Culture Food

In Search of Memsahib

Looking for traces of a restaurant that no longer exists.

I don’t know if it’s to do with being profoundly entrenched in nostalgia during a year of lockdown, or just that I’m jaded with the PR-savvy Indian venues of today – but I’ve found myself thinking more and more about a restaurant that existed for about six years during the 1980s. I only visited it once.

Memsahib was a neighbourhood Indian located at 22 Upper Richmond Road in East Putney. It was not on anyone’s radar – except for its funny, sarcastic and provocatively tongue-in-cheek advertisements in the Guardian. Between 1981 and 1987, it appeared in the classifieds’ ‘Epicure’ section, a small monochrome rectangular box with a decorative arch, underneath which there would be clever and witty one-liners that guaranteed a reaction.

Indian culture is laughably aspirational and ostentatious. This tendency, combined with the complicated psychology of the legacy of colonialism, has meant that Indian restaurants abroad have always sold a gilt-edged dream of India as an exotic country of maharajas, elephants and dusky maidens in bright jewel-hued clothing.

London’s first Indian restaurant, the Hindoostane Coffee House, set the tone by trying to lure in ‘the nobility and gentry’ with promises of ‘neat and elegant’ furnishings, hookah pipes with expensive tobacco and fine wines in its advert in the Times in 1811. Veeraswamy – today London’s oldest surviving Indian restaurant – continued courting a well-heeled clientele in 1926, selling ingredients under the brand name of ‘Nizam’ to the likes of King Gustav vi of Sweden, Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin and Jawaharlal Nehru.

London’s first modern Indian restaurants, which started springing up in the 1980s, carried on attempting to dazzle the wealthy, turning their dubious colonial décor of wicker chairs and potted palms into a talking point. Today’s more media-literate venues have kept up this glossy heritage of spinning a story: be it the myth of authenticity, the revival of some ancient ‘tradition’, or ‘family recipes handed down through generations.’

Memsahib did the opposite. It knowingly twisted these manufactured dreams into manufactured nightmares, deftly mangling the image that the average Brit would have had of India at the time, as a land of poverty with slum dwellings with flies. The 1980s were marked with fears about immigrants taking jobs and houses; with skinheads huddled on street corners shouting, ‘oi Paki!’ Memsahib turned this rampant racism into a sarcastic selling point with a series of eyebrow-raising adverts:

Can you imagine Indian restaurants of today daring to say anything like this, even ironically? Everyone would take it far too seriously, there would be a huge social media outcry, every person on Twitter would be offended, and the place would get instantly cancelled – leading to right-wing ‘opinion’ columnists droning on about freedom of speech. It would all end up a colossal mess.

Memsahib’s many other ads poked fun at inept staff, ‘slow’ and undiscerning diners, restaurant critics and Michelin inspectors continuing to ignore the place and the boringly conventional advertisements of rival venues. I’d love to see an obsequious, star-chasing contemporary Indian restaurateur coming out with:

and having a laugh at restaurant guides

It’s not clear why and when the restaurant closed, but some of the later ads hinted at money-making struggles, jokingly referring to unsympathetic bank managers and bailiffs. The bluntness of this advertisement will resonate with today’s restaurant owners fighting to survive after the pandemic:

So, who was behind these ads? Was an advertising agency involved, or did the owner or another staff member dream them up? To find out, I spent many weeks trying to track down any information I could get hold of: the name of the owner, the food, a copy of the menu, service, décor, even a photo.

Because the adverts made us laugh, I vaguely recall travelling to the restaurant from north London with my parents and sister while growing up in the mid-1980s – so I started with them, but nobody remembered anything. I asked on Twitter and Facebook, where an editor of an Indian restaurant trade magazine got in touch to say he knew the place – result! – but it turned out he only remembered the ads.

Excited about what I would find, I set up a Facebook group – I have always wanted to do that – but out of billions of people on earth, nobody joined. I asked veteran restaurant critics Andy Hayler and Richard Vines, but neither knew anything. Andy suggested I get in touch with Fay Maschler, which I did via LinkedIn, but she didn’t reply.

The ads mentioned the now-defunct Good Curry Guide, so I contacted its former editor, Pat Chapman, via LinkedIn, plus an email that later bounced. He was a huge name in the Indian restaurant industry at the time, but I didn’t hear back. I randomly looked for 1980s editions of the Good Curry Guide on Amazon and eBay, but couldn’t find any; meanwhile Andy Hayler helpfully looked up his 1987 copy – but nothing. I contacted the sponsors of the guides, Cobra Beer, whose offices I once briefly worked in as an editor, but got no reply.

I emailed UK Hospitality and various South Asian restaurant associations – the Asian Catering Federation, Bangladesh Caterers Association and British Curry Awards – but didn’t hear back. Same with L’Auberge restaurant that’s currently on Memsahib’s site. I browsed through several pages of Google Books and the British Newspaper Archives, but there was nothing except a few more advertisements. Might there be any clues on the website of the long-shuttered Punch magazine, where Memsahib had also advertised, or the Advertising Archives? Nope.

I patiently and diligently foraged the catalogues of the British Library, Guildhall Library, Wellcome Collection library, Barbican and Community Libraries, City Business Library, London Metropolitan Archives, Bishopsgate Library, and the London Library – which sent me on a wild goose chase around the Times & Sunday Times archives with the promise of a Jonathan Meades review, but it turned out to be a false alarm. Thinking outside the box, I contacted the Food Standards Authority for historic hygiene inspection reports, but it led to nothing.

I trawled through the archives of local libraries – Putney, Wandsworth Town and Southfields; then contacted Wandsworth Council, which referred me to its Heritage Service. There, the archivist Emma Anthony helpfully looked through information and images of the area, but she found nothing.

The more that success eluded me, he more zealous I became, and the more obsessed with finding something – anything.

How can a restaurant that once occupied physical space disappear from collective and recorded memory? How is it possible for it to not leave anything behind, except a trail of advertisements? As Andy Hayler told me, ‘It is odd when these days everything leaves such a big digital footprint. We forget that well into the 1990s, such things simply didn’t exist.’ So, without social media to record its history, is a restaurant even real?

Emma Anthony said, ‘While large business concerns are often well represented in local archives, smaller businesses are not. Much of what we have survives through serendipity – someone hands us in an old business card or brochure that they think may be of interest… But sadly, especially considering the impact they can have on the community, when a smaller business closes, there tends to be little left behind… Look at how ephemeral the history of a business or restaurant can be once it’s gone. It can be part of the social memory of the town it served, but with very little to document it.’

Bizarrely, considering I had no emotional attachment to it, my eyes have welled up a few times thinking about a lost restaurant that nobody remembers. One of Memsahib’s final ads simply had one word emblazoned across it. It taunts me, and it haunts me, because its meaning – as well as its antithesis – are both equally true.

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