Thursday, May 31, 2012

Prince Ranji Smile and the first Indian restaurants in New York

A dinner menu from Ranji (Utica Sunday Journal, Oct 13, 1899)
It has been years since I was back in New York and it felt good as the Pullman car eased into Grand Central Station.  It is 1939 and when I walk out there is a light snow falling while  overcoated men in hats, and women in long skirts mill around.  I have not had an Indian meal in months and I am overjoyed to find that my guide book notes at least four East Indian restaurants nearby.    As I head to the Ceylon India Inn, the oldest among them, I am reminded of my dear friend, the indomitable, larger than life, Prince Ranji Smile, who brought Indian cooking into this city in 1899.

I, Jatindra N. Guha, came to New York City from Calcutta to study chemistry at Columbia University as a student in 1919.  Those first months there was an abiding sense of loneliness and I yearned to be back in Bengal. It was at this time of my personal misery that I met Ranji, already two decades in this country, married three times, a general man-about-town whose purpose in life was to bring East Indian food to the Americans at cafés and restaurants across the Eastern seaboard.  One evening he took me to the Café de Beaux Arts where he was a visiting chef, and told me his story.

Today though I was hungry and my first stop was at the Ceylon India Inn, the oldest Indian restaurant in the United States (though Ranji would dispute this).  It began as the Ceylon Restaurant in 1913 and moved to its current walk up location at 148 W. 49th. Street.  Great men used to come to this place. Rudolph Valentino came by one day and introduced it to his many friends.  How I remembered you, Ranji, as I sat there. 

Do you remember the time you told me about your first job here in 1899 as the Indian chef at Sherry’s at 44th and 5th Avenue? And the sumptuous dinner in 1903 that C.G.K. Billings threw with his guests on real horses in the dining room of Sherry’s?  You were a young man in 1899, you had just arrived, and you truly believed the Indian curry dishes that you served would make American women more beautiful!  Alas, I was a chemist, and I did not believe you—but I went along because you could lift folks up in a whirlwind of hope.

The customers at Ceylon India Inn were a mixed bag this day.  Curious Americans, Americans who were used to curry, East India Englishmen, and a sizable contingent of lascars, the India seamen who came in from the docks. There is enough interest in Indian food to support quite a few other Indian restaurants —Rajah, East India Curry House, Longchamps Restaurant, Ceylon Restaurant (on 8th Ave at 43rd St), Bengal Tiger, and The Taj Mahal Hindu restaurant (43rd St between 9th. And 10th. Ave), which was the second Indian eatery to open in New York (1918).  The red hot Sinhalese pepper steak at Ceylon India Inn seemed a perennial favorite among the firinghees, but the Hindoos avoided it.  There were plentiful curries, fried coconuts, chutneys and even tamarind wine that I had never heard of in India.  You can have lunch today for 60c and dinner for 75c.  Prices have gone up some since our days here.

List of Indian restaurants in Manhattan in 1939 (from The New York City: Vol 1, New York City Guide(1939)

You would spend these past decades, Ranji, up and down the Eastern Coast, pushing Indian fare to Americans.  It was a difficult task for an audience that you said needed to be entertained as much as fed, and who would be oblivious to the difference between Turkish, Persian, and Indian food.  You were a presence, with what one newspaper would call “smooth black hair and the whitest of teeth”, a phantasm between fact and fiction as you stood in your linen white kurta and turban lined with gold braid: gentle, persuasive and ingratiating at the same time, assuring them they would be back once they tried your dish.  And you were so right.  You were a hit with the ladies, who came in droves dressed in their shirred white frocks, Princesse robes and other modish dresses.  They all wanted you to make them a large turban like yours.  You would tell them that you were were knighted by King Edward in 1898 as “King of the Chafing Dish”.  Inspite of your bombast, you did thrill your diners with your cuisine and the leading establishments of the time signed you on as special chef—at the Waldorf, at Louis Bustanoby’s,  and at the Café de Beaux Arts.

