The Fight to Save One of London's Most Historic Curry Houses
Founded in 1946 by the India League, an organisation that campaigned for British India’s independence, The India Club is part-restaurant, part-time capsule. Now redevelopment plans threaten to turn the building into a luxury hotel.
Photos courtesy The India Club.
Kusoom Vadgama first ate at The India Club in January 1954. A kindly embassy official had taken pity on her and recommended the restaurant, which sits on The Strand in Central London. Vadgama was 21 and desperately homesick for the subcontinent. She knew only a few people in the capital and was tired of eating baked beans each evening in her bedsit. The India Club, the official explained, was a rare gathering place for South Asians in the city. She could find it inside the Hotel Strand Continental, a few yards away from Somerset House. It was a good spot for those searching for both friends and food.
Sixty-four years later, Vadgama remains a regular customer at The India Club, but she is increasingly concerned about its future. The club’s lease ends in 2019 and its freeholder has produced redevelopment plans under which the seven-storey building would be demolished and replaced with a luxury hotel.
It’s a fairly standard story for London, though the company says it’s just one option under consideration. But The India Club’s cult following is furious and set on saving the restaurant. A petition to keep it open has gained over 19,000 signatures and the manager tells me that the publicity has attracted lots of new of diners. For regulars like Vadgama, the restaurant’s importance goes beyond food. In her eyes, it has served as a lynchpin for a rapidly evolving British Indian community.
“The first time I went, I was greeted like a long lost child,” Vadgama recalls. “When you come from a colony, it takes a little while to get used to that—to being treated as an equal. It was wonderful. I started going to the curry house after college, at weekends. It was a treat, you know? You get fed up with beans on toast and baked potatoes. And there weren’t all these Asian restaurants back then. In ’53 there was the India Club and then another one on Shaftesbury Avenue.”
She trails off. “Have you tried their dosas?” she asks. “At the India Club? You must try the dosas.”
The India Club is part-decent restaurant, part-colonial time capsule. It was founded in the late forties and has its roots in the India League, an organisation that campaigned for British India’s independence. The group’s founding members included Lady Edwina Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first Prime Minister. The restaurant soon became a hub for Indian intellectuals, diplomats, and writers.
It remains popular in academic circles today—professors from the London School of Economics and King’s College, both nearby, are loyal customers. Undergrads rent out the club’s rooms for society meetings and lawyers drop in for lunch when working at the Royal Courts of Justice, further down The Strand. Will Self has a regular table and the club also plays host to a few Indo-British groups, such as the Indian Journalists’ Association.
But in 2018’s London, filled with citizens of the world and a few hundred-odd curry houses, it is no longer the sole space for British Asians and Indian expats to gather.
Overseeing the club is Phiroza Marker, who took over its management from her father Yadgar.
“It’s been in our family for the past 20 years,” she says. “Me and my siblings grew up with the club, we helped out over the summer holidays. It’s in my blood.”
In an effort to save the club, Marker has applied to Historic England, to have it listed as a place of historic importance.
“If the club is listed, it makes it much more difficult to redevelop,” she explains. “Not impossible. But much more difficult.”
As a millennial who took over the family curry business, Marker is unusual. In a recent Guardian long read on the demise of the curry house, food writer Bee Wilson found that many young British Asians are choosing to pursue more lucrative careers outside the curry industry. (Marker herself worked for a few years in finance.) And with Brits now learning to cook Indian food at home and supermarkets offering cheap ready meals, the flock-wallpapered, korma-slinging curry house is falling out of fashion. An industry that was once a central touchstone of identity, employment, and community for British Asians is fading.
Fortunately, The India Club’s unique history insulates it somewhat from the problems faced by other traditional Indian eateries. The restaurant is also financially stable, mostly untouched by the recruitment crisis in the British curry industry, although Marker does tell me that hiring chefs is increasingly difficult due to visa restrictions.
The India Club is a hard place to find. A sign by a slim doorway marks its entrance but I still walk past it twice when attempting to Google Map my way in on a recent Saturday night. Eventually, I climb up two narrow flights of stairs and discover a packed room. Pictures of Gandhi and Krishna Menon (the club’s founder) dot the walls. There are Formica tables and paper napkins and food is served the South Indian way; in spotless metal plates that distort your reflection as you go in for a bite.
A rowdy crowd of students are celebrating a friend’s graduation at one table. They’ve brought their own bottles of wine and have been to the club a few times but haven’t heard about the campaign to save it. “Do you have a link to the petition?” one of them asks when I mention it. “We’ll sign it! We want to sign it!”
At another table, a 20-strong group of colleagues from an independent film company are out for a birthday meal. At a third sits Mahesh Nair, who has lived in London for ten years and grew up in Central and South India. It’s his first visit to the club.
“I heard about the petition and thought I should come by,” Nair says. “And you know, I walked in and thought, ‘It smells exactly like an Indian coffee shop.’ It reminds me of my childhood.”
The food at The India Club is good, but ordinary and certainly nothing to Instagram about. My friend and I order chili bhajis, which are rich with batter and spice. I steal some of his butter chicken, which is creamy, though not particularly exciting. The club also serves a dum biriyani, where the mix of rice and meat is slow-cooked. I’ve never eaten one in Britain and order it with chicken out of curiosity. The dish reminds me of India, Eid celebrations, and my grandmother’s kitchen.
And this must be why The India Club inspires such loyalty. So much of the restaurant’s power lies in its ability to evoke nostalgia and familiarity. Its customers love the consistency: the hearty and no-frills food, the family-run business, and the quiet space in a touristy part of town. I don’t know if affection and nostalgia alone will be enough to save the club, but I, along with most of the restaurant’s customers, dearly hope so.