The India Club’s decor, its bar area, and even its signage all remain essentially untouched since the 1960s. Though often affectionately described as “frozen in time,” this is a modern restaurant with modern problems. It is fighting for survival for the second time in under three years, having successfully opposed a previous application by its developer landlord, Marston Properties, to absorb the venue into “upgraded” hotel accommodation. Its victory was short-lived. The lease came up for renewal, and in August 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, its landlord gave notice that it intends to occupy the building for its “own business use.” According to the India Club’s Crowdfunder campaign, the landlord wants to “modernise and run [its] own hotel” from the property. If that doesn’t go to plan, it proposes to increase the restaurant’s rent by a debilitating 80 percent.
The India Club’s struggle echoes similar fights across the city to protect successful food businesses from developer landlords. As Phiroza Marker, the India Club’s general manager, puts it: “A lot of old London is being swept away.” The gentrification of London neighbourhoods is almost always couched in familiar euphemisms, like “urban renewal” and “regeneration.” From Nour Cash and Carry in Brixton to the Latin Village in Seven Sisters, immigrant-run businesses are often disproportionately harmed by these actions. The atmosphere of the India Club may conjure nostalgia for another time and place, but it is threatened by a phenomenon that is tearing apart the social and cultural fabric of 21st-century London.
Like many restaurants in its position, the India Club has a limited number of options in its struggle for survival, and is currently raising money to fund its legal costs. Previous strategies have included applying to list the building on the basis of its “special architectural or historic interest,” which would have restricted a developer’s ability to alter the structure. It also coordinated a petition against its landlord’s planning application to convert the restaurant into hotel space, and submitted a formal objection to the Planning Committee. The restaurant’s petition was successful, and the landlord’s planning application was rejected. However, this only provided short-term respite for the India Club, with the same problem resurfacing less than three years after it appeared to have been resolved.
The India Club is a self-proclaimed “cultural institution,” with good reason to promote its own heritage. For one thing, it owes its existence to the India League, which brought ambitious Indian activists together with anti-imperialist Brits to campaign for Indian independence from within the U.K. The League established the India Club to encourage good relations with India after independence, hoping that the example of a thriving postcolonial state would encourage global anti-imperialist movements.
Despite this illustrious past, the attempt to protect the India Club by listing it failed. However, the restaurant then successfully opposed its landlord’s planning application to redevelop the building, which was unanimously rejected in 2018. Westminster Council acknowledged the restaurant’s “significant cultural importance,” and Marker says that “the council has been very supportive of us throughout.” Nonetheless, she also suggests that the India Club’s renewed difficulties show that councils still need more power to protect historical institutions in their boroughs.
The question of how London defines and values “heritage” has become a key battleground in the struggle for the city’s future. Until quite recently, this word was predominantly used to conjure images of castles and stately homes. Now, however, it is just as often employed by institutions that serve as community focal points. Immigrant-run food businesses like the India Club and the Latin Village market have emphasised this line of argument in their campaign materials. For many LGBTQ venues, too, becoming recognised as an “Asset of Community Value,” and arguing that they are preserving a community’s history, has become one of the few protective measures at their disposal, just as the case has been for the India Club.
The idea of heritage is increasingly being democratised, with organisations like the National Trust beginning to acknowledge the history of immigration to Britain, including by carrying out research on the India Club itself. Planning officials are coming to recognise that institutions such as these are vital community resources. The histories of many immigrant-run restaurants, including Notting Hill’s Mangrove, demonstrate these venues have more often been vilified, harassed, and driven to closure by the state than they have been celebrated.
Emphasising heritage has become a vital tool for established restaurants to protect themselves, but it is not without its pitfalls. Listing applications can fail, and often do; it’s impossible to predict how a local council will vote on the proposals they receive. Marker explains that, with the listing route closed, they were “left with very few other options of formal protection.”
Marker emphasises that the India Club is a solid business: “We’ve met all our rent obligations, even during this pandemic.” This makes it all the more perverse, therefore, that her family needed to enlist a professional historian in order to try and save the restaurant. Why, then, was an official declaration of historic interest the only thing standing between a successful institution and a potential wrecking ball?
