India Palace is a culinary jewel on Abu Dhabi's cultural landscape

The long-standing restaurant with wood-carved façade, serving Awadhi and Mughlai dishes, is a landmark that witnessed the transformations of UAE's capital



The India Palace restaurant is a fixture on Abu Dhabi’s culinary scene and a witness to the transformation the emirate has undergone in the last several decades.-Photo: Supplied
The India Palace restaurant is a fixture on Abu Dhabi’s culinary scene and a witness to the transformation the emirate has undergone in the last several decades.-Photo: Supplied
by

Anjana Sankar

Published: Tue 12 Jul 2022, 12:32 AM

When you drive through Abu Dhabi’s busy Salam Street, dotted with new and old concrete structures on both sides, it is hard to miss a wood-carved façade with its signage in a bright, unmissable red.

India Palace, a long-standing popular dining destination in Abu Dhabi, stands as a slice of India in the heart of the UAE’s capital. Decorated with hand-carved wooden furniture, artefacts in bronze and silver, murals and paintings depicting Mughal kings and queens, the interiors of the restaurant will take you back to a glorious past resplendent with the opulence of India’s rich cultural and architectural heritage. For avid lovers of the aroma-laden Awadhi and Mughlai dishes once relished by the Nawabs and Maharajas, India Palace is a household name that guarantees a delightful gastronomical experience.

For Abu Dhabi residents, the long-standing restaurant is not just an eatery that serves exquisite yet affordable ‘desi’ food. It is part of their lives in the emirate. It is a landmark that has witnessed the transformations that Abu Dhabi has undergone in the last several decades. Recognising India Palace’s enduring legacy and historical significance, the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi) has handpicked the restaurant as among the emirate’s 15 ‘Urban Treasures’.

“It is a huge recognition for us. We always strive to maintain India Palace as a cultural heritage and we are happy to serve the Abu Dhabi community since 1997,” says K. Muraleedharan, founder of India Palace.

K. Muraleedharan, founder of India Palace. Photo: Supplied
K. Muraleedharan, founder of India Palace. Photo: Supplied

A migrant’s success story

India Palace, like many other success stories in the UAE, was born out of an immigrant’s unrelenting hard work and entrepreneurship. His growth from an accounts clerk in Dubai to a business magnate with a restaurant chain of 19 outlets, a five-star hotel in India and many other ventures, is nothing less than inspiring.

A native of the South Indian state of Kerala, Muraleedharan moved to Dubai with a job in 1980 after working in Oman for a few years.

“I first got promoted as an accountant and then I made the jump to sales. That was where you get commissions. I obtained a driving license and accepted a transfer to Abu Dhabi to fill in a temporary vacancy for a salesman. That is where my dream of becoming a businessman came true,” Muraleedharan told Khaleej Times.

In the nearly ten years that he worked for K.M. Brothers food distribution company, Muraleedharan climbed the ladder of professional success and became the area manager.

“I understood the market and everything about the food business. My dream was to open a business of my own, and hence I resigned,” he said.

But his employer, K.M. Bhatia, refused to accept his resignation and instead offered him a 20% share in the company. “He told me I can start any other venture but not a competing business. Till date, I have kept that promise,” he said.

Chef's serving up some exquisite yet affordable ‘desi’ food. Photo: Supplied
Chef's serving up some exquisite yet affordable ‘desi’ food. Photo: Supplied

A fast-food dream

It was with his employer’s blessings that Muraleedharan opened his first venture in Abu Dhabi - Luciya Cafeteria near Mafraq Hospital. “It was my boss who inaugurated the shop. It was a great success, but we had to close it down after two years as we lost the shop to the fast-food giant KFC,” he said.

Seeing the growing popularity of fast food in Abu Dhabi, Muraleedharan decided to take up a course in the UK to understand the business. “I learnt cooking and the course also helped me understand the operational side of a fast-food outlet. That is how the Southern Fried Chicken (SFC) was born in 1992,” he said. The fast-food brand had two outlets until recently, one in Madinat Zayed and the other on Salam street.

Opening of new outlets. Photo: Supplied
Opening of new outlets. Photo: Supplied

Affordable fine dining

After dabbling in the fast-food business, Muraleedharan said he set his eyes on opening an Indian restaurant in Abu Dhabi. “I wanted to have a slice of India in Abu Dhabi. My dream was not just to open a restaurant but to present the opulence and richness of our culture and cuisine to the local population,” he said.

There were only one or two other restaurants in Abu Dhabi serving Indian food at that time.

It took more than a year to complete the set-up of the restaurant located on Salam Street, Muraleedharan said - a time during which he took “several trips to Rajasthan, Gujarat and other parts of India to handpick artefacts, to commission artists to do paintings and to get hand-carved wooden furniture”.

The first India Palace outlet opened in 1997. “It was a big celebration. We flew down Bollywood playback singer Kumar Sanu for the inauguration. We set up tents outside and hosted exhibitions and an art and craft market.”

Former Indian cricketers visiting India Palace> photo: Supplied
Former Indian cricketers visiting India Palace> photo: Supplied

The growth of a culinary empire

In a few years, India Palace grew from a single restaurant to a chain feeding thousands of loyal customers daily. Currently, the restaurant has 19 outlets spread across all emirates of the UAE, including branches in major shopping malls. Explaining the success of the Abu Dhabi-born brand, Muraleedharan said his restaurant follows the Indian hospitality philosophy of ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’, which means: Guests are equivalent to God.

“We do not treat them as customers. They are our guests, and it is our duty to keep them happy,” said Muraleedharan, who also runs a charitable foundation called Muralya that funds schools, orphanages and hospitals in Kerala.

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Bangle maker at India Palace. Photo: Supplied
Bangle maker at India Palace. Photo: Supplied

The ace restaurateur with a penchant for quality explained that his restaurant ensures every aspect of the guests’ experience is authentic and of top quality. “It is a luxurious fine dining experience that we offer and every nitty-gritty, from the brass salt and pepper mill and the pickle tray to the ornate plates and spoons, reflects that authenticity.”

Muraleedharan added that the restaurant has always insisted on not diluting the authenticity while modifying recipes or menus. “That is our trademark. We are not a chef-oriented restaurant. Our strength is our authentic and traditional recipes, which are sacrosanct.”

From an Abu Dhabi-born business, Muraleedharan is ready to take the India Palace brand to other GCC markets. “We want to bring the India Palace flavours to other GCC countries. But even in the next 20 years, our brand and its identity will remain the same. It will always be a cultural and culinary treasure of Abu Dhabi.”


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