Eating pizza in Bristol every week with a bunch of mates – and, most importantly, creating a laminated spreadsheet of scores – might seem like true foodie dedication, but Bristol24/7 reader Meg Pope knew she could top it. “My dad and his friends have been running a curry club for eight years – putting the pizza boys to shame!” she wrote, and we just couldn’t pass up on the chance of such a scoop.
An introduction to her dad, Damian, followed, and he was happily amenable to the idea of a tagalong. And so it was that I pitched up to The Rope Walk on East Street to eat a curry at Ganesha, and to meet the Curry Crusaders themselves: Damian Pope, Tony Donkin, Piers McBride, John Lochrie, Chris Williams, Paul Onslow-Carey and Archie Tutton.
Bunched around a wooden table with a round in, Piers explained how the club had formed. “It started in 2009. We were bemoaning the fact that every Thursday night was the same – me, John and Paul would go to the pub and we’d got into a bit of a rut. We wanted something to get us out of the house, and we came up with the idea of a monthly curry club,” he began. “The only rule was that the restaurant had to be somewhere you’d not been before.
“The first one was a disaster, but it’s evolved from there. We always book the curry for 9pm and spend a couple of hours in the pub first, and that’s factored into the overall score, so sometimes I’ll pick the pub first and the Indian after. You’ve got to do some research if you want to win.”
Ah yes – winning. Though there are no spreadsheets here, there are points, and points mean prizes. “We vote on the places we’ve been to from January to November and give the night marks out of ten – for cleanliness, atmosphere, quality of the food and so on,” Piers continued. “It gets competitive. We tot up the marks, and then, in December we go back to the one that got the highest score and present them with a trophy. We get it engraved and the reception is amazing!”
“I’ve never won in eight years,” John said, with just a hint of bitterness, as he sipped his pint.
Talk around the table turned to some of the best – and worst – nights out they’ve had together at Bristol’s curry houses. “For me, the outstanding one from the last few years has been The Mint Room. I’ve recommended them to so many people – they treat you so well,” said Tony. “Nutmeg was really good too, and so was Namaskar Lounge – it shut a while back.” Damian nodded. “Chai Shai was good too, and we’ve had some great nights at Ahmed’s Curry Café,” he added.
“The worst one we’ve probably ever been to was one of my choices,” said Piers with a grin. “It was in Shirehampton, and it seemed perfectly ok in the light of day. When we got there that night, we were the only ones there and the waiter came out to serve us in a coat and a bobble hat. He returned with this Calor Gas stove, which he wheeled out and cooked our food on. It wouldn’t light for ages; we were all getting gassed in the restaurant!”
“We’ve pretty much run out of curry houses now, so this year we’ve gone off piste. We’ve branched out into ‘world food’, although they have to do curry,” John said. “We went to Wahaca for Mexican – that should really be this year’s winner. And that one was mine.”
Piers began to tot up all the curry they’ve eaten over the years and got a ribbing for his slightly wobbly maths. “What was the name of our maths teacher at school?” Damian asked. “I’m going to ring him up and tell him you’ve finally learned to count.” Piers carried on, undeterred, and reached an incredible figure. “I reckon we’ve spent £30,000 on curry,” he said. “That’s £30,000 back into the curry houses of Bristol. We’re an important part of the local economy.”
“I don’t think they’d go bust if we stopped,” Tony retorted. “£30,000 I’ve spent on this, and I’ve never won,” John said, shaking his head.
Drinks wound up and we made the short journey across East Street to Ganesha, quiet on a Thursday night. “This was the second ever place we went, when it was somewhere else in Bedminster,” Piers said, sitting down to browse the menu. “It got a really good score last time,” Damian chipped in. “They didn’t do any standard dishes and the owners came out to tell us about everything we were going to eat.”
But, it turned out, eight years is a long time, and standards may have slipped a little since those heady days. Damian broke off a piece of poppadom with a satisfying snap, but as he crunched it, he wrinkled his nose. “These are cooked in old oil,” he said. “I’ve eaten so many, I can tell now.”
The curries all arrived looking indistinguishable, and Tony’s prophetic words in the pub – “When the dishes all come out the same colour, you know it won’t be good” – came flooding back. Still, everyone tucked in, daring each other to try a naan slathered in fresh green chilis that was making Piers’ eyes water.
Talk turned to branching out from curry, but was met with derision. “I couldn’t get excited about something like pizza,” Tony said, scraping out his bowl of curry. “A whole plate of pizza every week? I couldn’t do it.” “We always end up going back to curries,” John said, “although I think that night at Caribbean Croft could win it this year.” Piers nodded. “I credit that evening as reuniting us: people were drifting away a bit, but that was a genuinely brilliant night,” he said.“Wives come and go, but curry is the one consistent thing in our lives.”
Follow the Curry Crusaders on Twitter, @currycrusaders, or read about their past exploits on their blog, www.thecurrycrusaders.wordpress.com. Would you like to invite Bristol24/7 on an evening out? Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
Main photo by Jon Craig