Keeping the doors open and the lights on at Bombay Bistro for over a quarter century has not just been a family affair — it’s truly been a team effort.
The management staff, which is mostly family or friends of co-founders Surfy Rahman and K.N. Vinod, can easily rattle off dozens of memories from this tiny restaurant located in a strip mall in Rockville, Md.
There are the fond moments, like the times that Rahman’s son, Sahil Rahman, was a toddler and built forts out of the dining room tables and chairs. (That was also his favorite place to take naps, Sahil Rahman said.)
Then, there are the not so-fond-memories, like the time in 1995 when Bombay Bistro was held up in a violent, weekend robbery. A gang entered the establishment, stole money, and shot a waiter, injuring him in the leg.
“On Sunday [the next day] we reopened, and there were hundreds of people in line to support us,” Surfy Rahman said. “They were here in solidarity. Our customers have always been there for us.”
That’s been the key to Bombay Bistro’s success: loyal customers who keep coming back.
The restaurant group has also expanded and contracted over the years. In 1995, Vinod and Rahman added a second Bombay Bistro in Fairfax, Va., eventually selling it to new ownership. They later introduced a new concept with Indique, in Cleveland Park; Indique Heights followed in Friendship Heights, but it closed in 2014.
Change is an ever present part of Rahman and Vinod’s lives. What hasn’t changed is their approach to the business. Bombay Bistro is a model of consistency, serving authentic Indian dishes in a warm and welcoming space.
Throughout the years, Rahman and Vinod have received awards and accolades, and welcomed famous diners, including then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. But, both said, they wouldn’t be here without their regulars. There’s even a photo wall displaying images of all the families who have gathered at the restaurant across its lifetime.
In appreciation for all the support Bombay Bistro is running a special 25th anniversary menu this year — offering a three-course meal, paired with a glass of wine for $25. A corresponding #ThrowbackThursday deal dials back the cost of the lunch buffet to what it was in 1992: $5.95.
In reality, the genesis of Bombay Bistro dates back to 1985. That’s when Vinod and Rahman emigrated to the United States and began exploring the local hospitality scene. They chose a small storefront near downtown Rockville, primarily because rent was cheap and their budget was next to nothing, which meant the entire family pitched in, including Rahman’s sister-in-law, Nandita Madan.
“It wasn’t easy. I didn’t have a design budget. We put every nickel and dime into this restaurant,” Madan said. She got creative and used old baskets, turning them into lamp shades. Meanwhile she took old jewelry, including bracelet bangles, and transformed them into a wall mural.
Family support and luck helped Bombay Bistro early on. In March, Washingtonian mentioned them in an article. Then came a write-up from The Gazette, followed by an article by Phyllis Richman, who at the time was the restaurant critic for The Washington Post.
“That was the biggest one,” Vinod said. “I still remember it, she said we had the best prices, polished service, and great food.” After that, there was a surge in customers.
Taking the apprehension out of Indian cuisine has always been part of Bombay Bistro’s mission. New customers are either unfamiliar or intimidated by the breadth and depth of the menu, Vinod said.
Over the years Bombay Bistro has built up a loyal base with popular dishes, such as the papri chaat. The dish combines creamy textures, crunchiness, and tanginess, with a mix of chickpeas, chips, yogurt, tamarind, cilantro, and chutney.
While the food takes center stage, there’s also a significant amount of attention dedicated to the service. “Every guest who comes in here has to feel welcome,” Vinod said. “We want them to like feel this is their home.”
The restaurant was a second home of sorts for Sahil Rahman and Rahul Vinod. The sons grew up watching their dads cook.
Now, in their mid-twenties, they are in the process of carrying on the family legacy. Both Sahil Rahman and Rahul Vinod left corporate jobs in New York City to launch Rasa Indian Grill, a fast-casual restaurant scheduled to open in Navy Yard.
“We have had this idea for a restaurant for about 10 years now. Throughout our lives, we have been ambassadors for our dads’ restaurants,” Rahul Vinod said. “As people became more familiar with the cuisine, we are hoping to carry that forward and take it to a fast-casual concept.”
Because Bombay Bistro likes to keep things in the family, it last month marked its silver anniversary by gathering friends, family, and staff around the same table.
“Some of our staff have been here since the beginning,” Surfy Rahman said. “They have become a part of our family, and we wanted them to sit down and enjoy a meal on us.”