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In South India, it's common to use the word 'hotel' when referring to what North Indians (and most of the rest of the world) know as a 'restaurant.' It's not just a phenomenon seen among small, micro-institutions whose operators may not know better; no, several large chains, including one of the most famous, continue to stylize themselves as Hotel Xyz.

I've also noticed this usage in younger speakers, even though they have no doubt had more exposure to global culture. It's used in day-to-day speech; while I can't attest to usage in other Southern states, the Tamil word for restaurant, உணவகம் (uṇavakam) is all but obsolete. Tamilians will instead say things like 'hotel'le chāppṭu vantē' (I ate at a/the hotel), or 'Avaṉ ā? Avaṉ hotel naṭattuṟāṉ' (Oh, him? He runs a hotel).

When they say this, they're generally referring to a restaurant. I checked this on Google, and there are a number of Quora threads, but I found these answers unsatisfactory (Example answer: "most restauraunts are a part of a Hotel with rooms or lodge. hence they were name that way. people started calling them Hotels.").

When people refer to what we think of as hotels they also use the word 'hotel.' In usage, the word has two meanings- one meaning refers to a restaurant, and the other refers to a hotel. ('Lodge' is also quite common.)

Note that the word is pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable and a schwa sound for the second vowel. Tamilian speakers also drop the 'h' oftentimes.

Has anyone seen this usage in the South Indian diaspora? I was born in the US, and my parents (who are Indians) never used 'hotel' as other South Indians do, although I've seen my father use it when he is with other Tamilians.

So, where/how did this originate? How old is the trend? Does anyone think that this trend will continue, or might it slowly peter out as the word 'restaurant' gains currency? Are there any other regions that have similar usage?


I've found a few examples that suggest that ‘hotel’ used to mandate qualification. For instance, there’s “சாப்பாட்டு ஹோட்டல்” (Cāppāṭṭu hōṭṭal, ‘Dining Hotel’) in a Tamil book called Pracuraṅkaḷ (1949). To me, this indicates that back then, ‘hotel’ was used for both dining and lodging establishments, and they had it to be clarified by a prefix such as 'dining' or 'sleeping.'


Edit 2: I've asked around and found out that non-vegetarian restaurants are known as 'military hotels.' A Google search for the term led to a Wiktionary entry,

military hotel (plural military hotels), noun: (India) A restaurant serving non-vegetarian food.

For the etymology, it gives:

Shortened from earlier Hindu military hotel, named so because they originally catered to Hindu non-vegetarians of the military.

And for its first appearance in print (earlier than the OED's entry for hotel):

[from mid-20th c.] 1954, Large Industrial Establishments in India‎, Indian Labour Bureau, page 455: 11 Gajendra Vilas Hindu Military Hotel, Alps Restaurant, Mount Road.

(A search for the restaurant's name online offers some results, but they're from a different hotel of the same address) The other relevant result is a sort of rambling blog post from Schrodinger's Bekku, which concludes with:

Why ‘Military’? Apparently the general perception amongst the people at that time was that everyone in the forces, the military HAD to eat non-veg irrespective of who he was or what his background and choice of food was. So ostensibly many of these places popped up to cater to the non-vegetarian food needs of soldiers on leave and ex-servicemen who had to have their meat but who couldn’t cook at home, or eat at hotels with non-Hindu cooks. Yep. It’s quite as simple as that. But the reasons are not so simple, but sort of make sense once you keep in mind the social mores of the time that food joints started calling themselves ‘Military Hotels’.

From Standard English and Indian Usage (2011):

No example is necessary to make the point that in India, the word 'hotel' is used for ordinary eating places too. In SE, though, a hotel is essentially a place where you can stay and also have your meals. An establishment where you can eat, but not stay, is, in SE, a 'restaurant', not a 'hotel'. In south India, you will come across an interesting expression. The signboards outside some eating places say: military hotel. Now, there is nothing military about such eateries: you and I can also eat at such places. What distinguishes them from other eating places is that they serve besides vegetarian food, non-vegetarian food as well.


This excerpt is from A Historical Dictionary of the Tamils (2017), and offers a little more information:

In the colonial period (18th to mid-20th centuries), while vegetarian hotels used to be known as Saiva or Brahmana hotels, nonvegetarian hotels were called Asaiva or military hotels.

