Akbar, a majestic-looking Indian restaurant in Garden City, is very much a family affair that traces its inspiration back to the 16th century in northern India, where royal Indian Mogul Akbar dined in grand surroundings.
The restaurant’s owner, Meena Chopra, recalls that it was her father, A.N. Malhotra, who opened the first Akbar in New York City in 1976. He followed with other locations abroad including in Japan, Trinidad, and London.
“Watching my father build his career in the restaurant industry, I was always intrigued by the thought of running my own one day,” says Chopra, who was born in India and came to New York in 1976.
Recalling the family’s history, Chopra says that after her father had returned to India, both she and her brother, Pradeep Malhotra, wanted to continue the legacy their father had worked hard to build in the city.
“I opened up an Akbar on Long Island and my brother opened one in Edison, New Jersey,” she says, adding that she has always enjoyed the customer service aspect of the business. “I am so fortunate that we have built such a strong customer base, some of whom have become so close, they are like family.”
Akbar first opened on LI in 1984, located on Ring Road near the Roosevelt Field Mall, before moving to the venue’s present Garden City location in 2001, on the site of a spacious, former healthcare supplies warehouse.
Fast forward to 2020 and Chopra explains that, like countless other restaurants across the region, her business has been hit “very hard” by the COVID-19 crisis.
Staffing levels had to be reduced from a normal of about 30 employees to around 10. In addition to curtailing the regular flow of diners, Chopra says that her catering business for banquets, weddings, anniversaries and birthdays has been all but idelined.
“Right now, we’re just trying to manage the takeout along with the outdoor dining,” she says, adding that although they never did close, even back in March, when many others were shuttered, staying afloat has been tough.
“Our wedding business was not happening at all,” Chopra explains. “There were almost no large gatherings happening and that took its toll on business.”
Indoors, the restaurant has put cabanas in place, 12 feet apart, in order to better distance diners and outside there is a large patio area that spans the perimeter of the restaurant, where tables are at least 10 feet apart. Health guidelines mandate a minimum of six feet between tables.
Ramit Malhotra, Chopra’s son, who handles consulting and management duties at Akbar, relates that outdoor dining has been fairly steady during the week and better on weekends.
“It’s hard to operate on just takeout business,” he says, adding that Akbar can comfortably seat about 60 diners outside. “I’m hopeful, however, that our business is coming back … it’s just a matter of if and when this virus is stopped or at least controlled.”
Lately, he says he’s been getting inquiries about catering operations for weddings, normally catered at nearby locations such as Crest Hollow Country Club and the Marriott Hotel, for anywhere between 400 and 500 people.
Akbar also joined local efforts to help to feed frontline healthcare workers at hospitals nearby, including St. Francis Hospital and Northwell Health Manhasset.
“We donated food but we just wanted to help and didn’t really want to call attention to the fact we were helping,” Chopra explains. “It was the right thing to do.”
In the kitchen, Akbar’s executive chef “Reddy” says he studied to be a chef in India, receiving a degree in kitchen technology.
“Most of our staff have been working here more than 10 years,” he says, joking that “they don’t want to leave. There must be a magnet that keeps them here.”
Reddy himself is an Akbar veteran of almost seven years, who says he continues to refine and improve the menu and dishes.
Specialties include specially marinated New Zealand lamb chop cooked in a charcoal oven; chicken tikka masala, tandoori chicken, biryani, lamb curry, and spicy vindaloo dishes, which are among peoples’ favorites.
Reddy also supervises other cooks at Akbar’s numerous banquet functions. “Reddy multitasks very well,” says Malhotra.
Overall, Chopra says she is “very grateful and blessed to have such a good team.”
Chopra adds that she wants to reassure diners that Akbar is taking all necessary precautions to keep everyone safe during these challenging times.
“We are doing whatever we can and just hope things get back to normal soon.”
Akbar is located at 2 South St. in Garden City. It can be reached at 516-357-8300 or theakbar.com
For more food and drink coverage, visit longislandpress.com/category/food-drink