No, this isn’t 20th-century Bombay...
|... it just bears the city’s name|
|Ashok Bajaj, the man who created a restaurant empire|
It’s the Thursday afternoon before Christmas, and even though the rest of downtown Washington is deserted from the annual holiday exodus, The Bombay Club is packed and brimming with activity.
Even at 1:45 PM, congresspeople, media honchos, lobbyists, and lawyers continue to arrive at the host stand, where restaurant manager Irfan Ozarslan has held sway for 22 years. He greets everyone affably by name, shakes their hands, and escorts them to tastefully linened tables far enough apart to afford privacy, but close enough to allow discreet inspection of fellow diners.
The mood is festive, but make no mistake about it— over servings of sev puri, tandoori salmon, and warm truffle naan, Washington’s business, and therefore the world’s, is taking place here.
The Bombay Club, which opened in 1988, was the first restaurant in Ashok Bajaj’s empire (the spring opening of Rasika West End represents his seventh). Bajaj conceived the idea for The Bombay Club while running a fine-dining Indian restaurant in London in the ’80s. In his travels, Bajaj realized that Washington lacked a similar high-end venue showcasing Indian cuisine, and he saw an opportunity.
“My dream was to emulate the old, grand clubs in India, like the Gymkhana Club,” he explains. “I wanted to show that Indian food can be sophisticated and remove the stigma from it.”
The formula was simple: Create a richly appointed space in which to relax and conduct business, and serve an elegant take on his natural cuisine with impeccable style. He felt his success hinged on developing an international client base, so he immediately set his sights on the restaurant’s Connecticut Avenue location—close to the White House, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. The trouble was, the landlord wasn’t biting.
“He told me, ‘An Indian restaurant? Oh, no, no, no, no! No Indian restaurant here,’” recounts Bajaj. So he treated the building owner to a trip to London and gave him a gander at the restaurant he ran there. The rest, as they say, is history.
Bajaj worked with renowned London designer Harry Gregory to achieve the upper-crusty raj look he desired, and brought him back in 2009 to oversee a $600,000 renovation, when a private dining room was added and artwork switched out, among other improvements.
“When you walk in the dining room, you have the [white baby grand] piano, the greenery, the ceiling fans moving slowly,” Bajaj says. Coffered underlit ceilings, a brass and glass chandelier made in Hyderabad, mahogany service stations handcrafted in India, a table supported by carved ebony elephants, and a stunning oil landscape of old India contribute to the luxe ambience.
Keeping things fresh via redecoration, menu updates, and trend-spotting is vital, says Bajaj, who makes it a point to eat at every new restaurant of note that opens in Washington, and at hip eateries in other cities when he travels.
As part of the 2009 redo, Bajaj capitalized on the cocktail craze by transforming The Bombay Club’s once stodgy bar into a destination watering hole, adding lounge-y furniture and switching out a bartender for a “mixologist” (Mumbai Bellini, anyone?).
On that day before Christmas, when Bajaj and I lunched at Table 11—the regular table of former President Bill Clinton, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Maine Senator Olympia Snowe—Bajaj ordered for us, deftly holding a conversation while remaining keenly aware of everything transpiring around him. On our menu: tandoori salmon, baingan bharta (mashed eggplant), yellow dal, paneer makhni (homemade cheese in a sauce of tomatoes, ginger, onions, and honey), gobi aloo (cauliflower and potatoes), rice, naan, and raitas.
What shines through the liberal sprinklings of self-effacement and deference in Bajaj’s chatter is the pride of a self-made, self-owned man. He had a business partner briefly in his early days, but they quickly ended their relationship. There have been no more partners for him. “If I want to spend $800,000 to redecorate, I do it. If I want to buy a chair for a thousand dollars, I do it. I don’t have to ask 10 investors if it’s okay and answer their questions.” Even in this tight economy, says Bajaj, he has no difficulty getting money from a bank. Why? He gladly guarantees loans personally. “I’m not afraid to put my signature on something. And I always put a lot of my own money into a deal—at least 50 or 60 percent,” he affirms.
That The Bombay Club is still going strong heading into its 24th year is a testament to Bajaj’s skill for staying on top in a town where people, and restaurants, come and go. His credo is nothing earthshattering, he says with a shrug. “I rely on word of mouth. Probably 80 percent of our lunch business is from regulars. The food and service are consistent, and that goes hand in hand with ambience and pricing. If you can maintain that rhythm, you do well.”
He leaves out, in characteristic humility, his impresario-like ability to make everyone feel like the most important person in the room, and the uncanny way he seems to show up at whichever of his restaurants one happens to be dining in.
That’s how Bajaj rolls, and why The Bombay Club rocks.
photography by kip dawkins
October 22, 2018