one are the days when the dubious statistic that chicken tikka masala was Britain’s most popular dish was trumpeted as equally dubious proof of the UK’s multicultural palate. In 21st century London, “Indian” seems a woefully broad term for a cuisine spanning 28 states of the world’s second most populous country — much of which can be sampled in the capital.
Britain’s colonial legacy means that Indian restaurants have a venerable history in London. Veeraswamy, recently re-furbished to celebrate its 95th anniversary, was founded by an Indian princess in 1916; the India Club on the Strand, meanwhile, has been one of the capital’s most consistently satisfying cheap eats since 1946 and its future is (hopefully) secure after a spirited round of crowdfunding that took place over lockdown.
And yet while Indian cuisine remains a safe bet for the value-conscious — the Gujarati communities of north-west London and South Indian cafés of Tooting and East Ham offer rich pickings for tiny budgets — the past two decades have seen Indian cooking move into the high end. Tamarind and Zaika were the first Indian restaurants in the UK to win Michelin stars in 2001, while smart Indian dining today is dominated by MW Eat (Amaya, Chutney Mary, Masala Zone, Veeraswamy) and JKS Restaurants (BiBi, Brigadiers, Gymkhana and Trishna, as well as the Sri Lankan Hoppers).
That said, there is now also a posse of quality mid-market Indians, tailor-made for millennial tastes by combining cool interiors with small-plates cooking and counter dining. But much as we love Dishoom, Gunpowder and Kricket, they’re already so well known that we’ve left them out of this list to find space for the neighborhood restaurants worth an hour of anyone’s time on the tube to discover something new (and, yes, usually cheap). Travel broadens the waist as well as the mind.
So, from Michelin-starred Mayfair fine-dining to regional street food restaurants and some of the finest vegetarian cooking on the planet, follow the spice route to our pick of the best Indian restaurants in the capital. In other words, forget that chicken tikka.
There had been smart Indian restaurants before Gymkhana but nowhere that had been cool; all that changed when the millennial Sethi siblings opened on Albemarle Street in 2013 and ushered the likes of Taylor Swift, Jude Law and the Beckhams down Gymkhana’s secret staircase. The wood-panelled ground-floor dining room, with its ceiling fans, sepia photographs and rattan-trimmed booths, is meant to recall the colonial-era sports clubs of days-of-the-Raj India, but downstairs is 21st-century London through and through (and Mayfair at that), a seductively low-lit lounge where throbbing Euro beats make eavesdropping on the A-listers impossible. Papads with zinging chutneys indicate the riot of fabulous flavours to come: minced goat piled into muffin-like pao with lime and red onion, or muntjac biryani fragrantly steamed under a pastry lid. Tiger prawn kebabs vouchsafe the high quality of ingredients (with high prices to match).
42 Albemarle Street, W1S 4JH, gymkhanalondon.com
For excellent-value Indian cooking served in smart surroundings, extend your travelcard to Southall, where for more than 40 years Madhu’s has turned a family affair into a thriving business. Brothers Sanjeev and Sanjay Anand opened the restaurant in 1980, with their mum in the kitchen and a restaurant name taken from the nickname of their dad, who had operated hotels in Nairobi. Vegetarian dishes are as numerous as the meat and fish options and Kenyan flavours just as likely as Anand family influences from Punjab. Samosas split open in a crackle of flaky pastry, tilapia fished from Lake Victoria comes in a carom-heavy masala, while prawns, poussin, salmon and lamb arrive smoky from the tandoor. There are hotel outposts at Heathrow, Hertfordshire’s Grove and, if your travelcard doesn’t extend beyond Zone 1, atop The Dilly in the West End.
39 South Road, Southall, UB1 1SW, madhus.co.uk
Originally launched in Chelsea in 1990 by sisters Camellia and Namita Panjabi, Chutney Mary was the first London restaurant to focus on the seven main cuisines of India. More than 30 years later, it remains as enchanting a prospect in its current St James’s location and an equally essential part of London’s high-end Indian dining scene. Labour-intensive techniques such as grinding spices to order may now be commonplace but were pioneered here, as too a subtle evolution of traditional recipes in the likes of baked venison samosas, Kerala roast duck and salted caramel kulfi, while the vegetable dishes are a revelation. Attentive staff know the tastes of the many regulars inside-out and offer an attention to detail that makes the smartly traditional dining room as suitable for lunchtime business as evening romance; the spacious lounge bar is more fun for cocktails and snacks or a glass of something from the spice-friendly wine list.
73 St James’s Street, SW1A 1PH, chutneymary.com
The Swaminarayan Hindu temple at Neasden is something that every Londoner should visit, a shimmer of Italian marble and Bulgarian limestone within earshot of the North Circular. There’s physical as well as spiritual nourishment onsite in the shape of Shayona, which if not quite living up to the extravagant grandeur of the temple opposite does possess an interior that is smarter than most of London’s Gujarati cafes and offers a sattvic vegetarian menu which promises to foster inner purity, vitality and a finer mind. The cooking is prepared according to Ayurvedic teachings without onions and garlic, though there is so much precise spicing and vibrant presentation, no one could claim to feel neglected by the lengthy menu of veggie kebabs, curries prepared with okra and tofu, seitan and soy mince, plus dosas, idli and uttapam to order on the side. To drink, there are lassis and Limca lemonade from India, and absolutely no alcohol: no one got a finer mind on a hangover, after all.
