam and thali are notable dishes – the thali in particular. The traditional south Indian thali is made up of a necklace of curries served in small bowls on a large round plate accompanied by bottomless servings of rice, puri, etc. you get rice, papadam, puri, rasam, sambar, curd, potato, dahl, payasam (dessert) and more.
Shanmugas isn't the most fashionable of venues for evening dining, but it is very good and the vegetarian selection is extensive. Lots of variety for herbivores.
Milk & Honey
12 Barnes Place, Colombo 7
011 2 696 286
While we have our heavy South Indian veg with Shanmugas and currified carbs at Dunhinda, Milk & Honey offers the expat alternative to meat. They serve the kind of fare you’d find at any coffee shop or bistro dotted down the streets of London or New York – health conscious cities where couscous isn’t a laughable alternative to buth and the possibility of a falafel wrap isn’t greeted with a confused ‘mokka?’.
Adjoining a children’s bookshop on Barnes Place, Milk and Honey remains one of Colombo’s better kept secrets. Patronised largely by Colombo’s expat and yoga sets, the quiet cafe serves up some of the best vegetarian food in the city.
While the menu consists of suspiciously healthy sounding concoctions, the food is generally excellent. Think beetroot falafel wraps (Rs 400, made using a home-made wholemeal tortilla), tomato and aubergine pasta, cream cheese and mushroom sandwiches… At Milk & Honey vegetables aren’t used as garnish – we’ve all encountered ‘and vegetables’ in the form of a solitary circle of tomato and a dry carrot carved into a rose – instead they form the essential center of a meal that you can pad out with either a chunk of bread or a slim sheet of healthy wholemeal tortilla. This is one of the city’s few café style vegetarian options, but it’s also the best.
Diyatha Uyana, Battaramulla
Again, at the less curry-based spectrum of Colombo herbivorism is the Good Market, a well-meaning cluster of wholesome food stalls (and knick knacks) that gathers at the Diyatha Uyana in Battaramulla every Thursday. Here the peckish herbivore can meander through an array of organic and fresh produce while also encountering interesting veggie combinations that you’d be hard pressed to find on a regular restaurant outing: cheese made out of almonds and completely sans dairy, eggless chocolate cupcakes, tofu wraps, a tongue burning nai miris chilli sauce… The choice is broad and new stalls keep cropping up each week. Notable players are The Vege Way and Panino.
As most of them belong to relatively new businesses, this is the kind of wholesome eating that hasn’t yet gained a foothold in the Sri Lankan food industry. To sample a wide selection of what the city has to offer in the way of thoughtful food, right now this is your best spot.
Top Meat Eater Spots
11 Galle Face Court 2, Colombo 3
011 2 421 577
The food at German Restaurant is big, flavourful, heavy and doesn't disappoint.
What stands out at German Restaurant is the richness and flavour of the food. Western food, to the Sri Lankan palate, can be bland but the Bavarian makes up for it with strong seasoning and what seems like a fair amount of butter and salt. They also use big chunks of meat at the centre of their meals, be it beef, pork or chicken. That plus buttery beans, thick fries and potatoes makes for a hearty meal. It’s also affordable. A hearty steak stack at Bavarian can set you back around Rs. 1500 – compare to about Rs. 3000 at Chesa Swiss or London Grill .
In terms of location and ambiance, the German Restaurant is an institution across from the Galle Face Hotel. It attracts a fair amount of tourists walking in off the street and locals coming in after years of experience. There's a good selection of imported beers and cozy booth seating, but at the end of the day it's about the food, which is expensive but good.
It's a good hearty meal near the Galle Face Green. For special occasions and carnivorous cravings, we recommend.
Deal Place A, Colombo 3
011 2 573 433
Chesa Swiss is probably the best place for steak in the city. While London Grill is also a worthy option, we prefer Chesa. It's been around since the early 90s, and both the food and service have been consistently excellent. But be warned, it's expensive. The average dish costs around Rs. 3000 - but then this is one of those few places in the city where carnivorous longings for a great steak can be satisfied, so the prices are justified.
If you go for steak you've also got the standard choice of sauces: red wine, pepper, béarnaise, mushroom, garlic and mustard. They use mainly Australian beef - and you can really tell it's not from here. It's tender, juicy and thick - high quality stuff.
This works for the refined carnivore, who can munch delicately through a rosti, and dip at some fondue before diving into the meaty main event.
Green Path, Colombo 7
This is good for the cost-conscious carnivore. While the menu at Chesa Swiss elegantly entices you to a steak tartare or beef stroganoff on a dusty chalkboard, Summer Garden tosses up the promise of a reliable mixed grill at affordable prices between sticky, laminated sheets of A4. You’re in a different kind of place now. The cheerfully disheveled outdoor beer garden is good for big (albeit little less discerning) appetites. The most you’ll get in the way of veg is a few of lonely beans and a tomato to garnish. This isn’t high quality dining, but you get fairly affordable, bold portions of meat – practically straight off the hunt and into the pot. Which means, of course, no tenderized cuts or careful seasoning. Just hunks of meat smothered in sauce and slapped on your plate.
32 Walukarama Road, Colombo 3
0716 888 777
Sizzle is different. It's basically a very intelligent machine of a restaurant from everything to the service, the decor and the food. It's not cheap, but as a diner you can expect a very interesting and satisfying experience. We tried the smelting pot, sizzling chicken, various drinks and a bubbling chocolate cheesecake and ice cream dessert. They were all very good, some verging on excellent. Actually ate a bit too much, simply for the taste of it.
Sizzle's trick is that everything sizzles. The drinks have dry ice in them and smoke and the food is served bubbling under a fire (the smelting cheese) or sizzling on a hot plate. This makes for a fun meal, especially for families with kids.
Besides the trick, the food is all very generous and quite good. The smelting pot (we had the Jack Dempsey Upper Cut for Rs. 1450) is excellent - in our case cuts of beef, bits of bread and baby corn, mushrooms and peppers, all served with a bubbling pot of cheesy sauce to dip it in. It's very aggressive fondue.
While Sizzle is best for meats and hearty eating, they have a very sophisticated menu with something for everyone. There are dedicated vegetarian and kids sections and they also have biriyani and Mongolian and set lunch specials (for around Rs. 600). We're usually suspicious of places with huge menus, but Sizzle seems professional (and profitable) enough that they can deliver.