Renowned for serving delicious, affordable Indian cuisine in beautifully atmospheric settings, the Dishoom restaurants need little introduction.
But we’ve written one anyway.
It all started back in 2010, when strategy consultant Shamil Thakrar, his cousin Kavi and co-founders Adarsh and Amar Radia – all of whom worked in finance – unveiled the first Dishoom restaurant in London’s Covent Garden. It’s not the first thing you’d expect from four people without a background in hospitality. And yet, their labour of love has proved to be an enduring hit on London’s famously transient restaurant scene. No other place seems to have captured the public imagination quite like Dishoom.
And it’s not hard to see why: the Bombay-inspired dishes are perfection on a plate (and surprisingly affordable). The service is consistently warm and welcoming. And the beautifully thought-out, nostalgic interiors transport you across continents and through time. It’s a recipe that’s stood strong for over a decade, giving rise to restaurants up in Edinburgh, Manchester and Birmingham, and a total of six Dishoom restaurants in London – some of the most popular Indian restaurants in the city.
Not bad for a bunch of amateurs.
The Story Behind Dishoom
Tired of the clichéd tropes that defined Britain’s relationship with India, the founders wanted to tell a new story. And so Dishoom was born as a tribute to the Irani cafés of old Bombay, opened by Iranian (then Persian) immigrants in the early 20th century. Themselves inspired by the Grand Café tradition in Europe, they had their heyday in the 60s, with over 400 in the city – a number which has since dwindled to around 30. But crucially, they had values that resonated with Dishoom’s founders: as Bombay’s ‘outsiders’, these Persian café owners welcomed everyone – and it’s this egalitarian democracy that the team found so fascinating.
B Merwan, an Irani café open since 1916.
Of course, balance sheets are generally pretty indifferent to dreams, philosophies and values. And having worked in business from the other side of the table, it was hard not to worry about figures in the early days. They let staff go home early in quiet periods, and tried to negotiate with suppliers for lower prices. But despite their best belt-tightening, the figures stayed put.
And so they did something relatively unheard of – they decided to loosen their grip, and trust in the concept. Instead of focussing on the numbers, the Dishoom founders forged a new doctrine: “creativity, complexity and culture” – and it’s this staunch refusal to sell-out that’s ultimately gathered them a cult following.
That creativity is obvious in every branch of Dishoom. The attention to detail in the interiors (designed with Afroditi Krassa and then Russell Sage) is nearer the level of film-set than restaurant, whether it’s the stacks of household bric-a-brac sourced for the Dishoom Shoreditch verandah, or the Dishoom Covent Garden clock that recalls its iconic counterpart in Mumbai’s Victoria Station. What’s saved Dishoom from meeting the same grim, soulless end as most other burgeoning restaurant empires is the distinctive identity of each of its branches; each continuing to pay homage to those Irani cafés, but given their own voice, their own story to tell that’s subtly informed by the culture of its neighbourhood, the architecture of its setting, or a particular time period. Each is instantly recognisable as a Dishoom, yet each is unique.
As for the ‘complexity’, the team vowed early on not to reduce the offering on their menu, or to try to cut corners. Instead, they tried to ‘unlearn’ some of their business nous and embrace quirks and complications. The result is a place that never feels like it’s trying to cheat its customers – it’s the only restaurant in London where they’re prepared to give your entire table a free meal on the roll of a dice*.
And the ‘culture’? Well that’s not just for the diners’ benefit. New staff do yoga with Thakrar during training to raise spirits and promote the idea of ‘selfless’ service. The company holds festivals not just to celebrate religious occasions like Holi and Christmas, but also private ones mid-year for staff and their families (they bring every one of their Edinburgh employees down by train). And on top of all that? They donate a school meal to disadvantaged children in India and the UK with every meal that’s served in a Dishoom.
So, maybe the secret to owning a successful restaurant in these difficult times is to stay true to your philosophy, and er, be nice. Unfortunately, however, most chefs and would-be restaurateurs don’t have the capital that would enable them to do things their way.
But for now we can be happy, at least, that we have Dishoom….
*It’s called the matka, and it’s specific to each branch. They’re hard to come by, so you’ll need to ask very nicely if you can have one. Then, if you roll a six on a weekday before 6pm, your bill will be promptly taken away and forgotten about.
