In an industry in thrall to the new, sometimes our most old-school restaurants get neglected. Loyd Grossman returns to the fabled India Club.
In 2017, new restaurants opened in London at a dizzying, NewYorkworthy pace. As a result old warhorses were headed for the knacker’s yard unable to survive the twin assaults of an increasingly novelty-hungry audience and steeply rising costs principally caused by London’s inflationary real estate market.
Sadly, our restaurant history is being erased. Unlike Paris say, we just aren’t very good at preserving our most historic feeding stations.
London’s Mario and Franco’ chain of Italian trattorias, for example, were an intrinsic part of the city’s Beatles/ Stones/Kinks swinging era and not a single one remains.
Now, London’s second most historic Indian restaurant, The India Club, is threatened with eviction as developers wish to turn the building it lives in into a fancy boutique hotel. The building in question is now The Strand Intercontinental Hotel, which in spite of its Park Lane-ish, cosmopolitan-sounding name could best be described as a budget hotel.
When I was a student at the LSE in the mid 70s our twin refuges from the horrors of college catering were the staff canteen of the Indian High Commission and the India Club.
Forty years later the India Club is relatively unchanged. Founded in 1947 by Krishna Menon, Indian nationalist and erstwhile High Commissioner to the UK, as a London hangout for Indian students and their friends, The India Club retains a pleasantly dated and slightly seedy air poised on the threshold of post-colonialism. The instantcustard-coloured yellow walls are hung with portraits of Menon, Nehru and Ghandi, the table tops are wood-look plastic laminate, the cutlery utilitarian. As in all properly old school restaurants, the staff wear white tunics and are not recent art school graduates.
There is also the requisite number of arcane customs. Beer is served in the restaurant, but wine and spirits need to be purchased from the bar below and brought upstairs: at lunchtime the hotel receptionist doubles as bartender. When I presented a credit card, my waiter paused for a nano-second before asking ‘No cash?’
For such eccentricities you get very decent food, presented in the nononsense style of small metal dishes to be decanted on to plain white crockery. My masala dhosa- for those who don’t know, it’s an Indian crepewas huge, crispy, generously stuffed with paneer and potatoes, and served with coconut chutney. Spinach dhal was confidently, but not aggressively spiced.
The India Club is still popular with academics from the LSE and King’s College: phrases like ‘sustainable development’ hang in the air with the pungency of last night’s curry. It is cheap and good and atmospheric in a way that intended roll-outs or Michelin-star aspirants cannot be. And it is a part of London’s social, political and gastronomic history that should be cherished.
This article was first published in Issue 13 of CODE Quarterly.