Back in the 1950s and '60s Asian immigrants weren't even allowed to drink in most pubs, but now a key few are saving ailing pubs with a winning mix of pakoras and pints.

This explosion of so-called Desi pubs ("Desi" being a Hindi slang term for "of South Asia") is making headlines, and a recent arts project, by The Black Country Creative (which included the creation of the world's first Punjabi pub signs) celebrates their contribution to communities in the West Midlands.

 

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There are an estimated 50 successful Asian-run pubs in the Black Country currently, all serving traditional Punjabi-style food and British beers to an ethnically mixed group of customers who come from far and wide.

One such Punjabi publican is Amrik Singh Saini (pictured above, on horseback), who runs three pubs: two Desi venues — the Four Ways, Rowley Regis, and the Royal Oak, West Bromwich, as well as the more "traditional", The Thorns in Brierley Hill, Dudley.

At the family-friendly Four Ways, the food has gained an almost cult following locally and the pub easily serves between 80 and 100 meals every Friday and Saturday night.

 

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"We bought the pub back in 2010 when it had already been closed for some years and it had a bad reputation," says Amrik. "It was very run-down and we completely refurbished it, which was a huge investment.

"Then we opened and had to work hard at the beginning to convince people we were going to be a family-friendly, community pub for everyone."

To that end Amrik has thrown himself into the local community and the pub sponsors local football and pool teams; provides food for the annual fête, and every two weeks the chefs cook meals for 250 homeless people, which Amrik then ferries to Wolverhampton where he serves them up himself.

He even operates a free bar for three hours on Christmas Day for locals and diners coming for a festive lunch with a twist. "I make sure I look after my regulars," he explains.

"It's a vital part of running a successful pub. You have to give something to get something back."

The approach has paid off and the pub is now a destination for regulars who want a pint or two, locals who bring their families, plus lovers of classic Indian food from further afield.
The food is an integral part of the business plan, and the pub currently operates with a 60/40 dry/wet split.

"Our vision here is to make more authentic Indian food than perhaps some of the competition and also food that is presented a notch above the rest," Amrik explains.

 

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Current favourites include Lamb Punjabi and Special Fourways Chicken Curry, but with tastes changing the team are making some tweaks to the menu. "We are looking to add some more fish dishes, such as sea bass and salmon, and a few healthier choices as well."

Aside from the curries, football also brings in the crowds, mostly West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa fans, and Amrik shows some boxing matches too, which he says can bring in up to 200 people a fight.

A fully equipped children's adventure playground ("Paw Ways"), which was put in two years ago — featuring fibre glass dinosaurs and dragons in amongst the usual climbing frames and slides — also keeps the tills ringing through school holidays and the summer.

 

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Being part of the boom in Desi pubs is important to Amrik, who is a member of the West Midlands Pub Association, a group of 35 pubs in the area.

The group have regular meetings, a Pubwatch scheme and are looking at forming a buying club to give them more clout with suppliers as well as creating a Desi Pub Crawl in association with the local tourist board.

"There's competition between us, of course, but also a sense of community and we all help each other out."

It's great tale of the power of pubs.

The Black Country Creative has made a series of videos about Desi Pubs as part of its project, including this visit to The Prince of Wales, West Bromwich High Street by celebrity chef Cyrus Todiwala: