Upali's is a great place to get tasty, affordable Sri Lankan food. It's incredibly busy these days, so reservations come recommended. Actually, using YAMU's online reservations system is recommended, just click 'Make Reservation' next to the phone number.
It's weird that there wasn't a place to get quality, affordable Sri Lankan food in a restaurant setting before Upali's, but there really wasn't. Yes, there have been buffet places like Raja Bojun and Akasa Kade, but nobody had really done a full Sri Lankan menu in a place you could take your family to. Upali's has now occupied that niche, and been wildly successful.
For us what matters is the taste and the price, and in that regard Upali's has never disappointed us. This time we tried basically everything possible for eight people and the bill, minus beer, came to less than Rs. 1000 per person. While this is admittedly more than a buth kade, we did get a wide range of stuff - hoppers (Rs. 220), string hoppers (Rs. 220), pittu (Rs. 220), pol roti (Rs. 240), plus a whole lot of curries - boneless mutton (Rs. 800), chicken (Rs. 290) and a whole range of veg (Rs. 100-350).
The food is full of delicious classic Sri Lankan flavors. The mutton curry was the most expensive thing, but it was amazingly tender and spicy and went really well with pittu and generous amounts of coconut milk.
We honestly had too much food in the end. Upali's is a great place to go for this sort of family dining, where you can get way more curries than you'd make at home. Another bonus is that you don't have to clean anything up.
That said, you can sometimes get a huge range of curries at your local buth kade for less than 200 Rupees. The difference with Upali's is that you can sit at a comfortable table, you can bring groups, and you can come for dinner as well as lunch.
This sort of restaurant dining experience has been established for Indian food but Upali's is the first to do it for Sri Lankan fare in a big way.
Their location at the Nelum Pokuna Roundabout (Town Hall side, just after Horton Place) is quite central and, in our experience, is always packed. You're lucky if you can get parking, otherwise try to park on Barnes Place and walk.
The main restaurant is actually quite busy these days, we ended up being seated in their new coffee shop next door (which still uses the same kitchen). As mentioned above, reservations are highly recommended. You can make online reservations here.
We haven't had a bad service experience here. The staff is fast, efficient and since it's Sri Lankan food, they understand the menu. The main thing here is that people want orders taken efficiently and for food to come out fast. That gets done.
Upali's is probably the most successful new restaurant in Colombo, because they occupy an obvious niche. Good Sri Lankan food in a comfortable setting at an affordable price. We love it.
Upali's has fast become the best place to go for Sri Lankan food in Colombo. It's weird that this niche wasn't filled for so long, but they've filled it. They've got all your Sri Lankan favorites - rice and curry, hoppers, roast paan, string hoppers - and a big, professional restaurant to serve it in.
We've had rice and curry at Upali's before, this time we wanted to try the hoppers (and string hoppers). They didn't disappoint. The hoppers are made fresh right at the front of the restaurant and they're the right mix of crispy and soft in the center. You get three plain and one egg hopper for Rs. 200 and it comes with lunu miris, katta sambol or pol sambol. We got some chicken curry (Rs. 270) and purippu (Rs. 220) and gotu kola sambol (Rs. 150) to go with, which ended up being too much food, but tasty nonetheless.
The string hoppers (Rs. 200) also came with a coconut milk curry and pol sambol and were quite nice.
This is all comfort food, and it plays to Sri Lankan strengths. They know how to cook it, how to serve it, and we know how to eat it. Everything we've tried at Upali's has been good (rice and curry, vegetarian options, etc). It's a place we always recommend to tourists.
Location & Ambience
What sets Upali's apart is that it has professionalized Sri Lankan cuisine. You can get good Sri Lankan food all around Colombo (obviously), but not in many restaurants. Our restaurants tend to be either middle-class places serving westernized or Chinese cuisine or street eateries serving Sri Lankan food. Since the long closed Peninsula restaurant in Nawala, no one has put Sri Lankan food in this sort of setting.
It's sorta like a mid range Indian restaurant, except they serve Sri Lankan. Obvious, and brilliant. The place is almost always packed.
We can't fault the service, it's been consistently good for us. When we went there was actually a white lady at the door. Kinda amazing.
Sri Lankan food in Sri Lanka should be a no-brainer, but Upali's are the first to do it successfully and well. They offer good renditions of classic dishes in a comfortable (and busy) environment. The prices are reasonable as well.
Upali's is a welcome new restaurant near the Nelum Pokuna junction. It does affordable Sri Lankan food in an Indian style location with excellent service.
Most new restaurants in Colombo try to do 80 western dishes and do them badly. Upali's focuses on a few Sri Lankan favorites and does them well. It's a welcome change.
Upali's Veg Set Menu, Plus Chicken
We went to Upali's for lunch and tried the basic vegetarian set menu (Rs. 250) with an additional serving of chicken curry (Rs. 250). Five hundred rupees is not cheap once you put it all together, but we had more than enough curries for two people. Could have done with a bit more rice, which they did offer at the end.
