In Manhattan’s Curry Row, Innovate or Die

From bohemian to Instagrammable, South Asian vendors in Curry Row in the East Village must change to fit with the times — or fail.

Meghna Rao

July 31, 2019

In Manhattan’s Curry Row, Innovate or Die
Apna Masala (Meghna Rao)

To the outsider in the early 90s, Curry Row, a strip of Indian restaurants in Manhattan’s East Village, must have looked like magic. It inspired legends. One popular one: a long underground tunnel connected all of the restaurants on the block, and waiters would run through them trading spices and secrets. How else could they have been so efficient?

Though several of its institutions have shut down, Curry Row still looks like magic today. Year-round Christmas lights dangle outside of Panna II on 6th Street and 1st Avenue, an Indian BYOB restaurant. Once you enter, you can barely move your head without risking hitting a hanging light or red chili pepper. It’s an

experience. In fact, Milon right next door also offers those things — BYOB and lights — and so does Royal Bangladesh, just downstairs in the same building. If Panna II, Milon, and Royal Bangladesh are packed, as they usually are on weekends, there’s also Apna Masala, which is almost always empty because it’s tucked away on the corner. 

It’s safe to say that the option to bring your own drinks and the festive lights, the latter of which some local business owners roll their eyes at and describe as garish, are what have allowed Panna and Milon to thrive (in the case of Apna Masala, just survive), despite abysmal ratings for their food. Their companions on Curry Row haven’t been as lucky: Gandhi Indian shut down in 2015 after 30+ years; Mitali East shut down earlier the same year after losing its lease (rumors say it was because the restaurant wasn’t paying rent on time).