Red walls, paintings of gods & goddesses and a tray full of Indian spices at the reception may have been the cornerstone of the ubiquitous Indian (read mostly Bangladeshi) curry houses in the United Kingdom. But the new wave of chic Indian casual eateries have way more to them.
When I am out and about in London, these five are my go-to places that do not burn a hole in my pocket; give me a casual dining experience, and most importantly make my Indian palate very happy, as there’s nothing faux about the stories and the food they serve.
The British curry has very little to do with India. Back in India, no one understands what curry is! The concept of madras and vindaloo (to define the scale of spiciness of a curry) baffles us. Before you read ahead, make sure you are not looking for curry, instead you are looking for the best of casual Indian dining experience in the cosmopolitan London.
This list is in the order of how often I visit these places. Needless to say, I haven’t been paid by any of these joints.
1. Dishoom: Built on the concept of Irani/ Persian cafes in India, especially Mumbai, this restaurant is a big hit in the capital. I have queued up for an hour or more outside Dishoom to find a place during dinner time.
In an FT article, the owners of Dishoom said that one of their cultural mission was that Indians are very cool people. Well, the restaurant just goes on to show that!
And once you get past the queues in Dishoom, you’d step into a land of slow-moving ceiling fans; a flurry of waiters walking around the wooden panelled corridors, and glasses of Indian chai and platters of food served amidst a very busy kitchen scene. Even the washrooms are on point, do not miss checking those out. The atmosphere inside Dishoom reminds you of India Coffee Houses all over India.
Our Favourites : In small plates we like Pau Bhaji, Vada Pau and the light and zesty Bhel.
In Mains we usually order Chole Bhatura, Black House Daal, and Chicken Berry Britannia (their version of the Persian Biryani) with cups and cups of the House Masala Chai.
They have a separate breakfast menu which is quite famous as well. ( Dishoom’s menu )
Tip: On weekends try to reach at the strike of noon or even early to find a table. Even weekdays are busy, so do not go at peak times unless you are happy to wait and enjoy their cocktails or tea.
They are kind enough to offer you Masala Chai or coffee whilst you wait for your turn in the queue.
2. Roti Chai: In a relatively quiet street running parallel to the commotion of frenzied shopping in Oxford street, this Indian restaurant thrives. They have two sections: The Indian Street Kitchen (Ground floor) and The Dining Room (Basement).
The food isn’t as spicy as you’d find it in the streets of India, but it retains the flavour and taste which would surely evoke memories of Indian streets.
I have only been to the dining room once or twice. For the price of one dish in the dining room ( around 10-14 pounds), I usually wrap up my lunch in the street kitchen. The street kitchen is usually the busier part of this restaurant and serves tapas style small plates of Indian food. But if you want to book in advance and be assured of your seats, go ahead and book for the dining room.
The decor hardly resembles street scenes of India, but it’s open, roomy and well-lit. Roti Chai is where we go for comfort Indian food.
Our Favourites: From the street kitchen’s menu, we usually order:
Pani Puri, Vegetable Samosa, Dhokla, Bun Tikki and Chicken Lollipops from starters
Pulusu Chicken, Railway Lamb Curry, Macher Jhol, Aloo Gobi, Kabli Chana, Tadka Dal and Bread selection from the mains.
Tip: Eat at least two plates per person if you are ordering from the Street ( small plates) menu. Remember it is tapas style menu. They do get busy on weekends, especially, so make it at noon because they don’t offer anything while you wait.
Location: Roti Chai in Marylebone
3. Talli Joe: Finding Talli Joe was a trick of fate. It was Christmas Eve. We were hungry after watching a feature-length Bollywood film in Leicester Square and needed to eat desperately. Most of our Indian haunts were either booked for parties or closed for Christmas. That’s how we spotted Talli Joe.
Talli means tipsy in colloquial Hindi. That didn’t sound too promising since what we wanted was food, not drinks. But we weren’t exactly spoilt for choice, thus happened Talli Joe. And how we thank our stars that it did!
The small plates served at this restaurant are nothing like anything you’d find in Indian restaurants in London. How often do you find Mutter Kachori and Moong Daal Pakori on a menu? Never, ever! Talli Joe is exciting and ambitious, and we love it for that.
From their Half Plates we usually pick Moong Daal Pakori, Halwai ki Mutter Kachori, Kale Chaat, Kolkata Beetroot Chop, Papar ki Sabzi, Bohri Chicken, and Truffle Ghee Kulcha.
Tip: Talli Joe does a wonderful little thing. They offer a Dabba Menu (Lunch packs) for 10 pounds in the afternoon. The menu for each day reflects cuisines from different parts of India. This couldn’t get cooler right? May your creed grow and prosper Talli Joe!
Location: Talli Joe
4. Inito: Whenever we are around Liverpool street, this is one place we stop at for lunch or dinner. Inito doesn’t have the urban Indian charm of the first three places. But it is still a cool enough, open planned place where office goers from around drop in for lunch.
In recent times, I have felt their food is not consistent. Do look at the dishes before you order. They are usually happy to show you what you are about to order.
Our favourite: My quick combo here is the Samosa chaat with Chai that transports me to India in a jiffy. Next, you could also try their Pav Bhaji and Curry pots.
Tip: Lunch hours are busy here and food goes away in a split of a second. Reach early. Food at Inito is way more affordable than the three options above, especially at the lunch hour when they offer thalis.
Location: Inito Liverpool Street
5. Cinnamon Bazaar: I come from the northern Indian state of Punjab, where stuffed breads, Paranthas, are the soul of our existence. We eat Paranthas every morning for breakfast. Earlier I had to go all the way to Southhall, the Punjabi neighbourhood in the west of London to eat these heavenly Paranthas. Cinnamon Bazaar brought them closer home to Central London for us!
Bazaar stands for marketplace in colloquial Hindi. Cinnamon Bazaar wants to capture that vibe of India in the food it serves.
Our Favourites: Paranthas can be filled with umpteen number of fillings. So try its variants in Cinnamon Bazaar’s menu with a pot of Indian Masala Chai. Their chai comes in colourfully painted kettles from Rajasthan in India.
Tip: Book in advance for lunch and dinner. Play nice and they would let you order Chaats (the tangy, savoury starters from lunch menu) after 11 pm if you happen to be in their restaurant for breakfast before that.
Location: Cinnamon Bazaar Covent Garden
High on food, I
Note: None of these pictures were clicked with the intention of collating them into a blog. Excuse the quality of my food photography. Besides, this list doesn’t take into account fine-dining Indian restaurants and cheap eats around London.
PS: I am a vegetarian, so most of the non-veg recommendations are based upon the ratings of my friends and family, who are hardcore about their chicken biryanis and tikkas.
PPS: P and I share stories of Europe and India on their Instagram page @kindredsouls.in . Stop by to narrate your stories or listen to ours.