The entrance is discreet, like a speakeasy or a house of ill repute.

Spot the small sign outside and you face a steep and winding staircase through lodgings reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s muttering retreats of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels.

It’s the London of black-and-white movies or Graham Greene.

Finally, you reach a starkly lit room, where “guests are permitted to bring their own alcohol.” The yellow-painted walls feature paintings and photos of India’s independence leaders. The waiters are dressed in white jackets and guests dine at plain wooden tables, seated on rickety wooden chairs. This is a restaurant like no other in London.

This is the India Club

The club, on the second floor of an old building on the Strand, near the Indian High Commission, traces its history to 1946. It was founded by the then-high commissioner, Krishna Menon. He was a champion of independence and an ally of Jawaharlal Nehru, who was India’s first prime minister. Founding members included the nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi and Edwina Mountbatten, wife of the last viceroy, the club’s website says. It was a meeting place for expatriates, diplomats, and politicians, a slice of India in central London.

It doesn’t look like much has changed in terms of décor. It’s charming and faded, like a railway station cafe whose windows are closed against the steam of passing locomotives. 

The India Club is easy to miss. It's two floors up from the Aldwych, London.

In a city that is one of the world’s finest for Indian restaurants, the club stands out. Not that it is among the best. The ingredients are not fancy and the sauces can be thin. You are not going to find innovation here, nor the depth and complexity of flavor that Indian chefs have managed to instill in traditional dishes elsewhere in London.

What you will find is history and authenticity. The menu is a snapshot of colonial Indian cuisine, untroubled by the baltis and the chicken tikka masalas that have come to define Indian food in the U.K. You might be in the market in Old Delhi.

Beside the meat options, there is a vegetarian menu that features masala dosa, a crispy batter pancake with a soft and spicy potato filling, with small dishes of vegetable curry and coconut chutney on the side. You won’t find this dish everywhere in London—and not for 5.50 pounds ($8.26).

I ordered it for lunch with a glass of tap water, added a tip, and was out the door for 6 pounds. 

Masala dosa is served at the India Club. The crispy snack comes with coconut chutney and vegetable curry.

Most of the mains cost less than 7 pounds, and while the portions are not huge, you may struggle to spend more than 20 pounds. Naan bread costs 1 pound and a large plate of rice is 2.50 pounds. The vegetarian dishes are 4.50 pounds or less.

Beers are available from the India Club Bar, which you pass on your way up to the restaurant. The proximity to the high commission, the London School of Economics, and King’s College makes for an eclectic clientele, from students in search of cheap eats to academics and diplomats holding earnest discussions over a bowl of dhal (lentils) and a beer.

If you are unfamiliar with the cuisine, it’s easy because the waiters offer a tasting menu. It costs 15 pounds a person and includes poppadoms (crispy snacks), bhajias (fried onion starters), pickles, masala dosa, bhuna lamb—a spicy curry in a thick sauce with tomatoes—chicken curry, vegetable daal, rice, and naan bread.

Dishes to try include Mughlay chicken, which is rich, creamy, and mild; and the dahi vada, a deep-fried vegetarian snack with yogurt. Mushroom curry, and beans and coconut, are among other strong vegetarian options.

Heroes of the independence movement adorn the walls at the India Club.

Don’t set your culinary sights too high. Other central London restaurants serve inexpensive Indian food that is more exciting. My favorites include Roti Chai (where I keep going back) and Dishoom, which also benefits from great designs. 

But India Club has stood the test of decades. It’s part of London’s restaurant history and deserves to be part of the future.

India Club is at 143 The Strand, Strand Continental Hotel, London, WC2R 1JA; +44-20-7836-0650 or strand-continental.co.uk.

(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines.)