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10 Old-Fashioned Indian Restaurants To Try in New York City

Eater's senior critic offers a guide to the city's old-timer Indian establishments

For some reason, Indian restaurants lack the longevity of, say, Italian ones. You might say the reason is that Indians have not been in New York for as long, but that's not strictly true. The first South Asian restaurant in town, according to the website Asian American History in NYC, was the Ceylon India Inn, founded near Times Square in 1913. The restaurateur was K. Yaman Kira, a retired dancer and circus performer from Ceylon (the modern Sri Lanka), and the place catered to South Asian factory and dock workers, students, political exiles, and Indian sailors known as "lascars," many of whom lived in nearby boarding houses. Rudolph Valentino was said to be a regular.

Soon there were several more such restaurants in the vicinity, of interest not only to South Asians, but to other Americans, who found themselves curious about the food as well as the new residents. A prominent addition to the Times Square dining scene in 1918 was the Taj Mahal Hindu Restaurant, located in the thick of things at 243 West 42nd Street. Unaware of its actual age, Helen Bullitt Lowry writes in the New York Times in 1921, "Grave Indian gentlemen, with American clothes but with great turbans on their heads used to come in for their curry and rice. Six short weeks—and already the restaurant is half full of tourists."

The successor to Ceylon India Inn at 148 West 49th Street in 1996 was Bombay Masala, which still exists. As a result, it now lays dubious claim to being the oldest Indian restaurant in the city. But most of our oldest Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Sri Lankan restaurants date from the 1970s and 1980s, serving a cuisine that now seems old-fashioned to those of us accustomed to a choice of well over a dozen regional and national cuisines of the subcontinent, as well as various forms of fast food. Back then the bill of fare was most often Punjabi or Bengali, much of it descended from the Mughal cooking of northern India's 16th century Muslim kingdom.

Return with us now to the days when meats swam in savory brown gravies, every roast chicken was bright red, pooris arrived extravagantly inflated just waiting to be poked, vegetables came in pairs flavored with mild masalas, and nearly every main dish was labeled "curry."

The Five Best

Award-winning actress, chef, and cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey was still savoring her international fame for the Merchant-Ivory film Shakespeare Wallah when she served as culinary consultant for the upscale East Side Indian restaurant Dawat ("invitation to a feast"), which debuted in 1986. At the time, the sprawling menu was a revelation, a collection of diverse and sometimes rare recipes from the four corners of India. While the city had accustomed itself to curries ladled from steam tables, suddenly we were treated to food of amazing subtlety prepared from freshly ground masalas, and a menu dotted with luxury ingredients.

A recent revisit proves that the food remains top notch. A tandoori mixed grill included a perfect spice-rubbed lamb chop, in addition to chicken and shrimp; a dish attributed to the Jewish community of Kerala featured a Cornish game hen bathed in a fiery sauce dotted with fresh green chiles; the samosas were small and delicate; and the Mughal standard of saag paneer rendered with such subtlety of flavor that even jaded Indian food enthusiasts would be newly impressed. Dawat spawned a whole generation of luxurious Midtown Indian restaurants, of which Chola and Utsav are still around, and also well worth visiting. 210 E 58th St, (212) 355-7555.

The area on lower Lexington waggishly known as Curry Hill (the name is word play on Murray Hill) is one of the New York region's great Indian shopping strips, of which 74th Street in Jackson Heights and Jersey City's Newark Avenue are other examples. Founded in 1975 with a name certain to popularize the cuisine to a wider audience, Curry in a Hurry was one of the original anchors of Curry Hill. The international food store Kalustyan's was another. Eventually, these formed a nucleus around which stores selling groceries, saris, dowry jewelry, books, and kitchenware coalesced. Today there are around 20 restaurants on these blocks of Lexington and on side streets.

To cater to the broadest range of shoppers when it opened, Curry in a Hurry offered a wide range of Indian cuisines; indeed it was one of the earliest places in town to make South Indian iddlies and dosas. Clay-oven breads, tandoori chicken, Mughal vegetarian dishes, the occasional Gujarati choice, milk-based Bengali sweets, ice-milk kulfis, and plain old mainstream curries became part of its ambitious purview. When it moved to its current corner in the early 90s, it added an elegant upstairs dining room offering panoramic views of the neighborhood. The food is still mercifully inexpensive, though the premises are now a bit rundown. 119 Lexington Ave, (212) 683-0900.

Dating to 1996, the amazing Vatan still offers a single enormous vegetarian meal, reflecting an era when the westernmost state of Gujarat provided many of the city's Indian immigrants. The price of the meal is fixed at $32, and includes approximately 25 dishes organized into four courses. It's also all-you-can-eat, and individual dishes are cheerfully replenished, including fritters, sauces and chutneys, puddings, flatbreads, curries, and soups.

That said, one of the greatest pleasures of the meal — in which servers and bussers drift through the room dressed in festival costume — is the restaurant's interior. The room is made to look like a multi-level Gujarati village, with a banyan tree spreading over a town square around which a series of buildings is arranged. You sit inside the buildings. This is culinary theater at its best. 409 3rd Ave, (212) 689-5666.