12 Pramukh Swami Road, NW10 8HD, shayonarestaurants.com
Might BiBi be the new jewel in the crown of JKS Restaurants, the ground-breaking group behind Gymkhana, Trishna and Brigadiers owned by Midas-touched siblings Jyotin, Karam and Sunaina Sethi? BiBi has been entrusted to Chet Sharma, the group’s former development chef and a man who abandoned a PhD in physics at Oxford for a life in the kitchen. That scientific rigour is evident not only in a map of India detailing the provenance of every spice used in the cooking but in dishes such as achai Dover sole with green chilli pickle and monk’s beard that exhibit the perfect balance of taste and texture, heat and delicacy. With just 33 covers inside and an additional 16 on the terrace, reservations here are like gold dust, but if you can’t get a table for two, treat yourself to a solo space at the counter and think of it as the most delicious form of self-care (with the added bonus that the lamps are angled perfectly to spotlight your food for Insta).
42 North Audley Street, W1K 6ZP, bibirestaurants.com
Manoj Vasaikar worked at Chutney Mary and Veeraswamy before opening his own restaurant on Hammersmith’s King Street and it is testament to the chef’s highly individual cooking that Indian Zing stands out on a road famous for its curry houses. So while you’ll find chicken jalfrezi and korma, lamb rogan josh and dhansak, it’s better to go for the “special” main courses that showcase Vasaikar’s thorough knowledge of regional cooking which combines best-of-British produce with ingredients imported from India. Pork vindaloo correctly has the seductive undertow of vinegar, tandoor salmon is made with wild not farmed fish while chicken haddi wala, served on the bone with spices and herbs, tastes like India’s answer to a Sunday roast. Starters are just as accomplished — jumbo prawns spiked with a pickle masala, say — while modest prices offer phenomenal value for the quality of cooking and the sophistication of the smart surrounds.
236 King Street, W6 ORF, indian-zing.co.uk
A proper curry house of the old school, family-owned Tayyabs has been knocking out solid Punjabi cuisine in Whitechapel since 1972. You probably know what you’re going to order before you’ve even looked at the short menu; from starters of king prawns, seekh kebabs and meat and veg samosas to a main of chicken tikka masala (fine, fine, go on, then) with a bowl of dal for dunking garlic naans and tandoori parathas, this is food so familiar that it’s the culinary equivalent of a comfort blanket. Lamb chops, however, are what the place is most famous for, and if not the fleshiest specimens you’ll find in the capital, at £7 for four you can, at least, order as many as your budget permits. Expect brusque service, large groups of lads and a very reasonable bill, not least because Tayyabs is BYO: there’s an offie round the corner to pick up a six-pack of lager.
83-89 Fieldgate Street, E1 1JU, tayyabs.co.uk
Jamavar began life as the in-house restaurant of the Leela Place Hotel in Bengaluru in 2001 and there are now five in India, plus this one in Mayfair. That pedigree means there is a hotel-style formality to this glossy, Michelin-starred outpost, but also a commitment to ensuring that high-end ingredients are lavished with creative treatments on a menu that takes inspiration from across India. Idli, the rice and lentil cakes of southern India, come with black pepper-spiced lobster, soft-shell crab gets a kick from Tellicherry pepper, the scallop moilee is made with hand-dived shellfish while the butter chicken is based around corn-fed chooks from Suffolk. A lunch and early dinner menu offering 3/4 courses for £38/£43 is a rare-for-Mayfair bargain, though even a bottle from the lower end of the Euro-leaning wine list will double that bill.
8 Mount Street, W1K 3NF, jamavarrestaurants.com
Dosa n Chutney
Tooting is traditionally the south Indian restaurant centre of London and also one of the best places in the capital to find a cheap eat. Apollo Banana Leaf and Radha Krishna Bhavan both have a strong claim to offering the best value for money but for sheer does what-it-says-on-the-tin meal appeal, you can’t go wrong with Dosa n Chutney. The dosas are crisp on the outside, moist within, the chutneys are fragrant with coconut and there’s sweet sambal too (Dosa n Chutney n Sambal presumably wouldn’t fit on the restaurant frontage). Order two dosas and you’ll still have change from a tenner; elsewhere on the menu are the usual meat and fish curries, though it’s with vegetarian dishes such as paneer butter masala that the kitchen shines almost as brightly as the Bollywood stars on the flatscreen TVs suspended over the no-frills dining room.
