My London Shoes website blog for this week was a bit unusual as it had a bit of a gastronomical theme about it – as the subject matter is all about London’s ‘oldest’ Indian restaurants.
I had always believed that London’s first Indian restaurants came on the scene in the 1960s and ‘70s, but it turns out that the very first one was actually established way back over 200 hundred years ago, in 1810 !!!
The very first Indian restaurant in London, to be owned and run by an Indian, was called the “Hindoostane Coffee House” and was owned by one ‘Sake Dean Mahomed’, a Bengali who was a trainee surgeon and a captain in the British East India Company.
Sake Dean Mahomed was well versed in the English language and he was married to an Irish girl, and together they moved to London, and lived in Portman Square, which at the time was a posh area where a lot of colonials and wealthy former employees of the East India Company came to live.
The “Hindoostane Coffee House” was located at 34 George Street (now renumbered as 102 George Street) — in the posh part of Marylebone, between Gloucester Place and Baker Street – just a couple of minutes’ walk from Marble Arch.
The actual site of what was once the restaurant is today marked by a Green Plaque that was unveiled on the building that is there now, by the City of Westminster in 2005 – to commemorate Sake Dean Mahomed’s achievements.
Indian curry was already popular in England in the 19th century, as spices had been used in English cookery since the time of the Crusades in the late 11th century – but the 1800’s saw the introduction of varied spices such as turmeric, cayenne, ginger, cumin, fenugreek and caraway seeds that soon became popular additions to more varied menus.
Those Brits who’d had already had experience of spicy food when either stationed or working in India, tried to recreate the dishes in their own homes when they returned back to the UK – and Sake Dean Mohamed saw this as a great opportunity to be ahead of the game and open a restaurant that specialised and served only Indian spicy food.
So he set up the “Hindoostane Coffee House” in fashionable George Street with a view to selling popular hot drinks alongside ‘Indianised’ British food.
In the early 1800’s it was not common for people to ‘eat-out’ in restaurants as they do today, and so Sake Dean Mohamed provided a ‘home delivery ‘service, a concept that was way ahead of its time back then.
However, his vision was probably a bit too far ahead of its time, as after a year or so of running his restaurant, he went bankrupt and the business folded.
It wasn’t then until the late 1800’s that the desire for Indian food picked up again – and this was probably as a result of Queen Victoria’s vocal love of a good ‘ruby’ – regularly served up to her by her Indian servants.
In the early 1900’s, merchant sailors from Bangladesh started opening up eating establishments in London, but just for members of their own communities – however, these curry houses started becoming more commercial in the 1940s – and the popularity of the Indian restaurants for the great British public as a whole, really picked up in the late 60’s early 70’s following the increase in Asian immigration.
So – for my quest this week I decided to track down London’s oldest Indian restaurants, and find out a bit of history about them.
My ‘London Shoes’ covered a fair few miles trekking from west to east London – but it was well worth it, as I managed to track down the ‘Smokes’ 3 oldest Indian curry houses, plus the oldest restaurant in Brick Lane.
The “Veeraswamy” – in Regent Street:
The Veeraswamy is the oldest surviving Indian restaurant in London – having first opened its doors in 1926.
It is located in busy and wealthy Regent Street, just down the road from Oxford Circus tube station.
It was originally opened by an Edward Palmer a retired Indian Army officer and the grandson of an English general and an Indian princess – Palmer revolutionised London’s Indian dining scene, making it fashionable for everyone to afford and eat a good ‘ruby’.
In its early days, the Veeraswamy restaurant just used to serve Anglo-Indian dishes, but nowadays it prides itself in serving up specialist dishes from the Punjab, Lucknow, Kashmir, and Goa regions of Asia.
In 2016 the Veeraswamy restaurant was awarded a Michelin star, and at that time the Michelin Guide inspectors said that “It may have opened in 1926 but this celebrated Indian restaurant just keeps getting better and better!”
The “Punjab” – in Covent Garden:
The ‘Punjab’ restaurant in Neal Street, just a few mins walk from Covent Garden tube station – first opened its doors in 1946.
It is the oldest North Indian restaurant in the UK, serving its food to hungry punters in the heart of London’s theatre land.
Its first owner was a ‘Gurbachan Singh Maan’ who was a well-known Indian wrestler of the time – a skill he apparently called upon and used many times to ‘sort-out’ any unruly customers.
The restaurant initially only sold home-cooked Punjabi food to Indian mariners working in the London docks – but very soon business boomed to such an extent that its menu expanded, and today it is one of the most popular restaurants in the West End district.
Ownership of the ‘Punjab’ has been handed down through generations of the same family, and today it is run by Mr Maan’s grandsons.
The “Halal” – in Aldgate:
The ‘Halal’ restaurant first opened its doors in 1939 and is the oldest Indian restaurant in East London.
It operates from an old building from the 1700’s that is situated on the corner of Alie Street and St Mark’s Place, in the Aldgate district.
The building was originally a seaman’s mission for Indian sailors who had landed and disembarked at the Pool of London.
The restaurant is still going strong after 70 years in the very same distinctive premises it started from, which is now Grade II listed building.
The Halal’s menu is simple and straight forward, as is the décor of the restaurant – but the food is top draw and the place is extremely popular with lunchtime City workers and night time revellers.
The “Sheba” – Brick Lane-Whitechapel
The Sheba Restaurant opened in 1974 so it is not one of the oldest Indian restaurants in London, but it is the oldest curry house in “Brick Lane” – the street in the Aldgate/Whitechapel area renowned for all its rows of Indian Restaurants.
Over the past decades The Sheba has built up a great reputation with real curry buffs from home and abroad, and it is now talked of as one of the best curry houses in London.
Articles about the Sheba restaurant have often featured in popular magazines and papers such as Timeout, The Evening Standard, The Metro, the Eastern Eye and the Cobra Good Curry Guide – where the ‘Sheba’ is described as the ”Queen of Brick Lane curries”
Having walked quite a few miles seeking out these specific locations, it would only be right to treat myself to a cheeky ‘ruby’ before I headed off back home – and so, with that thought in mind I sat myself down at a table in the ‘Halal’ restaurant (as mentioned above) that is tucked away in the back streets of Aldgate – and I proceeded to get stuck into a chicken korma, with Bombay aloo, mushroom rice, a slab of plain naan bread plus 4 papadoms – all washed down with a couple of large bottles of Cobra – and I have to say that I felt I was in curry heaven, as the food was absolutely top notch and the service from the staff was exceptional.
So I will definitely be returning and I would thoroughly recommend this place to anyone fancying a quality ‘ruby’ when out and about in the ‘smoke’.
Hope you enjoyed this blog and its accompanying photos.