London Food Haunt No 2: Tayyabs

Queuing–that is, standing in line, to you Americans–is a great English art form. If queuing were an Olympic sport, with judging for orderliness, peaceful disposition, lack of cutting, and lack of complaining, the English would win every round every year. And, in my eleven months in London and its environs, I have never seen a queue as perfect as the line to get a table at Tayyabs.

Every night from about 7 p.m. onwards, hungry lovers of Pakistani food wait for their fill of London’s definitive curry and tandoori. At the head of the line is a tall manager with a tie who holds a receipt-tape list of everyone who’s made a booking for the night and furiously crosses out each name with pen when the appointed party arrives, and then makes them wait a few minutes anyway, probably to scare them. The main line files past the door to a private dining room, past three small tables for couples or singles, across the front desk with its phones and business cards, along a wall back into the restaurant past plaques and newspaper clippings attesting to Tayyabs’ nearly 40 years of legendary cooking, past the corner where people who need to use the bathroom politely say “excuse me” and duck across the burgeoning queue, across the face of the sweets counter where an aging man tends to the wares and puts your ordered-up desserts in little paper bags, and then, if the queue is particularly long on this night, out at last into the main dining area, while seated people around you devour food so divine they all look like they’re being kissed for the first time. The longest I have ever stood in line for a table at Tayyabs was 50 minutes.

The service is brutally efficient, totally inhuman, and a miraculous example of hive-mind. Waiters swoop in on your table with crispy papadum crackers and chutneys, communicate almost solely by eye contact, and bring your meal before you’ve even had a chance to want it. I once clocked the turnaround time on a complete table-busing at 30 seconds, including the supplying of fresh place settings. The waitstaff are like a swarm of bees, one of them always appearing out of nowhere to address your slightest need, take your finished meal or pile even more stuff on your table. This is fortunate because Tayyabs have maximized their floor space by cramming tables so close together that customers are effectively unable to move.

My friend Michelle illustrates how to get trapped in the corner by zealous staffers pushing tables together.

So you get the idea: Tayyabs is an institution, on the same block since 1974, with no amount of expansion able to stem the flood of customers. The restaurant roars with life, loud, happy life, and since it doesn’t serve alcohol a little over a third of the life roaring through the restaurant is drinking booze it brought from home (Tayyabs doesn’t charge any “corking” fees either).

And then there’s the food.

Pictured: lamb heaven (foreground), spinach heaven (back left), banana lassi heaven (back right)

Your choices are many, so visit often. The “dry meat,” a favorite of my professors, sounds decidedly unappetizing but isn’t really all that dry; it just doesn’t come in a sauce. The lamb falls apart underneath your fork. Of course, it also does that in the karahi gosht, or lamb curry (above), and also for that matter in the chana gosht, a stew of lamb and chickpeas (bottom of post). Tarka dhal (lentils) come rich with spice–not the spicy kind so much as the mouthwatering-flavor kind–and the spinach dishes draw contented sighs, but the real stars are the meat dishes, expertly grilled to a tenderness the English are otherwise very shy about. The chana gosht, in particular, is like a Bollywood wedding in your mouth: loud, exuberant, festive, brimming with every color in the flavor-palette, something you haven’t quite encountered before but something you know you can’t possibly miss for a second. (Yes, Tayyabs is Pakistani and therefore not of Bollywood. Whatever.)

If it all gets a little too spicy, make sure you have a jug of banana lassi at hand (the mango lassi is the only disappointment I’ve ever encountered here): the rich yoghurty banana drink will keep your tongue alive and your stomach peaceable no matter how spicy an item you order.

Saag allo (I think) (half-finished)

Take your time eating, because as soon as you finish the Tayyabs waitstaff will swoop in, take your plates, and bring you the bill and goodbye chocolates. There’s a queue, after all. But to fight it you may use your secret weapon: the naan. Tayyabs’ naan (just regular will do, you don’t need the garlic kind) strikes a miraculous trapeze balance between sponginess, feather-lightness, and grilled flavor, and there is no shame in abandoning your silverware and scooping your food up with your bread. In fact, the greater shame may lie in not joining naan and dhal in happy marriage.

Yes, yes, you must often wait quite a long time to eat at Tayyabs. Yes, waiters sometimes forget your drink or your rice. Yes, papadums are sometimes free and sometimes not. But this is not a restaurant you complain about, or even review. Tayyabs is like a really good friend: you get used to its quirks while learning to love it. Not that it’s very hard to learn. Not that it’s very hard to sink into your chair after a 50-minute wait, dip into the mango chutney, breathe deeply, and let a look of serenity rise up the lines of your face as you realize the wait has been worth it.

When I started telling people that I was moving to London, back in March 2010, one of the very first replies I got was the (at the time cryptic) remark, “I am jealous of your newfound proximity to Tayyabs.” Back then, of course, I had no idea what the speaker might mean. Now–well, if anyone I know says they’re going to London, I may well reply exactly the same way.

Up close and personal with chana gosht. God I'm going to miss this.

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1 Comment

Filed under Edibles

One response to “London Food Haunt No 2: Tayyabs

  1. Zelda

    Israelis are good at many things, but they’ve clearly blocked out from their memories of colonial days the concept of queuing and instead sort of swarm. Kept having to remind myself they weren’t actually being rude.

    Also I should not read these posts on an empty stomach. *rumble*

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