Something is lost when a city resigns itself to the idea that a restaurant’s past is the only reason for securing its future. Of course, the India Club effortlessly evokes an atmosphere that modern reimaginings of historical Indian culture, in restaurants like Dishoom, strive hard to emulate — an appeal to nostalgia that is not without its detractors. However, its value does not solely lie in being a so-called “Raj relic,” in the misleading words of the Times (overlooking the restaurant’s anticolonial roots). Popular restaurants should be given space to flourish for the social purpose they serve alone, regardless of how illustrious their history may be.
The precarious position of so many London food businesses with strong community roots is a symptom of inadequate legislation, systemic racism, and a relentless focus on short-term profit. Disputes over whether the India Club is historic enough to deserve special protection risk obscuring the root causes of this emergency.
Restaurant leases are often subject to a so-called “open market” rent review, meaning that rent is reassessed on the basis of what someone else might be willing to pay for the same building in the same area. In theory, there is no limit to the future levels that rents could reach. A popular community institution can very quickly find itself surrounded by boutique hotels and upmarket restaurants willing to pay a fortune for what has suddenly become prime real estate. Furthermore, it is perfectly legal for a contract to include “upwards only” rent reviews, and many do: Even if the market takes a downturn, the worst-case scenario for a landlord is that the rent they are owed stays the same. Heads, I win; tails, you lose.
High-end and chain restaurants, as well as independents with slick branding and media buzz, have stronger bargaining power with landlords than long-established, family-run businesses. Marker’s father, Yadgar, who owns the restaurant, is “old-school,” she explains with pride. The only 21st-century innovation she can think of is the new till in the bar (“so we could have a happy hour.”) Historically, its popularity has relied on word of mouth; until a few years ago, the restaurant didn’t even have a website. In a city where novelty is prized above all else, restaurants like this are in a weaker position at the negotiating table. Tenants like the India Club are often faced with just two equally unappealing choices: accept the landlord’s terms, or leave.
The ongoing popularity of the India Club as a meeting point for the South Asian diaspora, for local students, and for those involved in the city’s creative industries ought to be enough to secure its future. Historic England cited the restaurant’s “utilitarian” interior as an argument against listing. Plenty of architectural movements have understood well that utility and beauty are not mutually exclusive, and might well dispute this assessment. It is more important, however, to acknowledge the absurdity that the India Club is forced to make historic arguments to justify its existence in the first place.
The India Club is indeed utilitarian: That is what makes it so precious. “It’s a very democratic setting,” explains Marker. In normal circumstances, the seats are close together, to create “a very communal atmosphere … often strangers sitting next to each other would start speaking with one another.” The restaurant is split between a spacious curry house on the upper level and a lounge bar below, which encourages you to order a mango lassi and, well, lounge. This allows the India Club to be many things to many people: a buzzing restaurant with long tables for sharing food after work, a circle of seats by the window for intimate catch-up drinks with friends, or a quiet corner of the lounge bar for finishing off an essay with a pot of chai and a few snacks. Budget-conscious diners can buy a dosa for the price of a sandwich in a local cafe, and might even have enough change left over for a cold bottle of Cobra.
To the side of a newsagents’ and a Greggs on the Strand, an unassuming white paving stone bears the words “Ho-el Strand Continental,” in reference to the no-frills hotel on the building’s top floors (the “t” faded long ago). It marks the enchanted portal to a restaurant that has been characterised as a “time capsule,” a “break from the frenetic present,” and a “living, breathing museum piece.” “We still get people saying they came here before we took over [24 years ago],” says Marker, “and it’s not changed at all.”
Up the marble stairs, the colourful walls of the bar and restaurant feel almost desperate to tell their stories, if only they could be made out over the animated conversations of students mixing with loyal regulars and a playlist of classic, feel-good pop in the background. On an early summer evening, the sunlight casts long shadows down the Strand and pierces the stained glass of the bar’s Edwardian windows. It bathes black-and-white portraits of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi in a deep, golden hue.
