Under-threat India Club: ‘Old London is really being swept away’
As it faces fresh uncertainty, manager reveals what makes the Strand restaurant special – and vows to fight back
12 February, 2021 — By Conrad Landin
India Club manager Phiroza Marker. With almost £40,000 already pledged, the ‘Save the India Club’ campaign has upped its target to £100,000
AT the scruffier end of the Strand, next door to a newsagent, an unassuming doorway marked “HOTEL STRAND CONTINENTAL” opens onto a staircase.
At first glance, it could be any seedy B&B of the kind that clings on in Paddington or Pimlico, if not in the West End.
But mount those stairs, outside of lockdown, of course, and you’ll find a relic of a bygone age.
The bar on the first floor will serve you one of central London’s cheapest G&Ts, at Formica tables and assorted leatherette seats.
The restaurant above offers chilli pakoras and decor seemingly unchanged since the mid-20th century.
In 2018 Westminster Council knocked back a planning application from the landlord to turn the building into a boutique hotel, which would have obliterated the historic bar and restaurant.
The council said losing the India Club would be “materially harmful to cultural provision and the character and function of the area”.
But now the landlord is trying a different tack, serving the club with a straightforward eviction notice, and again floating plans to modernise.
And Phiroza Marker, whose father Yadgar bought the business 23 years ago, is fighting back.
“We’ve grown up here: through school, uni, my siblings and I. We’ve all had jobs here,” says Ms Marker, 32, who is now the India Club’s manager.
The club was established after the Second World War by the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru, Lady Mountbatten and Krishna Menon, the St Pancras borough councillor who became independent India’s first high commissioner to Britain and was connected to the India League, which campaigned for independence prior to 1947.
In the 1990s Yadgar was approached by the league to take over the venue.
“They knew he’d be sympathetic to the cultural background of the place. He recalls them saying ‘keep it exactly as it is’,” says his daughter.
The Markers will challenge the eviction in court and launched a crowdfunding exercise last month to cover legal costs.
“We always know support is there, but we’re still surprised by the magnitude of it,” Ms Marker says.
With almost £40,000 pledged, the Save the India Club campaign has upped its target to £100,000.
Landlord Marston Properties says it “originally purchased” the building in 1981 “with the intention of running the hotel one day”, and had been “unable to achieve a mutually agreeable solution” with the India Club’s operators, and was now “entitled, following the expiry of the lease, to regain possession to occupy the building for our own business use”.
Former owner Yadgar Marker
Does Marston appreciate concerns that redevelopment would destroy a valuable part of London’s culture and history?
In a statement issued by a political lobbying firm, a Marston spokeswoman said: “It will be for the courts to determine our entitlement to regain possession and occupy the building for our own use. Marston Properties and Goldsand Hotels are engaging in the court process and therefore further comment from Marston Properties is not appropriate.”
After being introduced to the club – which, in spite of its name, is open to all – it soon became my first port of call for social gatherings and political plotting sessions. I felt I was honouring the club’s history: it has hosted numerous formal and informal networks in its time, including the Indian Workers’ Association in the 1960s and the Indian Journalists’ Association to this day.
And no matter how many times I visit, it always has a capacity for surprise. An apparent lack of wine glasses saw me pouring sauvignon blanc into a pint tumbler for the late Labour MP Michael Meacher. When I hosted a leaving party in the bar, it was inadvertently gate-crashed by a bemused American tourist staying upstairs.
With the loss of Gaby’s Deli on Charing Cross Road and the Stockpot in Soho (as well as its cousin in Chelsea), the India Club is among a decreasing number of independent central London venues offering an affordable meal and drink.
“Old London is really being swept away,” says Ms Marker.
“It’s really sad. These places are what makes London London, what makes it distinct to other cities. If everything is a modern development there’s no distinction from city to city.”