Occupying a prominent storefront right on 74th Street, in the midst of Jackson Heights' Indian shopping strip, Jackson Diner seems to be all plate-glass windows, through which beckons the massive buffet that has become the restaurant's signature. It offers around two dozen all-you-can-eat dishes for $11.95 at lunch, seven days a week. There you can sample chicken and goat curries, biryanis, vegetarian concoctions, tandoori chicken and flatbreads, multiple chutneys and raitas, and rice pudding.

It wasn't always that way. When it originated in 1982 further up the street near the corner of 37th Avenue, it was ensconced in an ancient diner of the same name. No buffet, but a menu that pleased immigrants from many parts of India, and not just the Sikhs who'd founded the place. The dosa became a popular item, and soon Jackson Diner was thronged, not just with Indians and other South Asians, but with foodies from all over the city. Was it better then? Well, it was more intimate, and you almost felt like you were eating in someone's home. Now, the food is still good, even excellent if you order from the full menu instead of visiting the buffet. 37-47 74th Street, Queens, (718) 672-1232.

Among the mainly Bangladeshi restaurants of 6th Street's Little India in the East Village, Haveli on 2nd Avenue was always the upscale outlier. Founded in 1985, its curries displayed more delicacy, its menu more breadth. Now it is one of the few remaining Indian restaurants in the neighborhood. Not long ago it merged with Banjara, a place founded in 2001 at the corner of 1st Avenue and 6th Street that introduced some fascinating Bengali dishes to the area.

One of those was dumpakht, a nut-fragrant and creamy chicken curry with a piece of dough stretched across the top, pie-like, to seal in the flavors. Other unique recipes include a whole-wheat paratha stuffed with juicy chicken liver masala, and a chana saag made with real saag — fresh mustard greens. Seating is on two levels in the well-decorated space, while a glassed-in tandoori oven at the end of the room provides entertainment. Sidewalk seating available. 100 2nd Ave, 212-982-0533

[Top:saag paneer and tandoori chicken from Curry in a Hurry; bottom: a main course at Vatan; chicken lajawab from Jackson Diner.]

Here Are Five More

Ghandi (283 Bleecker St, 212-645-1456) — This Bleecker Street classic looks far older than its 17 years — in fact it might have been transplanted from the East Village's Little India. Along with a Bangladeshi bent, the menu flaunts the London-adapted style of Indian cooking sometimes known as Balti, including such selections as phaal and balti (the tomatoey dish that inspired the cuisine). Lit with flickering candles, the dark dining room is decorated with British soccer-club pennants.

Haandi (113 Lexington Ave, 212-685-5200) — While the dishes at this Curry Hill stalwart (founded 2001) hail from the Pakistani side of the border, the food is still resolutely Punjabi. Thus you may find tandoori roast quails being displayed on the high counter; lots of characteristic vegetables such as loofah, snake gourd, and bitter melon on the steam table; and indeed more vegetarian fare than you might have expected. Dine upstairs, rather than down at this excellent spot.

5 Star Diner (13-15 43rd Ave, Queens, 718-784-7444) — Just like the Jackson Diner, 5 Star started out as a diner, taken over by the current proprietors around 1995 to fulfill the culinary needs of workers in the auto body shops and taxi garages in the vicinity. The undulating eaves, vaulted ceiling, and handsome dining room of the old diner remain intact. Go for the citrus-scented biryanis or anything made with goat. Cocktails available.

Kismat (603 Ft Washington Ave, 917-962-8770) — The name translates "fate," and this long-running (1984) Hudson Heights Indian and Bangladeshi restaurant is praised for its tandoori meats, kurmas, and biryanis. The dining room is lined with mirrors and candle sconces; chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Consider carrying out and having a picnic in nearby Ft Tryon Park.

Bombay Masala (148 W 49th St #2, 212-302-8150) — Scamper up the ancient stairway, decorated like a temple, to find the fraying dining room of this Times Square standard, successor to Ceylon India Inn, which occupied the space as late as 1968 (and perhaps beyond), when Craig Claiborne noted in a Times review, "the ventilation could be improved." Furnishing thrilling views of the street, the place now serves some decent though somewhat expensive curries and tandooris; the $12.95 lunch buffet is considered a good deal for Times Square.

Check out the other posts in the 10 Old-Fashioned series:

— 10 Old-Fashioned Italian-American Restaurants to Try in Brooklyn

— 10 Old-Fashioned Italian-American Restaurants to Try in New York and Jersey City

— 10 Old-Fashioned French Bistros to Try in New York City

— 10 Old-Fashioned Spanish Restaurants to Try in New York and New Jersey

— 10 Great Old-Fashioned Brooklyn Neighborhood Pizzerias

— 10 Old-Fashioned New York Neighborhood Pizzerias

— 10 Old-Fashioned Chinese-American Restaurants to Try in New York City

— 10 Old-Fashioned German Restaurants To Try in NYC

— 10 Old-Fashioned Soul Food Restaurants To Try in NYC

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