Ceylon India Inn: Oldest Indian Restaurant In The US
Image Credit: Kheer | Image Credit: Freepik.com

In 1939, Jatinder Guha, an Indian in the United States, went by train to New York City’s Grand Central Station and was more than a little excited. Guha hadn’t eaten an Indian meal in months and was keen on rectifying that situation. He had moved to America in 1919 as a student at Columbia University, and recalled that the initial months had been difficult given the lack of Indian food where he lived. He noted with joy that the 1939 guidebook he had with him showed four (East) Indian restaurants in and around Times Square, which is a 15-minute walk from Grand Central. As light snow fell on the city, Guha made his way to what he called the oldest of the Indian restaurants in the US – Ceylon India Inn. 

Ceylon India Inn had opened its doors years earlier, sometime between 1913 and 1915 (there are differing accounts of the original date). The restaurant, in its first avatar, was known as the Ceylon Restaurant, and was located a few blocks away from where Ceylon India Inn would host patrons for over three decades. 

Ceylon India Inn was fairly popular and was frequented by many of the Indians living in the vicinity, especially the dock workers and factory workers who lived in boarding houses nearby. There is at least one claim that the 1920s heartthrob Rudolph Valentino once visited Ceylon India Inn and showed it to his friends. Jatinder Guha wrote in his notes that many Indians at the time considered it a place where South Asians gathered to discuss politics, labor and working conditions. 

Buty why Ceylon? Well, the restaurant was begun by a Sri Lankan dancer. Yaman Kira, who was born in the (now Sri Lankan) city of Kandy in 1884, toured the United States as a circus performer and dancer on more than one occasion, even living in Bridgeport, Connecticut with the circus group when they weren’t traveling around the country. In 1913, he married a German immigrant named Elizabeth Eckhard and settled down. It is speculated that marriage had perhaps tamed Kira’s spirit and he moved to New York with his wife. They opened the restaurant, moved to the new location, and welcomed everyone who walked in through their restaurant’s doors. More than a few accounts have noted that Ceylon India Inn became a meeting point for the South Asian community in and around Manhattan. Kira also offered shelter to Indian and Sri Lankan sailors who stayed back in New York to make a new life. It was a motley bunch of exiles, deserters, students, workers, and people from other walks of life who rubbed shoulders at the restaurant. 

Newspaper clippings from that era show that breakfast, lunch and dinner were served at low prices. Lunch and dinner at the old East Indian restaurants were priced at 60c and 75c. Adjusting for inflation, that would be over $10 today, or around 885 INR. What was the lunch like? There’s no clear record, but it’s not hard to guess. Guha noted in 1939 that “Red Hot Sinhalese Pepper Steak at Ceylon India Inn deemed a perennial favorite among the firinghees, but the hindoos avoided it...There were plentiful curries, fried coconuts, chutneys and even tamarind wine that I had never heard of in India. You can have lunch today for 60c and dinner for 75c.” These days, Curry India, the restaurant that occupies the same space as Ceylon India Inn, serves a $21 veg lunch that includes “Soup, Mattar Paneer, Hana Saag, Daal Mix Vegetable Curry, Rice, Poori, Raita & Kheer.” The non-veg lunch thali includes “Soup, Tandoori Chicken, Lamb Saag, Chicken Korma, Rice, Naan, Raita & Kheer.” 

Kira’s broadmindedness meant that Ceylon India Inn celebrated many events related to the South Asian movements of the time. In 1930, the restaurant hosted the “founding banquet of the India Independence League of America”, and even hosted the unveiling of an early iteration of the Indian flag in the same year (perhaps the earlier version with the charkha in place of the navy-blue Ashoka Chakra we see today.) Kira was a Buddhist by faith, and is known to have celebrated Buddha Purnima, or the Buddha's birthday. Over the next decade, as the Indian independence movement gathered steam and opinions became more strident, other Indian restaurants in the area hosted more Indian events. The situation wouldn't have been helped much by Ceylon India Inn hosting a 1936 memorial for King George V after he died. Nonetheless, Ceylon India Inn. continued to serve as a gathering place for Indians and South Asians.


In the 1950s, the Kiras, well into their 60s, sold Ceylon India Inn, handing the baton of USA’s oldest Indian restaurant to a new owner of Bengali origin. They spent their later years in Long Island, where Yaman died in 1961, and Elizabeth passed a few years later. These days, another Indian restaurant named Curry India occupies Ceylon India Inn’s location on 148, West 49th Street, New York. The black neon board hanging outside declares proudly in white letters today, “Oldest Indian Restaurant in USA”.  The ‘Y’ in the word curry on the board is made by two ‘red chilies’, perhaps a tongue-in-cheek reference to the stereotype of Indian food.