What’s the best curry house in Brighton?

Picking the best curry house in Brighton is not easy. It’s also more difficult for me after a couple of restaurants closed.

Two favourite places recently vanished from Preston Street. The Bombay, down at the sea end, used to be my go-to place for a straightforward British curry. Nothing flash, but a decent, consistent meal – consistency being one of the big problems with curry houses. More recently, the Nishat Tandoori closed for renovations (or relocation, according to the website). I’m hoping this is indeed the case, and it’s not one of those situations where shut ‘temporarily’ and never re-open.

The Nishat was great because the regular curry menu was combined with various Goan options. They did a good Xacuti and an excellent Goan-style vindaloo. Instead of assaulting you with chilli, it was done in the vinegary Goan style. They also had the regular dishes you’d expect from a British curry house. It was always fun mixing Goan- and British-style curry dishes.

The Curry Leaf Cafe gets a lot of respect, but that is on probation after managing to serve a hunk of lamb in my vegetable Thali. They did offer a free tea and coffee to apologise, but that isn’t much use when you’re on a lunch break and don’t have time to linger anyhow. I’m sure I’ll go back, but it’s taking me a while to feel comfortable about the idea.

Some of those who know me are probably wondering why I’m not listing Planet India as my favourite curry house. I love Planet India. It has by far the best menu I’ve ever read, with a brief commentary on each of the dishes – a simple touch that always made me feel at home.

But I don’t consider Planet India a curry house, as it aims to provide more ‘authentic’ Indian dishes than the British-Indian places usually offer. It’s a great place for a treat, but not what I’m after for a standard takeaway curry.

With Nishat gone, I have a few go-to places. There’s the Raj Pavilion or the Shahi, which I know from when I used to live that side of town. My nearest restaurant if the Ashoka, which is pretty good. But right now, I don’t have a strong favourite. So what is the best curry house in Brighton?



In the early days of the curry house

Around the time that the Guardian published Bee Wilson’s article Who Killed the Curry House, it also republished an article from 1957, Rising popularity of Indian restaurants in Britain. At that time, Indian food was still a novelty in the UK. The article is an interesting read, positioning curry as a new thing to the British while noting a very well-informed audience for the cuisine.

When you have missed the homeward bus… a Northern city can be an inhospitable place. Once there was nothing to do and nowhere to go: now there are Indian restaurants. In the middle of every night, Sunday or weekday, when the cafes and steak houses are shut and their waiters asleep, egg pilao and Madras chicken curry, Bhuna Gosht, Kofta, Jelabi, and Poppadum are coming to birth, filling and astonishing the mouths of those who always miss buses, all over Britain.

There were estimated to be a hundred Indian restaurants in London at that time, a dozen in Manchester, with more spreading over the country, including “towns as unlikely as Northampton“. A brief history is given, with Veeraswamy mentioned, as well as the Koh-i-noor, which opened in 1929. Indian restaurants from that period sound like strange places:

In those days the clientele was limited mostly to the homesick prince, or the lover of the exotic: at one time or another most of the Indian rulers called and fed, with their retinues. Running up accounts with these private armies of secretaries and musicians and doctors was a nervous business, for occasions arose when master and retinue would refuse to pay, both arguing that it was the other’s responsibility. At such moments the proprietor of the Koh-i-Noor would call upon the services of a solicitor in full morning dress, with silk hat.

Many of the 1957 customers were discerning: “The proprietors are at once troubled and delighted by a class of gourmets who raise an instant fuss if they are given Italian rice instead of Siamese first quality, who know and are angry if the spices have been added a minute too late in the frying stage.” It seems that many people had developed a taste for Indian food during the war.

The first person to open an Indian restaurant, Sake Dean Mahomed, is buried in Brighton. However, he had given up on catering before he moved down here, making his fortune by running a bathhouse. However, curry in Brighton was well established by the time the article above was written. According to Rose Collis’s New Encyclopedia of Brighton, the first Indian restaurant to open here was the Taj Mahal in 1948 in Ship Street. (She also notes the Agra Balti House, the ‘first authentic Balti house in Sussex’, opening in 1993).

The Naming of Curry Houses

I’ve always enjoyed The Raj Pavilion in Brighton. It’s your regular British-Indian restaurant and a curry-loving friend lived close by. I was recently hiking with this same friend in Kent, and we found ourselves at a different restaurant called the Raj Pavilion. While both restaurants included the many of the same dishes on the menu, they had few other connections – including the recipes used for the dishes.


One of the fascinating things about British curry houses (which is also true of Chinese food) is that nobody has ever established a large chain. In fact, the largest curry restaurant in the UK is Wetherspoons, whose Wednesday Curry Club serves more Indian meals than any other organisation. Despite this, there are many similarities between different restaurants. After the second world war, many people worked for the Bahadur brothers and were then encouraged to open their own restaurants. This led to places serving the same dishes across the UK. Another things that recurs are the names.