68 Tooting High Street, SW17 0RN, dosanchutney.com
Rohit Ghai has head-chef gigs at some of London’s most acclaimed Indians under his belt (Gymkhana, Jamavar, Bombay Bustle) and launched his first solo restaurant, the ultra-civilised Kutir, just off Sloane Square in 2018. Naan bread piled with quail, scrambled eggs and truffle shavings indicates Ghai’s distinctive approach, masala prawns and soft-shell crab show off beguiling spicing, there’s sweetcorn-topped paneer to soothe the palate with and, when you’ve inevitably eaten too many starters, a guinea fowl biryani to share as a main. In contrast to the vibrancy of the cooking, the atmosphere in the prettily decorated townhouse can feel subdued; diners must ring a doorbell to gain admittance to a warren of rooms tricked out with Zoffany wallpaper, although Chelsea locals of a certain age are glad to have a restaurant where they can hear themselves think, while the rooftop terrace is an unexpected alfresco oasis in SW3. Ghai’s newer spot, Manthan, is terrific, too.
10 Lincoln Street, SW3 2TS, kutir.co.uk
A cringe-worthy name that is nevertheless a combination of Chinese and Indian words is the clue to the Hakka cooking on offer at Fatt Pundit, which is based on the cuisine of the Chinese communities of east Kolkata. Essentially, it’s Cantonese cooking spiced up with the flavours of the subcontinent. Signature momos, fresh from a vast steamer, are dim-sum dumplings stuffed with things like goat and garam masala, lettuce cups are filled with chili-hot paneer while the wontons contain rabbit and burnt garlic, though the cultural exchange isn’t all one way: take, for instance, the lamb chops dusted with blackbean powder. The full-on flavours and liberal use of sauces are not for sensitive palates, while bright, precise presentation is tailor made for Instagram. The original Fatt Pundit grafted the feel of a cramped Indian café onto an industrial Soho interior; there’s a second, more spacious restaurant in Covent Garden.
77 Berwick Street, W1F 8TH, fattpundit.co.uk
From the same group as Chutney Mary and Veeraswamy, Amaya is the most contemporary of the trio of upmarket Indians, though as it’s located in an arcade in Belgravia, we’re talking food designed to please the palates of well-heeled west Londoners rather than hipper tastes. Still, if you have pockets deep enough, you’ll have a brilliant time here, where the glow from a row of tandoor ovens and coal grills illuminates a sultry split-level space. Plates of bite-size food to share might bring lettuce parcels stuffed with minced chicken, tandoori wild prawns as fat as a baby’s fist, glossy oblongs of tamarind-glazed foie gras, plus larger plates of slow-cooked lamb biryani heady with Punjabi spices. Cocktails such as the cucumber and mint margarita make a convincing case for spicing up the classics and, though desserts such as banana caramel kulfi are creative, nothing comes close to the deliriously sweet chocolate martini, like drinking boozy cocoa.
Halkin Arcade, off Lowndes Street, SW1X 8JT, amaya.biz
There are now five branches of this south Indian vegetarian specialist around the West End and west London but this Hammersmith outpost is the original. Sagar is a shade smarter and a tad pricier than many south Indian veggie restaurants but is an approachable introduction to the cuisine of Karnataka state. Multi-dish thali plates — including a vegan version — make an easy way into the menu, bearing the likes of pappadam, raita, vegetable sambar, dal and basmati rice, though a refreshingly tangy starter of aloo papdi chaat — crisp poori shells with potatoes, chutney and yoghurt — should be shared among the table. Gentle flavours keep the heat levels low while a clientele of homesick students appreciates the homely style of cooking.
157 King Street, W6 9JT, sagarrestaurant.co.uk
Tandoor Chop House
If it weren’t for the word “tandoor” in its name, there would be little to suggest that this wood-panelled dining room in Covent Garden is an Indian restaurant — until you notice the tandoors billowing smoke and flames in the glass-walled kitchen. Marinated lamb chops are the name of the game but the snappy menu also finds space for a greatest hits of curry-house favourites (tandoori chicken, seekh kebab) as well as more modern ideas: onion bhaji come as battered rings, cauliflower croquettes are dipped into lime pickle mayo and there’s a coronation chicken Caesar salad scattered with naan croutons. As for the naans proper: it’s a toss-up between the bone marrow and butter-chicken varieties as to which is the best thing since sliced bread. Competitive pricing for the West End extends to a three-course set menu for £35 and a Sunday thali which offers a sharing feast for three people for £60: smack your chops around that.
8 Adelaide Street, WC2N 4HZ, tandoorchophouse.com
The Cinnamon Club
If you’ve ever wondered what the Westminster bubble looks like in real life, book a table at The Cinnamon Club, the unofficial canteen of the British political establishment, where everyone from the lowliest lobbyist to government ministers comes to chew the cud. It’s a handsome place, with leather banquettes running around the book-lined walls of the former Westminster Library. The cooking is modern Indian in the best sense, seasoning native produce with the spicing of the subcontinent. Chargrilled chalk stream trout is served with carom seed, samphire and pickled radish, while clove-smoked saddle of Romney Marsh lamb is accompanied by a corn and yoghurt sauce and spiced lamb mince. Veg-focused dishes such as jackfruit and lotus root kebab with poppy seed and tomato chutney show no less thought and there’s a separate vegan menu and a vegetarian tasting menu. Saturday jazz brunch, meanwhile, proves there’s life after politics.
The Old Westminster Library, 30-32 Great Smith Street, SW1P 3BU, cinnamonclub.com