Nehru’s London watering hole prepares to take last orders
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THE handwritten sign outside advertises a “1940s lounge”. That is no exaggeration: the India Club, which lies up a flight of stairs off the Strand in central London, has not been renovated since it opened. The peg-board menu has few characters left on it. The Formica tables are old enough to be fashionable again. One floor above, a sister restaurant serves up limp dosas and a chicken-and-rice contrivance masquerading as biryani. The 26 rooms in the linked Strand Continental hotel, which occupies the top few floors, have no en suite facilities.
Nobody could blame the owner, Marston Properties, for wanting to spruce the place up a bit. On September 8th its agents submitted a planning application to Westminster Council seeking permission to refurbish the building, adding en suite bathrooms and a rear extension. That came as a surprise to Yadgar Marker, who manages the hotel and its bar and restaurant together with his wife. Mr Marker, whose lease expires in 2019, has started a petition to save his business and enlisted the help of the Indian High Commission, which sits across the road. Shashi Tharoor, a member of the Indian parliament, has tweeted in support. Marston says no changes are imminent and that redevelopment is “just one of the options” for the building.
The interest in preserving the India Club extends beyond a fondness for vintage vibes and cheap Kingfisher lager. In 1928 V. K. Krishna Menon, a graduate of the London School of Economics, took over the India League, a pro-dominion organisation, and turned it into a loud voice for independence. According to Yasmin Khan, a historian, Menon was “the lodestar of the Indian independence movement in Britain”. He found cheap offices on the Strand and made enough noise for the British security services to start intercepting his calls and letters. (Menon also found time to co-found Penguin books with Allen Lane.)
In 1947 India became an independent country and Menon its first high commissioner to Britain. A few years later he started the India Club at its present location as a successor organisation to the India League, enlisting Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, and Edwina Mountbatten, the last vicereine, as co-founders. On its opening night in January 1951, reported an American in attendance, Lady Mountbatten told guests that “the club would cement Indo-British friendship” and would “serve both Indian food and so-called English food”. The Markers took over management in 1997 and have run it ever since. Their contribution to the look of the place? “A little paint.”
The same shabbiness that makes the India Club appealing is also what renders it ripe for a refit. Rooms cost half as much as in nearby hotels, the building has no disabled access and its grotty shopfronts stick out on an otherwise glamorous street. Yet in a city where Indian food is increasingly served in slick reproductions of mid-century Mumbai cafés, the India Club comes with that rarest of design ingredients—authenticity.