The first curry restaurant in the UK was the Hindoostanee Coffee House, opened by Sake Dean Mahomed in 1810. In the early 20th century restaurants such as Salut e Hind and The Shafi were opened. Veeraswamy, the oldest surviving Indian restaurant, was opened in 1926 and given the owner’s family name – Edward Palmer had an Indian Princess for a grandmother. Bir Bahadur opened the Kohinoor in London. A series of other Bahadur restaurants followed, including Taj Mahals in Brighton, Northampton and Oxford, and Kohinoors in Cambridge and Manchester.

In her recent article Who Killed the British Curry House, Bee Wilson talked about the changing fashion in curry house names:

You can judge the age of a British curry restaurant from its name. If you see one that is called Taj Mahal, Passage to India or Koh-i-Noor (after the famous Indian diamond), it probably dates back to the first wave of curry houses in the 1960s… The names of 1970s curry houses began to shrug off the colonial past and evoke, instead, a vague sense of eastern exoticism: Lily Tandoori, Aladdin, Sheba – glamorous names to counteract longstanding British prejudices that south Asian food was malodorous and unclean. By the 1980s, however, such orientalism had also begun to seem hackneyed, and new restaurants opening in that decade often named themselves after ingredients, a more subtle form of rebranding: Tamarind, Cumin, or Lasan (Hindi for garlic).

A 2014 survey took place of the most common restaurant names in the UK.  The top ten curry house names were:

  1. Saffron (54)
  2. Taj Mahal (48)
  3. Taste of India (48)
  4. Bengal Spice (40)
  5. Spice of India (40)
  6. Little India (30)
  7. Spice of Life (27)
  8. The Raj (26)
  9. Eastern Spice (23)
  10. Bombay Spice (21)

How many of these have you eaten at?

Korma Vindaloo

Post-hike curry with Katharine, Romi and Kaylee

I like to tease kormas. I’m not a fan – they’re too sweet for my liking, and seem a little bland to my palette. Consequently, I’d not had one for a long time.

I’ve recently been going hiking with my friends Romi and Katharine. We like to order a curry in the evenings, trying out  restaurants and takeaways along the route. Romi is as much of a fan of spice as I am, so we’ll order the hottest dishes on the menu.

On our most recent trip, the local curry house didn’t have many vegetable options, and wouldn’t make a vegetable vindaloo specially. So we asked for a vegetable madras, spiced up to vindaloo strength. They managed this and did a pretty good job. It had the fire of a vindaloo, but the taste of a madras.


The next night, we decided to order curry again. This time, we decided to ask for something foolish. Could we have a vindaloo-strength Jalfrezi? Yes we could. Could we have a vindaloo-strength korma? Yes we could.


The korma vindaloo tasted as ridiculous as you might expect. The creaminess was in conflict with the spice – but for a korma it was pretty good. Although I’m not sure the curry house should really have indulged our experiment.

The Fate of the British Curry House

I’m currently halfway through Bee Wilson’s excellent book, First Bite, which is about how we learn to eat, mixing historical research with personal stories. I was delighted when the Guardian published her article Who Killed the Great British Curry House.

The piece covers some of the same issues raised in the Vindaloo Stories show about the decline in curry house customers and skilled staff. These problems are now so severe that two or three curry houses are closing each week. Wilson quotes the Bangladeshi Caterers’ Association warning that “as many as a third of Britain’s curry houses – around 4,000 in total – will close over the next couple of years.”

Staffing has been a problem for some time, with restaurant owner’s children leaving the business and immigration restrictions preventing trained chefs from overseas working in the UK. Initiatives such as the curry colleges have failed to have any impact. These ongoing problems have been made worse by the post-referendum economy, which is causing both rents and prices to rise. Wilson describes one owner who is making a loss on many meals, but nervous of putting the price up. For many people, curry is a cheap evening out. One chef, Kobir Ahmed, explains how “there were Cambridge curry houses that had not put up their prices in 20 years because they were scared of losing customers”.

Maybe the curry house is just not needed in the today’s Britain in the same way as it used to be. As Wilson points out, there are far more options for eating out than there were. I also think the curry house is suffering from a change in British socialising. More liberal  licensing laws mean that pubs are open later, so there is less drive to the post-pub curry. More pubs are now offering decent food too – indeed, Wetherspoon’s, with its Thursday Curry Club, is the country’s biggest curry chain.

For me, one of the great things about Indian restaurants in Britain is that you can find them everywhere. I’ve been hiking around the country with friends recently and, wherever we go, we can find a curry restaurant. Some have been dire (Stanford-Le-hope, I’m looking at you) others have been amazing. I love the little ways each one stands out from the British curry-house template.

One of my favourite moments in the article was when Wilson described “the soul food of the UK, the bowl of warmth that people turn to when sniffy, sloshed or merely peckish” Curry is a vital part of modern British food, and it’s sad to see it in decline.

PS – Another excellent article from Bee Wilson is It’s time to address the dirty underbelly of “clean eating”.