Tributes and laments have been pouring in from the UK and abroad following confirmation that a much-loved Indian restaurant and hotel in central London is to close. The India Club has fended off previous attempts to shut it down to make way for a glossy new development. The battle has now been lost and many of its loyal supporters are devastated.
Ever since the news broke of the Club’s closure after 70 years there have been daily queues outside with two-hour waits for a table. People are clearly anxious to eat in the restaurant before a beloved part of London’s heritage disappears.
India Club is on the first floor of the Hotel Strand Continental. It is a modest building and easy to miss with only a small sign outside. One enters through a door up a winding staircase to a bar on the first floor and restaurant on the second with meeting rooms and a handful of bedrooms.
Founded in 1951 on The Strand, the India Club was regarded by many Indians residing in the UK as a ‘home away from home’ It was a popular meeting place for leading writers, intellectuals and politicians associated with India’s independence. It is of historical significance for both India and the UK, having been set up by Krishna Menon, India’s first High Commissioner to the UK with Lady Mountbatten and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as founding members. They would meet beneath the stained glass windows of the art-deco style bar to discuss their plans for India’s future. Their photos still adorn the walls of the restaurant, bar and meeting rooms. Other well known regulars included the Labour politician Michael Foot, and artist M F Husain who are no longer around to bemoan the closure of their favoured eating place. Renowned figures who are reputed to have dined there over the years include Dadabhai Naoroji, the first British Indian MP, and philosopher Bertrand Russell.
The British-Indian politician and businessman, Lord Karan Bilimoria, said: “I helped to save it 6 years ago and fought very hard, however now the landlords have finally got their way. I used to go to it as boy with my father 50 years ago when he was posted in the UK. as a Colonel! Very sad to see a historic institution close. It is one of the first restaurants I sold Cobra Beer to and a loyal customer for nearly 1/3rd of a century!”
Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, too, expressed his sorrow at the closure of this iconic eatery. In a heartfelt post on X (formerly Twitter) Tharoor wrote, “As the son of one of its founders, I lament the passing of an institution that served so many Indians (and not only Indians) for nearly three-quarters of a century. For many students, journalists and travellers, it was a home away from home, offering simple and good quality Indian food at affordable prices as well as a convivial atmosphere to meet and maintain friendships.”
He also shared two images along with the post adding, “As the picture shows, I was there this summer with my sister (we are standing in front of photos of my father attending club events in the early 1950s) and am sad to realise that that was my last visit, since I will not be returning to London this year. Om Shanti!”
Since the Club is located opposite Bush House which served as the headquarters of the BBC World Service for seventy years, it was a regular haunt for journalists like me who worked there.
Ruth Hogarth, a former Bush House colleague, recalls: “During my 20 years at Bush House, across the road from the India Club, I was a regular visitor along with many World Service colleagues. I particularly loved the dosas in the unpretentious restaurant on the second floor, snatched during a break in a long night shift. Later, when I worked for King’s College London on the Strand campus,the beautiful first floor bar was our go-to place for cocktails to celebrate special occasions.”
Another BBC journalist, Mike Jervis, says: “Climbing the stairs to the India Club was like entering a different old-style world. The calm atmosphere and no frills traditional food provided a welcome dinner break from the pressures of the newsroom. But there were also other diversions like attending the launch of books by former colleagues.”
It is difficult to explain the appeal of an establishment which made little attempt to change with the times. When regular diners visited they knew exactly what was on the menu, simple South Indian fare: poppadoms served with coconut salsa and lime pickle, samosas, an assortment of bhajis, creamy chickpeas, tender lamb bhuna, butter chicken, paneer with finely chopped spinach and a choice of parathas and other breads. Prices are modest, you leave feeling full without hurting your wallet compared to newer and trendier Indian restaurants with eye-watering charges. The Marker family have been running the India Club since rescuing it from near-ruin some twenty years ago. They are proud of sticking to their roots and refusing to be intimidated by trendier restaurants sprouting around them. They were committed to preserving its authenticity and this clearly struck a chord with its customers. Sadly, they have finally been forced to succumb to the power and influence of big developers who value profit more than history, culture and tradition. With the demise of the treasured India Club a crucial part of the joint heritage of the UK and India will be lost for ever.