Plans for London's historic India Club cook up storm

PLANS to renovate a historic and beloved Indian restaurant in central London are causing a stir, pitting the developers against high profile defenders, including intellectuals, Anglo-Indian businessmen and lawmakers from both countries.

The India Club, a restaurant and bar on the Strand near London's West End, is trying to use its storied history to block proposals by owners Marston Properties to turn the seven storey building into an upmarket boutique hotel.

"This is a very historic place, we haven't changed anything," Yadgar Marker, the club's current director, told AFP during a recent lunchtime dosa — an Indian pancake — and various curry dishes flew out the kitchen.

"Even these tabletops are from the early '50s... It's like a museum," he said.

The club was set up in its current location by Krishna Menon, India's first High Commissioner to Britain, in the early 1950s, and counted Jawaharlal Nehru, the country's inaugural prime minister, among its founding members, Marker said.

It has served as a meeting place for writers, intellectuals and politicians, Marker wrote earlier this month to Westminster Council, the local authority in charge of planning decisions.

Marston Properties submitted its application on Sept 8 to Westminster Council to partially demolish and extend the building.

It currently houses a bakery and convenience store on the ground floor and the India Club and Hotel Strand Continental on the upper levels.

Heritage status?

Marker, who has run the club and hotel for the last 20 years, said he was "quite surprised" to learn of the plans in an email from the company.

With their seven-year lease set to expire in 2019, he fears it will mean the end of the club.

The club has applied for the building to receive protected status from Historic England, which recommends which sites of cultural value the British government should designate.

A spokesman for the public body confirmed it had visited the club earlier this month, and would make a decision on whether to recommend listing it by Jan 19, 2018.

Simon Marshall of Marston Properties told AFP it was cooperating with Historic England "to establish the true heritage links of this building."

He said the company had commissioned its own independent historical research into the club.

"The extent of (the) heritage links... are not in fact particularly clear," he added.

Marshall stressed no final decision had been made to redevelop building.

Cultural 'cleansing' of London

Loyal longtime customers have been voicing their support.

A petition launched by the club had garnered over 14,000 signatures by Monday.

"It means the world to generations of Indians," said Kalyan Thapa, a patron since the 1960s, as he ate with friends there on Monday.

"You can't knock it down and erase history."

High profile fans including sculptor Anish Kapoor, writer Will Self and Indian lawmaker Shashi Tharoor, have also leapt to its defence, writing letters of support that Marker has sent on to Westminster Council.

"I think the loss of the club would constitute another step-up in the social, ethnic and cultural 'cleansing' of central London's commercial environment," Self told AFP.

"Already, smaller and more diverse businesses are being lost from the West End in droves, it creates an arid, aseptic environment in which every cubic foot of space feels commoditised." — AFP