Dishoom Restaurants in London
NOTE: All London’s Dishoom branches are walk-in only restaurants after 5.45pm, though you can book a table before then, or any time for groups of 6+. Waiting in the queue outside is all part of the tradition – and they’ll probably hand out a complimentary chai tea to give you sustenance while you wait.
For its tenth birthday, the original Dishoom on Upper St. Martin’s Lane in Covent Garden was given a head-to-toe makeover evocative of Bombay’s glamorous old cinemas. Sip Hoppy Paanch (a foamy mix of Dishoom IPA, whisky and butter syrup) at the cocktail bar while you wait for your table, before tucking into this branch’s unique dish; masala fish griddled in a banana leaf and served to share…
Address: 12 Upper St. Martin’s Lane, London, WC2H 9FB | Book here
Evolving subtly in its East London home, the second Dishoom restaurant has a tangibly more bohemian, eccentric feel than its predecessor. The bar here takes centre stage with its homemade, Indian-inspired bitters and peach brandy moonshine; and out back there’s a convivial verandah filled with inviting antique sofas, mismatched chairs and an eclectic collection of household clutter…
Address: 7 Boundary Street, E2 7JE
Taking inspiration from its station neighbour, the third restaurant in the Dishoom family is a vast, multi-storeyed space with the unique aesthetic of an old gentleman’s club housed in an industrial godown (an East Asian warehouse). Wood-panelled cocktail bars and relaxed, Colonial-era furnishings are married with ironwork, exposed beams and dimmed, industrial lights, with a basement cocktail bar to kick off the evening…
Details: 5 Stable Street, N1C 4AB
Sweeping Arco lamps, psychedelic upholstery and low-slung, midcentury furniture give an appropriately 60s accent to this Carnaby Street offshoot, immersed in a soundtrack of hypnotic 60s ‘beat’ music from Indian and British bands. Like its predecessors, it has both excellent cocktails and dishes inspired by Bombay street food, but unlike its predecessors, it also has a signature dish of gravy-braised lamb with buttered roti…
Details: 22 Kingly Street, W1B 5QP
Perhaps their grandest branch yet, Dishoom Kensington finds itself in the former Barkers’ department store building off High Street Kensington, and melts into its 1930s architecture with softly curving booth seating; art deco glass panels and vintage lighting. The whole place is cast in a soft-focus glow, like an old movie, and it’s not totally unheard of for live jazz musicians to take to the stage…
Details: 4 Derry Street, W8 5SE
Dishoom’s sixth restaurant in Canary Wharf takes its cue from the heady business scene of 70s Bombay. It joins the latest Hawksmoor in Wood Wharf, a newly developed part of the skyscraper neighbourhood that’s more geared towards play than work. Here, as ever, Dishoom’s full menu is on offer, alongside a dedicated bar area and a three martini lunch…
Details: 13 Water Street, E14 5GX
Delivery in London
Yes, in the light of the pandemic when all of London’s restaurants were forced to close their doors, Dishoom announced that they were finally launching a home delivery service. And lucky for us, they’ve kept it going ever since. They’ve picked out all the dishes that travel best, from the famous overnight black dahl to handmade breads and biryanis, and it’s all cooked by Dishoom-trained chefs, so you know it’s the real deal. Plus, just as in their restaurants, every time you order, they’ll donate a meal to school children in India.
Here are the delivery areas – head here to place an order.
- Battersea: Chelsea, Battersea, Clapham, Stockwell, Brixton, Streatham, Balham and Wandsworth
- Whitechapel: Shoreditch, Bethnal Green, Hackney, Mile End, Bow, Limehouse, Poplar and Shadwell
- Swiss Cottage: King’s Cross, Camden, Kentish Town, Hampstead, Kilburn and Marylebone
- Park Royal: Kensal Rise, Queen’s Park, Kilburn, Willesden and Wembley
Of course, if you want to get a little interactive, Dishoom also offer cook-at-home meal kits, from entire biryani feasts with half a dozen sides to packs that allow you to replicate their legendary bacon naan rolls – plus pre-made cocktails, silky mango lassi and various products to perk up your cupboards, including Dishoom’s own chai tea blend, chutneys, and spices. And if you want to get a lot interactive, there’s a Dishoom cookbook with full details on how to make every one of their star dishes at home.
Seems like they’re all recipes for success.
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