It was shortly after our visit to Veeraswamy that Mrs M commented that she remembered going for a meal at another very traditional Indian restaurant somewhere down the Strand, but this one at the opposite end of the price spectrum from the luxuries of Veeraswamy. But, she feared, it was probably long gone. Something in what she said struck a chord, though, as on my way up and down the eastern end of the Strand, I’d often looked across at a rather faded hotel and wondered what went on in the function rooms that were visible through the upstairs windows.
A wander down for a closer inspection confirmed my hunch. Though shrouded in scaffolding, a single door at ground level carried a sign for the Strand Continental Hotel – and the India Club. It’s not an auspicious entrance – two narrow flights of worn linoleum stairs are probably enough to put off the unadventurous. At the first landing, there’s a sign off to a cocktail bar – of which more later – but in search of the restaurant, I carried on up until I found myself in a simply decorated room, with plain wooden tables and a variety of chairs, but with the unmistakeable smell of good curry in the air.
Fortunately, the chance for a lunch with London office colleagues gave me an excuse to return within the week, and an opportunity to do a bit of research. There’s no definitive history, but as far as I can gather, the India Club was first formed in 1946 by Krishna Menon, India’s first High Commissioner to the UK. It took up residence in the Strand Continental, just opposite the Indian High Commission in Aldwych, in 1954, and has been a home for Indian expatriates, and lovers of good Indian food, ever since. The decor is deliberately simple, purportedly reflecting the style found in India in the 1940s, and underlining the restaurant’s offer of good food at prices you’d not find anywhere else in that area of London. And you can bring your own drink as well! It’s a bit of a hidden secret – I’ve found articles in the Telegraph from 2001, and from Will Self in 2011, and it gets a mention in a few of the food guides. The Trip Advisor reviews are interesting – and very polarised; clearly this is a place that most of those who use it ‘get’, and love, and those few who don’t get it, don’t like it.
I returned with a little trepidation, but was delighted that my colleagues ‘got it’ right from the start and loved it. £14 a head bought us a tasty 4-course set meal that left us all comfortably full, and the ambience, free of walk-in tourist trade, is ideal for relaxed conversation and a bit of lamp-swinging. On our way down, we explored the cocktail bar below – again done out to reflect 1940s Indian style and then left alone ever since. There are some fascinating bits of ephemera that speak of its past, including the Roll of Honour of Presidents of the Curry Club, running continuously since 1962.
With London seemingly reaching a pace of gentrification and homogenisation that threatens to sweep away all that is original, quirky and not throat-cuttingly commercial, it’s a joy to discover somewhere that’s survived intact for 70 years without becoming some sort of theme park. The India Club is a real one-off and we’ll definitely be back. For more details, visit the Hotel’s website; the menu prices are slightly out of date, but you’ll get a good feel for what’s on offer.