Masala Zone at the Criterion


There are few experiences more dispiriting than arriving at a restaurant for an eagerly-awaited meal and having no record of your reservation. If the place that is the lucky recipient of your custom for the evening has plenty of space, then no harm done; these things, after all, happen. But if you’re arriving at what has become, almost unexpectedly, one of the most popular and successful restaurants in central London, then bookings are wholly essential. A table is found for us, and we are suitably grateful, because we know that, even for a place that boasts two hundred covers, it’s utterly packed on a busy Tuesday night. Word has very much got out.

 If you’ve visited any of the Masala Zone group before, you may think that you know what to expect: decent, budget-conscious Indian cuisine served efficiently and swiftly. Yet the group, which also includes the fine dining establishments Amaya and Chutney Mary, has raised its standards and ambitions with its new restaurant, set in the legendary Criterion building just by Piccadilly Circus: a place that has appeared in everything from the Sherlock Holmes stories to The Dark Knight.

For many years, this has been host to unexceptional restaurants, including a dismal Marco Pierre White joint, but now it has been refurbished, revitalised and given a suitably subcontinental twist; the overall effect is one of Anglo-Indian splendour, and even before we eat or drink anything, the worry about the absent booking disappears and is replaced by appreciative ‘oohs’ and ‘aaahs’.

The food and drink here are, predictably, superb, and several notches up from the last time that I’d visited a Masala Zone establishment. Small plates of lamb sliders and crispy prawns are exemplary, especially washed down with a carafe of Gavi, although the ‘chilli garlic chips’ are a faint surprise; we ordered them in the expectation that they might be mini poppadums, but they turn up and are surprisingly spicy.

We are briefly tempted to venture into uncharted territory when it comes to the mains, but, by now armed with a carafe of Rioja, we instead order a panoply of greatest hits of these establishments; the rogan josh of your dreams, the butter chicken of his dreams, a very fine garlic naan and even better black dhal. It’s filling and moreish, cooked and spiced to perfection, and it makes me and my dining companion exceptionally replete. And the prices are kind, too; the main courses are all below £20, which for cooking of this calibre in central London is a hen’s-teeth rarity.

We err on the side of conservatism when it comes to desserts – a chocolate brownie with ginger ice cream is not going to win any prizes for innovation, although it might well win them for flavour and taste. And then, less than two hours after we’d arrived, we’re back out in Piccadilly, gazing at Eros and considering whether it’s a mystery worthy of Holmes himself why the Criterion hasn’t managed to play host to a decent restaurant for so long.

Well, now it does, and Masala Zone is its name. Just remember to book, otherwise disappointment will undoubtedly be in store.

Masala Zone at the Criterion, 224 Piccadilly, St. James’s, London W1J 9HP. For more information, including details of menus, for bookings, and details of other venues, please visit

Interior photo by Paul Winch-Furness. Food photography by David Robson.