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India's winning team. Restaurants by James Pembroke

Blog | By James Pembroke | Feb 05, 2024

It’s the curry time of year.

I launched this season in Neo-Byzantine style at the Criterion in Piccadilly Circus, which has been joyously taken over by Masala Zone.

While feasting on their excellent starters, I realised that, 160 years after its opening, Ranjit Mathrani’s MW Eat Group is not just the ideal heir of the Byzantine Revival but also well suited to the innovation of the Criterion’s founders, Felix Spiers and Christopher Pond.

They met in Melbourne during the gold rush. Unlucky in their search for gold and unsuited to sloshing around muddy streams, they launched the Café de Paris there for successful miners to bathe in champagne. Brilliantly entrepreneurial, they were the first to invite out a team of English cricketers, thus paving the way for the Ashes.

Following the success of the Silver Grill in Ludgate Circus, they continued with the Criterion in 1873. One of its dining rooms was the American Bar, ‘a very good place for an undress dinner’, commented Nathaniel Newnham-Davis. The architect Thomas Verity’s design cost them £80,000.

The impact of their innovation on casual dining in the late-19th century is matched by MW Eat’s transformation of the Indian restaurant scene – from sticky-carpeted dives serving chicken in spicy gravy to the six-pints crowd, to the delicate and sophisticated flavours of the subcontinent in elegant surroundings.

It was Camellia Panjabi, Ranjit’s sister-in-law, who set the ball rolling with the Bombay Brasserie, in South Kensington, in 1982. For the first time, we Londoners were being served regional Indian cuisine amid décor more suited to French or Italian restaurants. She even served seafood, cocktails and good wine.

In 1990, her sister, Namita, followed suit with Chutney Mary – with funding from her banker husband, Ranjit, and Neville Abraham, who had already launched the Chez Gérard Group together. A Chutney Mary was the term given to an Indian girl who wanted to shake off her traditional ways and ape the fashions and dance moves of the modern Brits. Their Anglo-Indian menu reflected this – and, unlike the standard curries of yore, their dishes were cooked from scratch every day.

In 2015, they moved from the King’s Road to their even more glamorous site in St James’s Street. It soon won AA Restaurant of the Year. Then came their takeover of tired Veeraswamy in 1996, and Amaya in 2004.

There’s no doubt that they gave other Indian restaurateurs the encouragement to aim higher in both gastronomy and location. Mayfair became the new Tooting High Street. Eurocentric Michelin belatedly recognised their very high culinary standards when it awarded Atul Kochar a star for Tamarind in 2001 and for Benares in 2007. Amaya collected theirs in 2004.

Yet – with the exception of Yaatra, in Westminster, where I enjoyed a three-course set dinner for £34.50 – most of these high-end venues are beyond my budget.

And here’s where Masala Zone wins. Its street menu is a delight for the post-Christmas purse. Starters and main courses come in under £7.50 and £19.50 respectively. The elegance and freshness are still there but at a third of the price and in central locations. There are branches in Covent Garden, Soho and, of course, Earl’s Court.

Maybe Melbourne will welcome them, too.