Owner Paolo Cillo shares the story behind Il Forno and its huge success
How the Royal Watan brothers turned their family curry restaurant around
In its heyday Mr Ditta’s cooking was the talk of the town as customers flocked to his restaurant in the nation’s curry capital. His insistence on home-made Kashmiri cooking ensured the Royal Watan remained a trailblazer in Birmingham’s fiercely competitive Balti Belt throughout the 90s.
But as the century changed, recession hit and the balti – named after the dish in which the food is cooked and served – was copied by all. Times changed, tastes changed and by the noughties the restaurant on the second city’s Pershore Road was looking tired.
Then in 2012, something special happened. Two of Mr Ditta’s teenage sons Arfan and Imran started working weekends there. And things slowly began to change, with a little resistance.
Time for a revamp
“The place was tatty and dated. We used to tell dad we were the only restaurant in Brum where customers had to wear coats because there was only one radiator,” says Imran.“We’d often watch as people came to the window, looked inside and then walked away. It was so disheartening, but dad didn’t want to refurbish the place because he feared we’d lose business while we were shut.”
After years of pleading, the brothers got their way. Mr Ditta reluctantly agreed to the facelift in 2016. Out went the faded grandeur of what Imran describes as “old school colours” and in came a simple, elegant palette complemented by evocative lighting… and bespoke radiators.
Social media kept the regulars up to date with the re-opening and anticipation grew. But Mr Ditta still had some words of caution, warning his sons not to be disappointed if their hard work came to nothing.
A fresh start
Opening night came, the doubtful dad was “gobsmacked” and they haven’t looked back. Imran says: “It was an important lesson – you can’t afford to stand still. We always have to stay a step ahead of our competitors or the same will happen again.”
That attention to detail starts front of house, where customers are quickly left in no doubt that this is no ordinary balti house. “I always offer recommendations because our food is authentic and different. I talk to customers, ask them what they like and then explain what we can do for them. Sometimes I’ll suggest something spontaneous to try and they thank me at the end. It’s the kind of bespoke service you get in high end restaurants.”
“I always offer recommendations because our food is authentic and different. I talk to customers, ask them what they like and then explain what we can do for them”
The menu’s notes for the nation’s favourite chicken tikka masala state that “this is not the creamy version but is rich with authentic masala spices and yogurt” – proof that not everything has to change.
As part of the revamp, the brothers have reviewed the menu too, moving away from the traditional balti house breakdown of chicken, meat, fish and vegetable with cooking styles beneath.
Instead, there’s a whole section dedicated to Dad’s Secret Recipes, including the Lassawalla Gosht house signature dish – melt in the mouth lamb that falls off the bone, in a rich sauce, best mopped up with one of Royal Watan’s trademark giant naans.
“We’ve also added some of our gran’s favourite dishes along with mocktails such as Late Night in Lahore. They’re great for Instagram shots on our selfie wall because word of mouth and social media are so important,” says Imran.
How we do things differently
Staying ahead of the game is a theme that the father of- two always returns to. It must work, as Watan continues to flourish while many former rivals are now burger joints and ice cream parlours.
“We look ahead in all areas and broke the mould when we became the first curry house to have English and African as well as Asian staff,” Imran adds: “We want a visit here to be a cosmopolitan, modern experience because it’s 2021 now.”
The brothers run a tight ship, encourage constructive feedback and embrace new ideas and subtle twists to established dishes, but everything is always underpinned by a dedication to using fresh, locally sourced ingredients.
Arfan, at 36 two years Imran’s junior, says: “We never use tinned tomatoes or potatoes and get all our meat from family butchers because we want to support the community that supports us.”
What makes Royal Watan’s food so special? “The secret to our curries is in the spice,” insists chef Arfan. “Our mum and dad now live in Kashmir and only drop in to see us at the restaurant occasionally, but they still hold the key to the perfect curry.”
The parents, now in their 70s, are perfectly placed to source the unique masala consisting of 12 spices and export it over to the family business four times a year. Arfan adds: “They visit the growers there for green and black cardamoms, cinnamon sticks, cloves, jeera (cumin) and have them mixed up to create the masala that gives our dishes their unique flavour.
“So when you eat here you really are getting a genuine taste of the Kashmir… but the real key is knowing how much spice to use and when.”
Loyalty during lockdown
“We have regulars who have been coming here since 1984 but we also have a lot of new people who travel here especially, which is great.”
That loyalty helped the restaurant, close to the Edgbaston cricket ground and the city centre, through the testing times of both lockdowns.
“In the first lockdown, a village 30 miles away ordered £1,500-worth of food from us in a mass delivery. We were really busy and decided to introduce branded takeaway boxes to make sure we were the curry venue of choice and were remembered,” recalls Arfan.
“It’s lovely having our customers, who we treat as our friends, back with us. We love their feedback on dishes and overwhelmingly they want us to stay authentic and not simply make curry for the masses. That’s what the balti places did and it’s why they aren’t around now.”
Royal Watan’s longevity and 21st-century revival, based on fresh, home cuisine, has won plaudits from some of the UK’s best food critics and top TripAdvisor rankings.
But the brothers won’t rest on their laurels and are already planning another facelift to follow this year’s launch of a YouTube channel for Arfan to share his techniques for perfect paneer and sensational shashlick.
“You can’t stand still or you’re history. It took us years and a bit of a power struggle to get dad to understand that, but he’s proud of what we’ve done now. He’d never tell us that, but he did tell our mum,” Arfan laughs.
“When people started packing in to the restaurant and saying how much they loved the décor and the menu, he’d tell them ‘yes, that was my idea’. Imran and I just smiled at each other.”
Imran's top tips for National Curry Week (7-12 October)
Expand your curry menu
Curries aren’t all about meat and veggies. Why not add a fish curry to your menu to mix things up? Seafish’s consumer brand, Love Seafood, is running a campaign to get more people eating fish in restaurants, pubs and bars this summer. Looking for inspiration? Consider this tasty Monkfish Coconut Curry from Love Seafood.