The First Indian Restaurants In The United States
Image Credit: Saag paneer is a popular fine-dining dish | Unsplash

To anyone who has traveled in the West with their somewhat conservative, somewhat unadventurous parents, this would not be an unfamiliar situation: the lookout for the closest Indian restaurant. What is it about us that we travel thousands of miles and still crave dal and chawal? Well, we suppose it is because they are truly fantastic, and who are we to improve upon perfection or ask for alternatives? But finding Indian restaurants in the West was not always easy. It was perhaps easier in the UK, but definitely not in the US.

These days, they are ubiquitous, at least in large North American cities and towns. But that was clearly not the case earlier. So when did the first Indian restaurants open in the US? And when did Indian restaurants make the leap from "curry houses" to "fine dining"?

One may have noticed a few decades ago that Chinese, Indian, Mexican, and other "ethnic" restaurants in the US were always downmarket or simply takeaway places. Fine dining in America has always meant French or some other European cuisine. Indian fine-dining restaurants are very much a new phenomenon. "Saag paneer, lamb vindaloo, chicken tikka masala, garlic naan, basmati rice" are now somewhat familiar names in urban America, thanks solely to these low-cost takeout joints.The first of these could have happened in, where else, New York City.

Vivek Bald, an associate professor of Comparative Media Studies and Writing at MIT, is particularly interested in diaspora histories. Krishnendu Ray, a professor at NYU, is a food studies scholar whose work is very much concerned with migrants and their memories and foods. The research of these two scholars has given us some insight into the earliest Indian restaurants in the US and where they may have been.

The very first appearance of Indian restaurants to have appeared in the newspaper of record, The New York Times, may well have been on April 3, 1921, where Helen Bullitt Lowry discusses an Indian restaurant while talking about the changes wrought on the city of New York by immigrant Europeans. She says, "Six short weeks ago and Indian restaurant was discovered on Eight Avenue near Forth-second Street. 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, eagerly peering at each other for turbans and local color." Scholars have suggested this could be the Taj Mahal Hindu Restaurant at 243 West 42nd Street. An advertisement for the restaurant even appeared in the February 1920 issue of Young India. Professor Bald notes that this area was also home to a lot of South Asian laborers—dock workers, restaurant workers, factory workers—who lived in boarding houses. Professor Bald also notes that four blocks to the west of the Eighth Avenue boarding house were two of the first Indian restaurants in the city: one, of course, was the Taj Mahal Hindu restaurant established in 1918, and the other, predating the Taj, was the Ceylon restaurant, established in 1913. The four-block radius around these restaurants was also the area where South Asians met to talk about their lives, labor, and working conditions, underscoring the fact that wherever South Asians may be, their lives always revolve around food.

Chicken tikka masala and naan | Unsplash

There were, of course, occasional mentions of Indian cuisine in American newspapers, including one by prolific contributor Saint Nihal Singh in the Chicago Daily Tribune, who insisted that Indian dishes were rather easy to recreate in the West. He may well have been the first person to provide recipes for Indian dishes in American newspapers. India and Indian cuisine always seemed to fascinate American journalists. So one would have thought that there would be an explosion of Indian restaurants, following in the footsteps of the Ceylon and the Taj Mahal Hindu Restaurant. That, unfortunately, was not to be the case. 

Life would change rather dramatically for people hoping to immigrate to the US. In 1924, with the passing of the Johnson-Reed Act, there was an effective ban on South Asian immigration into the US. It was not until the mid-60s that South Asians could migrate to the US again. And the restaurants that came up after 1965—the same humble ones that made saag paneer a household name—were the precursors for the current breed of fine-dining and experimental Indian restaurants cropping up across the country, including Michelin star-winning Junoon, Adda, Dhamaka, Tamarind, and Indian Accent in New York alone. Rasika in Washington, DC, has played host to President Obama on his birthday twice! Chai Pani in Asheville, North Carolina, was named by the New York Times as one of the 50 best restaurants in the country and was only recently named America’s Most Outstanding Restaurant at the James Beard Foundation Awards.

Indian restaurants have sure come a long way in the US. A way that was paved by the Ceylon and The Taj Mahal Hindu Restaurant and the countless takeaway places started by hardworking Indian immigrants who were simply looking for a better life for their children.