I remember watching a programme on BBC2 about the history of Indian food in Britain and how Indian restaurants as we know them had their origin, not in the 60s as I’d imagined, but way back in London before the Second World War. I also vaguely remember mention that the original was still in business but, as I wasn’t often in Town at the time, that bit of information just got filed away – until much more recently when Mrs M confirmed that not only was it still in business, but that she’d been there and wouldn’t mind a return visit! Even better, the diary planets managed to fall into alignment, giving us a weekend in London exactly five years to the day after we met – what more encouragement could one need?
First the history bit (and let’s hope Wikipedia hasn’t led me astray as the restaurant’s own material is a bit thin). Veeraswamy was first opened in 1926 by Edward Palmer, the great-grandson of an English soldier and an Indian princess. It was taken over by Sir William Steward in 1930 who, with his actress wife Greta Gaye, steered it through difficult early years and into success that lasted under his ownership until 1967. The restaurant also lays claim to introducing the drinking of lager with Indian food following a visit in its very early days by Prince Axel of Denmark, who arranged for a barrel of Carlsberg to be served and made sure the restaurant received one annually thereafter.
Like any decent restaurant in central London, Veeraswamy doesn’t trade on past glories. Although it had an art deco makeover for its 80th anniversary in 2006, it has now reverted to a modern motif well suited to its social position and avoiding any sense of a kind of curry house theme park. Though the interior is lush, the exterior is subtle, with the Regent Street side bearing just a couple of banners and the main entrance tucked discreetly off the main road in Swallow Street. Likewise, having majored on Anglo-Indian dishes throughout its early history as British palates became accustomed to Indian flavours, it now offers carefully selected dishes from across the Indian continent, accompanied by an excellent wine list and some mouth-watering cocktails. There are one or two classics from the opening years on the menu that I had to try just for the sake of it.
I’m not a food critic, so I’m not going to attempt a proper review of the food, other than to say that it was everything we’d expected and more. A profusion of beautifully-matched spices, and dishes that fell together neatly with a little wise advice from the attentive and helpful staff. It’s not cheap, but it is good value and – particularly important for my pathetic MidCentury tummy – we left comfortably full after three courses but not overstuffed and having enjoyed every mouthful. And next time we tuck into something from the local (and very good) Indian restaurants in Tewkesbury, we’ll know where it all started.
It’s not hard to find information about Veeraswamy, once you know about it but, just in case, the link to their website is here.