If there is one thing this country knows how to do, it's queue. Our automatic social reflex is to take our place at the end of the line. But this particular queue is not for wartime rations, Wimbledon tickets, the Harrods sale or an iPhone. It is for curry.
Tayyabs is a frenetic Pakistani-Punjabi restaurant tucked away in a back street in Whitechapel – not far from Brick Lane, but far enough. It does a particularly good line in queues, and at eight o'clock on a Friday night, I count 65 people in line, including me. It starts inside the larger of two big, bright dining-rooms, then congas backwards past the private room, around the corner, and down a few steps, stopping at the girls' loo. Ah, but then it picks up again at the Indian sweets counter, snaking its way through the middle of the second room and out another door into, and down, the street.
This has nothing to do with Tayyabs being awarded Indian Restaurant of the Year at the newly reconvened London Restaurant Awards last Monday, beating off some fine and fancy Michelin-starred Indians such as Amaya and Quilon. This is normal.
Tayyabs began in 1975 as a neighbourhood daytime café, later opening an Indian sweet shop, then taking over what was the pub next door. Today it rambles down Fieldgate Street with a smart façade in racing green, and an interior complete with a gold-leafed VIP room. The queue is for the no-frills, real-deal, cheap-as-chips cooking – the classic Pakistani-Punjabi, Halal meat-laden deal with its mix of tandoori grills and kebabs, flat breads, pilaus and saucy, spicy dishes cooked in the wok-like karahi.
The waiters here – there are up to nine of them – act as one head with many bodies, instinctively passing, swerving and backing-up when necessary. A basic salad, jug of water, stack of pappadums, housemade chutneys and raita hit the table as you sit down to pore over the picture menu. My standard order – seekh kebab, tandoori lamb chops, and karahi chicken, with naan bread and tarka dahl – comes within 10 minutes, covering the table with splendiferousness.
Seekh kebabs are 90p each; great value for the long, spicy lozenges of minced lamb. But then, four tandoor lamb chops with long bones for handles piled on to a smoking sizzle platter are £5. They have a good mix of scorch, spice and chew, although the smoke sends the girl at the table next to me into a coughing fit. I'd apologise, but not with my mouth full.
I like the sort of cooking that comes from a huge kitchen doing few things. The emphasis is not so much on prime quality, seasonal, local or organic ingredients as it is on getting a lot of people fed quickly without killing anyone. Everything is CGI-bright as if on a big screen, and flavours are generous with a well-rounded spiciness.
Chicken karahi (£6) is a good balance of aromatic gravy and quite a lot of boneless chunks of chicken, only just tending to dryness. My fave is the tarka dahl (£4.80), thick and soupy with lentils, garlic, spices and tomato. Rice (£2.50) is light, fluffy and well-separated, but the naan bread (90p) lets the team down with its thick, doughy heaviness. Mango lassi (£2) is sensationally cold, rich and creamy, and mango kulfi (£2.50) is even better, coming ice-lolly style on a stick, with not a trace of icy crystallisation.
Tayyabs is more rough-and-tumble than refined, but it has something magical that makes it 10 times better than committing hurry-curry in Brick Lane. It simply does an excellent job of keeping everyone happy. Though unlicensed, you can take a bottle and the waiter will toss you a corkscrew.
You can actually book a table, too, as long as it is 24 hours ahead, not the same day. Otherwise, it's a matter of doing what you were brought up to do; what your country requires of you: join the queue.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
Tayyabs, 83-89 Fieldgate Street, London E1, tel: 020 7247 9543. Lunch and dinner daily. Around £25 for two plus service. Unlicensed. The restaurant is closed for Ramadan and reopens on 1 October
The crunch bunch: More Pakistani for less
Pitts Cottage, High Street, Westerham, Kent, tel: 01959 562 125
The ex-country retreat of William Pitt is an unlikely setting for an award-winning Pakistani restaurant. Try the mid-week special deal of £12.95 for two courses
219 Field End Road, Eastcote, Middlesex, tel: 020 8868 0900
A friendly, family-run local that does what it does – masala, kebabs, and a great steamed chicken – very well and very reasonably. Dinner for two is £25
The Lahore Kebab House
2 Umberston Street, London E1, tel: 020 7488 2551
Recommended by my Pakistani neighbour: this basic but vast kebab house is great for a no-frills spicy feast for about £15 a head
Read 'Eat', Terry Durack's blog, at independent.co.uk/eatReuse content