The India Club has offered generations of Indians in London a ready-made community on their doorstep and a hot, affordable meal, originally served canteen-style. “It’s one of the very first restaurants to serve South Indian food in London, and its dosas are justly famous,” notes food writer Sejal Sukhadwala. This was a far cry from the Anglo-Indian fine dining available at institutions like Veeraswamy in Regent Street, which largely catered to the tastes of Brits with colonial connections (and now holds a Michelin star).
Word soon spread, and the India Club began to draw in academics and students from the nearby universities with its modest prices and its progressive founding ethos. Some now refer to it as a space for adda, A not-quite-translatable word of Bengali origin, which describes getting together for “long, informal and unrigorous conversations.” Its position in the heart of the West End means it has long attracted actors, comedians, and other creatives. “We don’t pay [anybody] special attention,” explains Marker, so “a lot of famous people are camouflaged in there … there’s no fuss.”
The India Club’s role in contemporary social life is just as important as its roots. To argue otherwise means ceding ground to a narrow vision of how the future of London could look. “It’s not a museum piece,” says Marker. “You can actually take part in this experience.” London is already a city where capital largely dictates the cultural landscape. It now runs the risk of letting money alone determine its social character, perhaps preserving just a few historical exceptions in case visitors find them quaint. It is only by resisting “museumification” that London’s restaurants might be accorded the respect they deserve for the vital role they play in the modern city.
The pandemic has not caused the problems facing London’s independent restaurants, but it has accelerated them. The trade body U.K. Hospitality proposed a set of plans aimed at alleviating some of the sector’s difficulties, including grants, loans, and a percentage of debt cancellation. However, it also appears to view the chaos caused by the virus as an opportunity to rethink the way the industry operates, echoing many London restaurateurs’ concerns about the status quo. Among its requests is a “long-term commercial property review: to address longer-term, structural property market flaws and anomalies.”
U.K. Hospitality’s suggestions have been consistently ignored. Even if its recommendations are enacted, though, they are unlikely to go far enough. New York City implemented commercial rent controls during World War II and into the 1960s. Like London, 21st-century New York is no stranger to gentrification, and has recently debated reintroducing similar plans for smaller businesses. If the U.K. is to recognise that these institutions play an important social role, as well as an economic one, it must also start considering measures along these lines. If regulating rent increases sounds like a radical intervention, it is only because this form of government action appears so alien to a free-market logic that is often assumed to be inevitable: the idea that business interests should be left alone to regulate themselves.
In the face of what is often framed as a “David and Goliath” battle across the city, some pessimism is understandable, and perhaps unavoidable. However, London can and should learn from the India Club’s example. Marker describes how, when it first came under threat, the restaurant “became a real campaign hotspot … it was an exciting, electric atmosphere.”
This is not an easy time to rally behind a cause. Social distancing makes physical displays of solidarity difficult, and financial uncertainty is widespread. Despite this, the India Club’s Crowdfunder surpassed its original target and continues to grow. “We’ve been overwhelmed by the support,” Marker says.
So many of the oral histories collected from the India Club emphasise the atmosphere of optimism that it encapsulated in the years immediately following decolonisation. It was, and remains, a hopeful place. While countries are becoming more insular and inward-looking, argues Marker, “it should continue to be a bridge between different cultures … a reminder that we do live in a multicultural city.” It offers something vital to Londoners of Indian heritage; to the city’s creative communities; and to generations of students at some of the world’s most international universities.
London must harness every bit of the India Club’s optimism and determination. To do otherwise would be to risk settling for the “regenerated” city London is threatening to become. Londoners must encourage themselves, and one another, to imagine and fight for a vision of the city they want to live in — the city London could be — rather than giving in to its inevitable demise. For the India Club, and for those who love it, that future city should look a lot less like another sleek hotel, and much more like the restaurant they have long called “home.”
Sean Wyer (@Seanoftheshire) is a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley.