Ask a Londoner where to go for a good curry, and they are most likely to point you in the direction of Tooting or Brick Lane. However, London’s curry house history is said to have started in Marylebone in the early years of the Nineteenth Century, with the opening of the first Indian restaurant.
The Hindostanee Coffee House was opened in George Street, near Portman Square, in 1809 or 1810. Its owner, Sake Dean Mahomet, was an enterprising Indian with a colourful career. Born in Bihar, north India, in 1759, he arrived in Marylebone in 1807. The intervening years had been were marked by a decade’s service in the East India Company Army, his emigration to Cork, and his elopement with Jane Daly, an Anglo-Irish woman. This period also saw the appearance in print of his autobiographical work The Travels of Dean Mahomet, an achievement which earned him a place in history as the first Indian author to be published in Britain.
Mahomet also became known for introducing the practice of ‘shampooing’ – a kind of full body massage therapy that became all the rage in English spas and steam rooms. He introduced the technique while working for the Honorable Basil Cochrane’s ‘Indian Vapour Cure’ in Portman Square, a stone’s throw away from the site of his next business venture, the Hindostanee Coffee House.
In early February 1810, an advertisement appeared in the Morning Post, humbly drawing the nobility’s attention to the arrival of the ‘Hindostanee Dinner and Hooka Smoking Club’:
Apartments are fitted up for their entertainment in the Eastern style, where dinners, composed of genuine Hindostanee dishes, are served up at the shortest notice…
The restaurant even offered an upmarket equivalent to the modern-day takeaway:
Such ladies and gentlemen as may desirous of having India Dinners dressed and sent to their own houses will be punctually attended to by giving previous notice.
The restaurant prided itself on Mahomet’s ‘unique selling point’: authenticity. Although curry powder was already widely used as a flavouring in British cookery, this was the first Indian-owned dining establishment in London. The interior was decorated to appeal to the wealthy nabobs living in and around Portman Square. Bamboo seats, south-asian paintings and the scent of hooka pipes were to evoke the India they had left behind.
Unfortunately the restaurant didn’t take off, and in 1812 Mahomet declared his bankruptcy in the Times. The Hindostanee Coffee House struggled on under other management for another 20 years, but finally disappeared in 1833 .
Dean Mahomet managed to bounce back, resurfacing in Brighton as a bath-house manager and self-styled ‘Shampooing Surgeon’. He was even granted a Royal Warrant for his massage therapy!
Despite its failure, the Hindostanee Coffee House is remembered today as a cultural landmark. A Green Plaque commemorates the site of the restaurant (now 102 George Street).