Shanmugas is probably the best place for South Indian food in Colombo (they serve North Indian as well, but this isn't their strength). It isn't too cheap, but the food is authentic and quite tasty - if you like South Indian cuisine, that is. While South Indian food is hugely popular in, well, South India, it doesn't seem to have quite caught on down here on the island. This might be the vegetarian factor - as Indi said, you wouldn't really be stopping by here post night out; Lankans love their meat. But if you don't mind a meal without meat, this is a pretty good place to go.
The food is very good - although the South Indian menu is significantly better than the North. We ordered the South Indian thali (Rs. 490), garlic naan (Rs. 230), oothappam (Rs. 230), palak paneer (Rs. 530), black dahl (Rs. 480), lassi (Rs. 250) and a filter coffee (Rs. 100). The naan was actually quite bad, it was exceedingly oily and doughy. The palak paneer was nothing to write home about either - it was pretty bland and a bit on the watery side. The black dahl, oothappam and the thali, however, were excellent - the black dahl in particular. This was rich without being overpowering, and had a good edge of spice. The thali (this is a traditional Indian dish, made up of several curries, etc. served in small bowls on a large round plate with rice, puri, etc.) was also rather good - you get rice, papadam, puri, rasam, sambar, curd, potato, dahl, payasam (dessert) and more. It's very filling, and you can have as much rice as you like - although you're not allowed to share. A thali is an interesting meal, and if you've never had one before it's definitely worth a try. As Indi commented, it can be hard to make South Indian food look aesthetically pleasant - this is due to the abundance of unnamed watery curries and sambars, all of which look somewhat similar - but Shanmugas was pretty good presentation wise. This is good South Indian food and pretty close to what you'd get in Tamilnadu.
They do chaats after 6pm (bel puri, pani pur, dokhla, pav bhaji, etc.) which we'd like to go back to try. If anyone else had these let us know what you thought.
The two famous South Indian drinks are lassi and filter coffee. At Shanmugas we found the lassi quite good (although bizarrely served with two cubes of ice) and the filter coffee disappointing. Indian filter coffee is usually served in a tumbler and dabarah - you pour the liquid between the two containers to cool down the coffee and mix in the sugar well before drinking. They served our coffee in a steel mug - which was nice, but not as fun as the tumbler-dabarah experience. They also don't add the sugar, so you have to put it in yourself. This is probably a good thing, but I personally prefer it when they add the sugar themselves - a filter coffee is meant to be milky, strong and sweet, you don't really need to adjust it yourself.
Shanmugas seems to have gone a bit more upmarket from my last visit, which was years ago. However, the entrance belies the interior. They've got a fancy looking courtyard with cobblestones and plants, but once you go in it's pretty much your standard Chennaiesque restaurants with drab curtains and dim lights. This isn't a pretty place to eat, nor does it have any special ambience. It's kinda like eating at a Saravana Bavan in India - although less hectic. It's not bad - not ugly or dirty, but not beautiful. But the food is good - don't go here on a special date, or for a nice dining experience. It's more about the food.
The total bill for three came to Rs. 2310, that's roughly Rs. 740 per head. That's not bad actually, and we had plenty of food left over. Shanmugas is expensive compared to places like Mathura
, Sarasvati Lodge, etc. but the food is better, so that's fine.
Shanmugas isn't a fashionable place to get yourself some dinner, but it is
very good. The staff are helpful and the service is fast - we got our meal within ten minutes of ordering. Go there if you'd like to try something a bit different, or to have a taste of South India. It's authentic and tasty.
They actually do a pretty decent nescafe. Also definitely reserve a table if you plan to go after 8.00 PM.