I almost miss The India Club entirely. Ambling down the Strand, with one eye glued to the hovering blue Citymapper dot on my phone, and the other on the restaurant chains and glossy hotels towering above me, I'm wavering outside Gregg's, about to turn back, when I spot the words 'Hotel Strand Continental' on the cracked floor tiles at the narrow entranceway. A sign that used to be white announces there are vacancies starting from £1 for a single room. Beneath is a menu listing curry-house classics, the prices on which also hark back to another era.
I ascend the black and white tile-chequered stairs, following the increasing clamour coming from above. At the second floor, I turn the corner into the restaurant; a pale yellow room with faded pictures hanging on the walls. The tables are already half-full; on them sits a cross-section of London on a chilly Tuesday night. City boys in pastel-coloured shirts are knocking back pints; pensive, bespectacled gents are eating alone with their noses stuck in paperbacks; and raucous groups of colleagues on Christmas dos out are pulling crackers and cackling. Students from nearby King's College pile in, red-faced from the cold, and squeeze tightly onto the formica tables, ordering lassis and bowls of yellow dal which make their glasses steam up.
My friend and I are politely asked to move tables as the room becomes busier, and we gather up our hats and scarves and oblige — the musical chairs only adds to the pleasantly chaotic feel. The waiter — who doesn't seem the least bit frazzled to be looking after a room of 40-plus diners practically single-handedly — takes our order from the plastic menu. The dishes are firmly south Indian: we start with poppadoms dunked into a gentle coconut salsa and lime pickle and pale gold samosas with punchy coriander chutney. Chickpeas are cooked with warming spices until creamy in the masala puri chaat; lamb bhuna comprises generous hunks of tender meat in a sticky, thick curry; and little cubes of paneer come drowning in a grass-green sauce of finely chopped spinach. We gorge on teeth-achingly sweet butter chicken with a pool of ghee glistening on top. Flaky paratha breads are on hand to mop up all the juices.
The food is hardly boundary-pushing. It probably won't make it onto your Instagram. It's home-style, soul-soothing stuff and, given the no-corkage BYOB offering, you can eat like a king here for £15 per head. I begin to wonder how the place is surviving, surrounded by its money-drenched neighbours: glitzy developments on one side, Somerset House on the other, flanked by Frankie and Benny's and the recently renovated Simpsons On The Strand, where a penguin-suited waiter will carve you rib of beef tableside from a silver trolley. It feels like the guy who's stayed at the party long after the lights have come up.
Downstairs at a busy reception, I meet Phiroza Marker, daughter of Yadgar. The Marker family have been running The India Club restaurant on the second floor, the first-floor bar (which serves moreish street food snacks with Cobra beer), and the handful of dorm-style rooms at the Hotel Strand Continental hotel since rescuing it from near-ruin 20 years ago. The building itself has been here since 1947. "We've stuck to our roots" explains Phiroza, gesturing to the club's original till, displayed on a shelf above framed photographs of customers with slicked-back hair wearing 1950s suits. "We've seen off a lot of competition from much trendier restaurants. The interiors, the food – it's all the same as it was." I can’t help but mention Dishoom, where The India Club's vibe has surely been reimagined with a multi-million-pound budget. Phiroza nods in recognition. "This is the authentic version."
Its astonishing history puts The India Club firmly in 'semi-hidden gem' territory. The restaurant is where the India League used to convene in the capital, partly to placate homesickness, and partly to talk politics. Founded by Krishna Menon, an academic and the first Indian ambassador to the UK, the group was an instrumental part of the Indian independence movement in London. They'd meet beneath the stained glass windows of the art-deco style bar, drink tea, and deliberate on India's future. "It's so much more than a restaurant and bar" says Phiroza. "It's an integral part of London's fabric." After independence was declared, the site remained an important meeting place for Indian groups in the UK, from the Curry Club (spot its last 35 presidents listed in swirly gold writing on a wooden plaque on the wall), to the Indian Journalists Association. You can feel the ghosts of all those who've sat here before you, for a chicken curry and a beer, putting the world to rights.
Under the approving gaze of a faded portrait of Gandhi, Phiroza continues; "Artists, politicians and academics have been meeting here for years,". The restaurant still has fans among London's more notable inhabitants. Phiroza's father Yadgar rattles off the names of some well-known regulars: writer Will Self, Judge Owen Davies QC, Labour politician Michael Foot, and artist M F Husain. Former Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was one of the early visitors. I start subtly eyeing up the other tables, trying to spot anyone who looks important.
Just as I'm plotting to become a regular myself, chatting up academics and having significant, deep thoughts, I discover the sadder side of the story. In late-September 2017, it was announced that The India Club was under threat of closure from — you guessed it — a fat-pocketed developer. A planning application on behalf of the landlord has requested that the six-storey Edwardian building be made into a modern hotel complex. "London should remind you of your history" says Phiroza, who is organising a petition against the plans that's garnered 17,000 signatures and counting. "That's why we've kept The India Club the same. Changing it would mean falling in line with the homogenised."
She shows me some of the comments from diners who've signed the petition. "I've been coming here since I was a child, just as my father did while studying in London in the 1950s," reads one. "Who needs another hotel? It's a blow to the city's eccentricity." One regular says, "it would be a cultural crime to let it disappear." My eyes scan over the hundreds of statements. "I don't want to contemplate life without their egg curry" says another. "It's the first place my father took me to eat pakora."
Although it's hard to imagine now, given London’s bogglingly diverse culinary scene, Phiroza explains that, for many diners who visited in the 1970s, The India Club was their first experience of eating 'proper curry'.
The plan is to try to gain listed status for the site through English Heritage. "It's very complicated" admits Phiroza. "There's lots of historical research involved, tracking down individuals who've been coming here since the 50s, and trawling through The British Library for old photographs which show that nothing has changed." But the team are determined to triumph in their David and Goliath battle. "All the other bases of the India League in the Strand area have now been redeveloped," says Phiroza, "so if The India Club at 143-145 Strand were to go, so would all traces of the India League's legacy."
Looking around the dining room, which is now full of customers who share little more in common than a love of an affordable dinner, a warm welcome and a killer lamb curry in central London, it seems hard to imagine it could all disappear. I ask a group of three lawyers in their mid-30s sitting next to us what they think of the prospective closure. "No way." one shakes his head firmly. "They can't take it away. The set lamb meal is one of the best things about living in London today, hands-down."
As a fledgling India Club convert, I can't help but agree. We may have one of the most exciting restaurant scenes in the world, but increasingly, places like this in the capital are few and far between. Here's hoping I'll be sitting at these brilliantly retro, unashamedly brown and ever-so-slightly sticky, formica tables, stuffing my face with lamb bhuna and pilau rice for years to come.
The India Club, 143 Strand, WC2R 1JA