And from the same book,

The Tamil business class, represented largely by the Chettiars, also own many of the restaurants in Myanamar, which are in fact called Chetti hotels.

I did a few corpus searches for 'military hotel,' 'brahmana hotel,' 'saiva hotel,' 'asaiva hotel,' and 'chetti hotel.' It's fairly easy to understand the origin of the prefixes, but I'm yet to find any reliable, plausible explanation for the 'hotel' part.

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    A similar phenomenon in the USA (and not related to southern Indian cuisine): There are restaurants called “ X Inn” or “Inn at Y” that have nary a room for rent.
    – Damila
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 20:14
  • @Damila similarly in Australia, there are pubs and restaurants with "Hotel" still in the name that have long since done away with their accomodation. Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 20:40
  • Punjabi ہَٹّی • (haṭṭī), Prakrit 𑀳𑀝𑁆𑀝 m (haṭṭa) means "shop, grocery store". Hotel from host- works as well (and is unrelated, surely). So, it is coincidental, yet not a sufficient answer
    – vectory
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 21:45
  • @Damila very true. We used to go to the Village Inn, which was just a local restaurant.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 22:13
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    In the US, where every state or county has their own liquor laws, many places can get liquor licenses only for restaurants and consequently must have some food available to eat there. This is the origin of "the house donut" or similar dodges in various places where you go to drink and not eat. Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 18:15

2 Answers 2

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OED confirms this usage of hotel in South Asian and traces back to 1968:

5. South Asian. A restaurant, cafe, or other establishment selling prepared food (often in the names of such businesses).
In South Asian usage, hotel can refer to enterprises which offer food but not lodging, including roadside stalls.

1968    Times of India 24 Sept. 6/2 (advt.)    Cooks [for a factory]. Applicants should have at least 7 years' working experience in an Industrial Canteen or Hotel and should be capable of cooking both Western and Indian style dishes.

As for the "why", I've found this explanation in the book Suburban Sahibs: Three Immigrant Families and Their Passage from India to America by S. Mitra Kalita:

Indians still call restaurants "hotels" because hotels used to be among the few places besides home to enjoy a sit-down meal.

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    Hmm- that's interesting that it's in the OED, which I had not seen. The 1968 reference is the first printed usage, correct? Not the origin? Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 5:56
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    Yes, first printed usage. It doesn't explain why a restaurant is called a hotel in South Asian but the answer in Quora makes sense. I will check further.
    – ermanen
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 6:01
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    The sources quoted in this answer characterise this way of using hotel as 'South Asian' or 'Indian', while the OP states that it is specifically South Indian. Is the OP wrong or are the sources imprecise?
    – jsw29
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 23:02
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Since simple explanations are best, I think very early on the Indian learners of English found the word hotel uncomplicated, easy to say, and assimilable into the sounds of their own languages. The word restaurant was too long, prone to errors - few Indians pronounce it like Englishmen do, choosing instead to say Resto-runt / Restore-ent - It's that AU sound.

The word Cafe is even more confounding. Many Indians pronounce, and sign boards print in native scripts, Cafe to rhyme with cape or safe. That little symbol above the letter e in Cafe - the acute accent - is blithely disregarded.

[Some Indians who know the symbol, mimic its French use by adopting spellings - sans diacritical masks - to indicate pronunciation of their names. Thus, Date is meant to sound like Dahtey or More to be pronounced Mo-ray, both Marathi names.]

The notion of eateries being mostly associated with lodgings, leading to eateries and hotels being conflated, is specious.

Folklore suggests a long Indian tradition of travelers stopping just for a quick meal at "feeding by session" places run by widows!

Indians always had their 'hotels' but didn't know the word. All in all, hotel as a word for an eatery is, I think, a matter of phonetic comfort in all Indian tongues. Only, the North Indians moved on, being more subject to the influences of 'the other' compared to South Indians. Give CNN one more decade and see!!!

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    Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Commented Aug 15, 2023 at 4:19
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    Since simple explanations are best, I think very early on the Indian learners of English found the word hotel uncomplicated, easy to say, In my opinion, the word "restaurant" is not at all complicated. Can you please give any supporting evidence for your hypothesis?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Aug 15, 2023 at 4:31

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