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How time flies: this year The Cinnamon Club celebrates a decade of taking us beyond the balti. We join chef and CEO Vivek Singh and raise a glass to one of London’s finest restaurant venues
Ten years is an eternity in the
restaurant trade. Many new openings survive just a few months before shutting up shop, leaving their owners with broken dreams, broken hearts, and just plain broke. So the continuing success of
Westminster’s Cinnamon Club (a long-time favourite venue of the Square Meal V&E team), which celebrated its 10th birthday in March, is all the more remarkable – especially when you consider how
radical the concept of Indian fine dining was back in 2001.
The vision of founder Iqbal Wahhab (who has since left Cinnamon Club to set up Roast at Borough Market) and executive chef Vivek Singh was to create and present Indian cuisine in a more western style – pre-plated, with an emphasis on quality ingredients, served up in a contemporary setting. Not such a shocking idea today, but a decade ago a real mind-bender for customers used to viewing Indian food as cheap grub to be shared with drunken mates and washed down with litres of over-fizzy lager.
‘What we were offering was unique,’ recalls Singh, now a regular fixture on TV shows such as BBC1’s Saturday Kitchen. ‘The best Indian restaurants had two-to-three dishes which were “modern Indian”, but it was an almost apologetic effort to present something new. We were the first Indian restaurant to say, “No curry, no sharing.” Our aim was to change people’s perceptions of Indian food, to start a revolution with more emphasis on seasonality and ingredients, so it was no longer about hiding behind the curry.’
A tough job. Singh had chosen London for his great experiment as British restaurant goers had a reputation for being more experimental. ‘But,’ he says, ‘I hadn’t factored in how much people loved Indian food. Customers were saying, “This is great, but I want a curry.” We turned a lot of people away. It wasn’t a sound thing to do commercially, but thank God I wasn’t commercially minded. It was a painful process but if I’d turned to my team and said, “Right, we have to put a couple of curries on the menu,” it would have been devastating.’
Luckily, the Cinnamon Club’s backers kept the faith – perhaps because they had no experience of running restaurants. Iqbal Wahhab, the driving force behind the project, had previously worked as a PR and journalist (his stint editing Tandoori magazine came to an end after he described most Indian waiters as ‘miserable gits’). The fact that the restaurant opened at all, albeit several months late and hundreds of thousands of pounds over budget, was remarkable in itself, as anyone who remembers the BBC’s Trouble at the Top documentary on the project will know.
‘The first time we put all the plates together was two days before the launch,’ recalls Singh. ‘We only got the kitchen fitted then. On the morning of the launch we had 350 RSVPs; that went up to 750 by the end of the day. And we had no gas. A £2.3m project, and we’d forgotten to organise the gas! We had six camping stoves, an oven that I connected to calor gas, three tandoors, and that was it.’
What they did have was buzz, created by Wahhab’s genius for PR. Trouble at the Top went out shortly after the launch, and within 20 minutes of its broadcast the phones were ringing off the hook. The restaurant began to get celebrity visitors – on one occasion Mick Jagger had to be turned away as there were no free tables. Even Michael Winner deigned to pay a visit, proclaiming in The Sunday Times that he had endured ‘the worst Indian meal I ever had.’ (‘We put it on the website and used it everywhere,’ laughs Singh.)
The workload was punishing in those early days. ‘There was nothing else to life,’ remembers Singh. ‘It was 8.30-1am every day, but we were closed Saturday lunchtime and Sunday evening so we’d pretend we were only working six days. And every Sunday at 5pm we’d finish and go to All Bar One on Leicester Square. We could cope because we were doing something different.’
The hard work has clearly paid off. Cinnamon Club has launched a second stand-alone ‘little sister’, Cinnamon Kitchen, in the City – which, incidentally, has twice won the coveted Square Meal Canapé Cup at the annual Venues & Events Show at Old Billingsgate (this year’s takes place on 21-22 September). And more Cinnamon Clubs are in the pipeline. ‘We looked at Singapore,’ says Singh, ‘and New York is being touted…’
So, from its inauspicious beginnings, Cinnamon Club looks like it’s going to be around for a long while yet. Definitely a case of ‘mission accomplished’ for Singh. ‘It was never about pitching against Chutney Mary or Veeraswamy,’ he says. ‘It was about people asking, “Should we go to The Ivy or the Cinnamon Club?” and it’s satisfying to see that it’s come to fruition. It’s become an institution. It just feels sure of itself, like it’s been here forever.’
To celebrate Cinnamon Club’s 10th anniversary, the restaurant ran a competition to win a ‘Money Can’t Buy’ dinner on 21 March. It was such a success that a second is planned for 3 October. For a chance to win one of 25 pairs of tickets, call: 0845 166 4259
Take your pick of Cinnamon Club’s
five events spaces:
1. Main Dining Room
The historic heart of the restaurant retains many of the old Westminster Library’s original features, and can accommodate up to 130 to dine or 350 for a stand-up affair
2. Private Dining Room
Separated from the adjacent Main Dining Room by glass panelling, this light and airy room is a popular choice for private parties and wine-tasting events for up to 60 guests
Overlooks the Main Dining Room, and lends itself to informal events for up to 50 standing or 30 to dine
4. Cinnamon club barb Bar
The award-winning basement bar has contemporary décor, and a killer range of cocktails. Ideal for a drinks and canapé reception for up to 60 guests. The party platters are to die for
5. Library bar Bar
The old Reading Room has been transformed into a clubby space for pre-prandial drinks and private dining
at lunchtime, for up to 50
To find out more holding about events at The Cinnamon Club, visit squaremeal.co.uk/cinnamon
MEET VIVEK SINGH
It’s impossible to imagine The Cinnamon Club without Vivek Singh. The restaurant’s 39-year-old executive chef has undoubtedly been the bedrock of its success. But, remarkably, his career in the kitchen owes as much to chance as intention. After finishing school in West Bengal, and to the horror of his parents, he chose to study hotel management.
‘My reason for choosing hotel management is slightly embarrassing,’ he confesses today. ‘A friend of my sister’s was doing it and she said it was a three-
year-long picnic. No exams, no curriculum. It seemed like the best course ever! But I wasn’t thinking of cooking. It was only in the third year that I thought, “I could do this as well as anyone here, if not better.”’
After graduating, Singh managed to get onto the Oberoi hotel group’s prestigious trainee scheme. Each year would see around 2,200 applications for 11 places.
‘When I tell people what I said in the interview, they’re gobsmacked I got the job,’ says Singh. ‘People would study for years and I sleepwalked through the entire process. They asked me about truffles and I knew nothing. But they had made a big thing of saying that your first year is spent unlearning everything you’ve learned. So I said, “Obviously, you appreciate that I have very little to unlearn…”’
Singh’s cheek got him through the door, and he soon found himself being fast-tracked. By the age of 27 he was in charge of Indian cuisine at the group’s most prestigious property, Rajvilas in Jaipur. ‘I got to the point where there was nothing left to do. I’d say to Mr Oberoi, “We should do something new,” but he’d laugh and say, “I’m a hotelier. People come to India with certain expectations and I’m happy to meet them. I’m not in the business of reinventing Indian food.”’
In early 2000 Iqbal Wahhab visited Rajvilas, and the two men discovered they shared a similar vision. By the end of the year, Singh found himself in London, and the rest, as they say, is history.
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, spring 2011