It was very good. Very healthy, fresh, well presented and tasty. A good range of village favorites - battu, bitter gourd, purippu, gotu kola, tomato curry - plus papadam, dried chili and karavela (dried fish). Basically a good, healthy gamay lunch. Comes with rice of course, that seasoned with curry leaves and a bit of caramelized onion. They serve it on plates that look like banana leaves, so it's almost the complete experience.
The chicken curry
We added a chicken curry, which basically doubles the price, but that altogether made for an fully satisfying meal. It's not too spicy and left us feeling not heavy at all after.
Too much Sri Lankan dining out involves food that is way saltier/oilier than you would ever cook at home, presumably as a 'treat'. As people start eating out more and more, however, this becomes completely unsustainable. Upali's, on the other hand, actually tastes and feels healthy. They're using fresh produce, traditional recipes, and generally not trying to show off. We wish more restaurants would do the same, just stick to something they know and do it well.
As a suitable finish, they have a lovely cardamom tea (Rs. 80), though we actually started with this.
Other veg items they have on the menu are Hathmaluwa - a seven item veg curry they say is 2000 years old - for Rs. 390, Kosata Curry (jack seed) for Rs. 350, Batu Moju (eggplant) for Rs. 350 and more. They have fish curries ranging from Rs. 250 (fresh fish with coconut milk and saffron) to Rs. 600 (Matara Malu Ambulthiyal, tuna with a sour and dry curry). Also the classic chicken curries (Rs. 250 for the usual, Rs. 1,110 for a whole slow cooked chicken) and goat/mutton (Rs. 350 - 650). No pork or beef.
We really like what they've done here with the menu. They've structured it like truly Sri Lankan meals. A basically vegetarian base, then fish, then a few chicken and goat dishes. Basically how average Sri Lankans actually eat. It would have been very easy to front-load with 'treat' dishes, like pork curry and other meats, but they've stuck to traditional and we think it works very well.
For dinner they've got idiappa (string hoppers, Rs. 200 for 15), appa (hoppers, 1 egg plus 3 plain for Rs. 200), pittu (ground rice cylinders, Rs. 200 for two), roti and egg roti (Rs. 150 for two roti or Rs. 80 for one egg roti), Roast Paan (Rs. 75 for a big one, 500 gm), and kottu roti (chopped up roti, Rs. 490 for chicken). Basically everything we know and love and nothing we don't.
The desserts are also the usual, wattalapan (Rs. 180), kiri pani (curd and treacle, Rs. 290, etc).
The menu front
Now, as you can see, the prices are reasonable, but not low if you get everything you want. While a veg set menu is Rs. 250, with the extra chicken and tea that came out to Rs. 820 (including 10% service charge). So, not expensive for two, but we also didn't eat a lot. It's also much more expensive than a streetside kade, where you can get equally good food, if you know where to go.
Some of the other prices seem expensive - Rs. 350 for batu moju - but given the size of the dishes we saw we think each would comfortably serve three. We would call Upali's an affordable place, but it's not cheap. What you get in return for the premium over street prices is a venue that families, businesspeople and tourists alike would be comfortable in and a level of service and cleanliness that we think is worth paying a bit extra.
The outdoor seating
Upali's has a great location, near the Nelum Pokuna junction, towards Town Hall and across from Vihara Maha Devi park. It actually doesn't have enough parking for the demand they seem to be getting, only space for about 8-10 cars, including street parking.
What's interesting about the interior is that they've basically laid it out like a middle class Indian restaurant (like Elite in Bamba). Bright, clean and even a bit godacious, especially the chandeliers and plush seating on the top floor, in the more private seating areas. We wouldn't call it aesthetically beautiful, with the exception of the outdoor seating above, but we think it's a great idea. Nobody's taken the efficiency and style of that sort of Indian restaurant and applied it to Sri Lankan food. We think it works very well.
Nawaloka - the company running Upali's - is mainly into hospitals, and it shows a bit in terms of the decor and bathrooms, but this also means that everything is impeccably clean.
When we went the place was buzzing and full of people, though they haven't really marketed themselves at all yet.
The service we had was amazing. They turned down the A/C without a fuss, offered table water as a first choice and were there at every point we needed them. We didn't wait to order, we didn't wait for the cheque, nor did we ever feel rushed. The waiters knew the menu, they were friendly, they gave everything with the polite two hands, and they cleared everything promptly and well.
We think this is again because Upali's has stuck to traditional fare done a bit better. Too often we meet waiters completely baffled by the western fare they're supposed to serve, and the cooks also don't understand what they're supposed to making. In this case the waiters are obviously comfortable with everything on the menu, as are the cooks.
We had a wonderful service experience, but do tell us if anything changes.
The gotu kola
We don't gush much, but we're really impressed with Upali's. Colombo has been crying out for this sort of restaurant - someplace that does local food a little bit better. We've had Nuga Gama in the Cinnamon and Raja Bojun next door, but both were a bit expensive. We also have excellent street side kades, but those don't suit every crowd and can't really scale. Finally there's a proper middle class Sri Lankan restaurant, and we're really happy that it exists.
Sometimes the best innovation is incremental, and Upali's has taken traditional Sri Lankan food, tweaked slightly and served it in a middle class Indian style. We think it's a winning combination.