After you joined Sherry’s Restaurant as “Joe”, their Indian chef, you were the first to offer East Indian curries to the public in New York and, because Sherry’s was then--like Delmonico’s--the most exclusive of the exclusives, your fame spread far and wide.  It was the most unlikely place ever to serve Indian curry –Sherry’s--with its grand ornamented ballroom, dark velvet drapery with tassels, and the heavy hand of American wealth.  Then coming into some money yourself, you left for India and returned in style in 1903—no longer “Joe”, but “Prince” Ranji T. Smile, the son of Princess Zora Kahlekt and the Amir Haji Narbeboky of Baluchistan, with a retinue of 15 East Indian servants. How your eyes would twinkle when you told this story, and how the befuddled India Office sent frantic wires across the Atlantic on your account as the media went into a frenzy.  

You claimed to have opened the first Indian restaurant in America, “Omar Khayyam” at 325 Fifth Avenue between 33rd and 34th. St.  in 1903.  The papers tell a different story.  That you brought your retinue to America via London to serve as waiters and staff but that the United States immigration service caught on and deported most of your staff.  So I believe that the restaurant never came to fruition.

I lost touch with you after 1924.  The newspapers had dropped you by then and you have now been swept up and lost in the breeze of this magnificent city.  The buildings that you touched were Indian restaurants at one time that only few others know of today; restaurants with their own curious clientele, tourists for a few moments in their own country.  I returned to my hotel this evening following a long walk along Riverside Park and missed this transplanted generation of ours whose presence has now been peeled off of the face of this city.


I have tried to keep the historical facts accurate in this fictionalized account.  There was a Prince Ranji, referred to variously as Ranji T. Smile, J. Ranji Smile or Prince Rangi Smile—a fascinating minor social character in NYC and the East Coast who probably cooked Indian food well enough to be an Indian chef at various leading restaurants.   It would be accurate to call him the father of Indian cuisine in the US.  He was also a teller of tall tales, leveraging his exoticity to stay in the papers and the public eye. Many newspaper entries from 1899-1913 chronicle his culinary and marital exploits, and his run-ins with the law (he had a colorful existence).  These are Google archive news searchable, and a few of these articles appeared in:
Utica Sunday Journal, Oct 13, 1899
From NY Tribune Aug 7, 1912.
New York Times, Jun 7, 1915
New York Times, Apr 25, 1903

In addition Colleen Sen has an excellent blog entry on Ranji Smile,

Ranji did begin his career in the US as an Indian cook at Sherry’s in New York City in 1899 .  He was probably not around during the millionaire C.G.K. Billing’s (built the mansion in Ft. Tyron) famous dinner party on horseback at Sherry’s (for an excellent account of this see, though I have taken the liberty of suggesting that he was.  The last entry that I could find for Ranji was his entry through Ellis Island in 1924 under the name of Rangi Smile.

Ellis Island records also indicate a Jatindra N. Guha who entered the US a few times starting in 1919.  It appears that this same character was enrolled at Columbia University as a student in 1919 in the sciences/engineering.  Later on, there is a US patent on food processing with Jatindra N. Guha (Los Angeles) as inventor that was issued in 1938.  I have interpolated between these three data points to create this character.  There appears no record that he actually knew Ranji Smile—this is a ficticious addition.

Ceylon India Inn had a successful run into the 1970s and a New York Times article referred to it as a gem in the midst of the porn and sleaze of 1970s era 49th. Street.  It survived until 1985 and throughout the years garnered favorable reviews.  More recently it appears to have been reincarnated as “Bombay Masala” at the same location under new management.  Tripadvisor ratings though have not been encouraging.  The Taj Mahal Hindu Restaurant, the second oldest Indian eatery also seems to have survived till the 1960’s, since there is a 1963 article in the Los Angeles Times that refers to its “Maharaja Dinner”. 

( For Ceylon India Inn see for instance, the Berkely Daily Gazette in 1934,

Descriptions of Indian restaurants during this period may be found in The New York City: Vol 1, New York City Guide from 1939 (searchable in Google books), and a concise account in  There have been two scholars Vivek Bald, and Krishnendu Ray who have also referred to some of the early Indian restaurants in their papers.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful work. As I research, I find so many faux-Indian recipes that were served around the turn of the last century... including curries with lard! You brought an interesting time and man to light... I enjoy your invented character's POV... makes the time come alive. I wonder what he made when he worked at those places??