Who will save the Great British tandoori?

Now as traditional as roast beef or fish and chips, the curry house is - like them - threatened by the relentless advance of the burger and the takeaway pizza
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The Independent Online
IT'S EASY enough to overlook the Karahe Queen on Wembley Hill Road. Formerly one of the most popular Indian restaurants in north-west London, it has an abandoned air. Steel shutters are down and the doors are heavily padlocked. Debris covers the doorstep, dirty plastic furniture is stacked up one wall and the flowers in the window boxes are withering. Nearby the traffic thunders past on the A404.

A small, typed notice stuck to the door gives further clues. "Due to unavoidable circumstances this restaurant will remain close (sic) until further notice," it says.

Last week, the owner of Karahe Queen, Tahir Butt, a well-known businessman in the area, was burned to death in his Mitsubishi Shogun in a country lane in Hertfordshire. His injuries were so severe that police are still unable to establish the exact cause of death.

Before his murder the family had received death threats. Detectives suspect that one motive may be linked to his plans to open a new restaurant - close to other rival businesses. The Daily Mail screamed: "Curry Wars murder". Rumours of "intense rivalry" between Indian restaurant owners followed.

The Indian restaurant industry isn't exactly flourishing at the moment. Their numbers levelled off for the first time this year. They have risen from around 100 restaurants in the UK in the early 1960s, to 8,000 in 1997. Now, though, growth has stagnated, mainly because they face fierce competition from unexpected areas; Anglo-Indian restaurants and supermarkets - Marks & Sparks' ubiquitous chicken tikka massala and its imitators have finally taken their toll. And the traditional flock-wallpapered Tandoori restaurant is well past its sell-by date. "People are having to modernise," says George Dorgan, editor of Tandoori magazine, the industry's trade journal. "They're ripping things up and starting from scratch for a more contemporary feel."

The cooling effect has certainly touched the enclaves of Wembley and Southall. There are about 60 restaurants in Wembley, many of which have "karahi" (or "karahe") in their title, referring to the metal dish in which the food is prepared. Vivek Malhopra is the manager of Curry Craze just across the road from Karahe Queen. The glut of restaurants in the area can, he admits, make business slow. "Nineteen years ago we were the only ones here but now there are hundreds. It can cause jealousy when other places open up, but surely that happens in any business?"

It certainly wouldn't warrant the level of rivalry that has been hinted at this week. It may come as a surprise, but in Wembley a trendy refurb seems to be the more popular alternative to murdering one's business rival.

In Cellphone City, two doors down from Karahe Queen, Dee Chauhan rolls his eyes wearily. "If you want to know about murder and curry wars, you're in the wrong place," he says. "Basically it's a load of crap. It's probably a personal vendetta. Who'd do anything that extreme just to stop a restaurant opening?" Judging by the modest exterior of Karahe Queen, he's got a point. If rivals were that intent to halt competition they'd be better off burning the Asian ready-cooked section in their nearest large supermarket and maybe firebombing the local burger bar while they're at it. That's where the real opposition lies, and they know it.

It's a similar story in nearby Southall, even though it appears to be a far more vibrant and lively community. Cars are reduced to a crawl along Uxbridge Road. The sounds of Bhangra and Bollywood blare out from the food and clothes stalls. Pink neon restaurant signs blur into one.

Restaurant manager Harbans Sandhu, originally from Punjab in north India, opened the Maharaja in Uxbridge Road 27 years ago. In those days there was only other Asian shop in the area. Now there are some 3,000. Mr Sandhu stands behind a marble bar lined with champagne glasses and miniature liqueur bottles. Waiters hover, rearranging the pressed linen napkins and waiting for the first customer. It's nearly 8pm. "It's an overkill situation," he says. Over the road an imposing McDonald's has just opened up. "It's a fact of life," he says. "My kids often ask for a Fillet 'o' Fish and I'll go and get them one. Pizzas and burgers are here to stay."

Southall, like Wembley, also suffers from its unglamorous location. "Unless you get a lot of tourist trade - and not many seem to get this far away from central London - there are a lot of restaurants competing," says Mr Sandhu. "The town could do with being marketed a bit better." Southall doesn't get a mention in the Rough Guide or Michelin; tourists may just about bother with Brick Lane but there's little chance they'll schlep out this far, which is a shame because it's just as authentic.

It's rather a different scene a few doors away at Bombay 177, an establishment which feels more like a West End nightclub than a restaurant. Sunny Gill, 27, used to own a traditional tandoori restaurant but now he wants to make more money. His new venture, complete with marble-effect tables, discreet grey carpet and disco lights, cost him, he says, half a million. He studied accounting at City University and hopes to be a millionaire before he's 30.

Brimming with confidence, Mr Gill is dripping in diamond rings and gold. In between shouting orders to a terrified-looking waiter he talks business. "I based this on a bar I saw in Marbella," he says. "I know the other restaurants are struggling but there's no limit with something like this.

"We can seat 150 people. There's music and dancing, and we get movie stars visiting us." He points to a poster of a suave-looking Asian film star in a white suit. TV presenter Denise Van Outen, too, has dined under Bombay 177's disco lights.

"Go to Maharaja up the road and they've got nobody in there. It's dead quiet." Which isn't quite true. They've got a booking for 25. Around here, though, that's about as close to curry wars as you're going to get.