Anticipating high demand, we showed up early. But even at 12:20 the restaurant was heaving and we were told there would be an hour’s wait. These are the last days of the India Club on the Strand, and it is going to be missed.
The history of this institution is well known, but always worth retelling. It was founded in 1951 by the India League, a nationalist organisation set up in London in 1928 by Krishna Menon, a member of the wealthy Vengalil family whose life as a young man in London included securing a masters degree at the LSE, winning a council seat for Labour in the Metropolitan Borough of St Pancras and becoming founding editor of Pelican books. Menon went on to become, by some assessments, the second most powerful man in India after Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister.
The India Club’s first home was reportedly in nearby Craven Street. It then moved to 143 Strand, at the lately-pedestrianised, Aldwych end of the street, taking up residence, as it were, within the Hotel Strand Continental. Initially, its clientele were visiting, activist and in-migrating Indians. Later, it opened for general custom.
Ironically for a dining and social venue born of a movement for radical change, the India Club’s unique selling point became its timelessness. From the worn floor lettering at the entrance, to the photos of dignitaries and the yellowed pages from India Weekly on the walls, it became a chapter of history preserved. The way in, a narrow slot between a newsagent and a café, is easy to miss – a slim portal into vast past.
I got acquainted with the place only last year thanks to an On London writer suggesting we meet there to eat. By autumn, I had booked the lounge bar for the website’s final event of 2022, a Christmas party and end of year review. It was a huge success despite the competing attraction of a World Cup semi-final and the unforeseen dual potential attendance-killers of icy weather and a rail strike, though at one point mid-afternoon I had feared the worst.
Marooned on my Hackney doorstep, weighed down with roll-up banners and an improvised stage and unable to summon a cab – I’d never have got all that stuff on a bus – the possibility arose that Sadiq Khan would be at my party but I would not. I was saved by one of my sons, who hailed an alternative ride for me. The Mayor, preceded by his security detail, made a witty and generous speech, as did others from the capital’s political world. Robert Gordon Clark and Professor Tony Travers presented one of their legendary London quizzes. The food was delicious, the atmosphere superb – a London night I will never forget.
On Friday, the day of our last lunch at the India Club, my two dining companions and I waited in exactly that same first-floor space for a table to become available upstairs, pleasantly immersed in squashy sofas of a type more familiar from costume dramas than real life. In the end, we only had to be patient for 30 minutes before ascending to be fed.
The restaurant was packed and loud. Unseasonal sunshine poured through its windows, which look out on to the Monopoly board avenue. Our fellow customers, I assume, were mostly the regular crowd – academics and staff from neighbouring Somerset House and King’s College and nearby Royal Courts of Justice, making the most of the last few weeks before the kitchen closes for good. There were loads of them. We squeezed in at the end of a long table, survived the blow of learning there were no dosas left, ordered the set menu and were grateful. Not a scrap of food was left.
The India Club’s future has been under threat for a few years. The site’s freeholders, Marston Properties, wanted to enlarge and modernise the hotel, expelling the club. A 2017 planning application for the six-storey building was rejected by Westminster Council‘s planning committee the following year in recognition of the India Club’s historic importance. “The India Club has a special place in the history of our Indian community and it is right that we protect it from demolition,” said committee chair, Tony Devenish, at the time.
But last year the lease ran out. And last month the club’s manager Phiroza Marker announced the end will come on the 17th of this month. She and her father, Yadgar Marker, took on the running of the club from the India League 26 years ago. She has described the decision as “heartbreaking”.
She was, however, there on Friday, present in the restaurant and the kitchen. I thanked her for the club’s hospitality, especially last December, and she confirmed that the India Club is looking for a new home. A bit of old London is passing, but the magic of the city never dies.