Sneh Mehtani was pregnant, with no idea how to feed a family. A friend made a simple suggestion: “Open a restaurant. You’ll always have food.”
Mehtani was a hard-working woman with an entrepreneurial spirit. Her first marriage had failed. Her sister was a widow. She was, as her son Shaun Mehtani says now, “very hungry.”
It was 1983, and Sneh Mehtani was living in New York City, amid the growing number of South Asian immigrants who were moving into the neighborhood surrounding Madison Square Garden. She was working for Air India, whose flight crew stayed at the nearby Hotel Pennsylvania. When flights were delayed, the crews lamented the lack of Indian food in the city. Meanwhile, New York was awakening to the potential of Bollywood; in 1983, the popular actor Amitabh Bachchan was the first Indian actor to perform at the Garden. For Sneh Mehtani, a woman paying attention to market demographics, 1983 was an auspicious year. She opened Moghul, a white-tablecloth restaurant serving authentic Indian food, in the basement of the Hotel Pennsylvania. The Bollywood actors soon followed, finding a welcoming, elegant space.
“She was definitely not a cook,” says Shaun Mehtani. “She was a businesswoman. She saw an opportunity.”
A few years later, Sneh Mehtani moved Moghul to Edison and, true to the promise of the grandeur of the restaurant’s name, began building a restaurant empire. Today, the Mehtani Restaurant Group is celebrating more than 40 years in the business, a rare achievement in an industry that considers 10 years to be a remarkable run.
To the outside world, Sneh Mehtani’s greatest achievement was being named restaurateur of the year in 2013 by the New Jersey Restaurant Association. The award rarely goes to a woman—there are so few. In reality, says Shaun Mehtani, his mother’s greatest achievement is more personal. Couples who married at the restaurant back in the day are now the grandparents of couples who are getting married at the restaurant today. That Moghul has become a family tradition and a staple to the area’s Indian American community is her greatest achievement.
Shaun Mehtani grew up in the restaurant; he was one of those babies plunked on the bar in his car seat at five days old. When his mother went into labor, she drove herself to the hospital, from Manhattan to New Jersey, alone.
“She doesn’t scare easily,” says her son.
Sneh Mehtani, now in her 70s, has Alzheimer’s disease and is unable to work. Shaun Mehtani says he was never pressured to stay in the family business, but he never left. (He applies the same approach to his two young sons.)
Sneh Mehtani’s business secret, says her son, is simple: hard work, 16-hour days. A perfectionist, she never permitted herself (or others) to take shortcuts. But what’s magical about Sneh Mehtani is her ability to get others to work hard as well. The restaurant, in 40 years, has had only three chefs: Sundar Kumar (1983 to 2010), Lakshmikant Jana (2010 to 2022), and Sanjeev Kumar, the current chef.
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Moghul also sticks to its brand. Amid the evolution of fusion cuisine, Moghul offers instead “nostalgia on a plate.” Restaurant best-sellers continue to be butter chicken (the group serves more than 1 million each year) and tikka masala. Indeed, says Shaun, thanks to globalization, the food at Moghul today is more authentic than when the restaurant first opened. In the ’80s, it was difficult to get specialty ingredients, such as spice blends from Pakistan and India.
The atmosphere remains smart casual, with white tablecloths, bespoke copper bowls and imported staff uniforms. The goal is a space that’s stately but not stuffy, with welcoming arms for children.
“I grew up on restaurant food,” says Shaun Mehtani. His favorite dish is tandoori chicken, but these days he’s also partial to the restaurant’s hearty goat stew—it’s delicate, warming and tender. People often are reluctant to try goat; when they do, he says, they are often surprised, comparing the flavor to lamb.
The Mehtani Group continues to keep its eye on the demographic. For decades, Oak Tree Road in Edison was a Saturday grocery-shopping destination for Indian Americans living anywhere in the tristate area. Shopping was coupled with a meal at Moghul; the lines for the buffet were at times hours long. Today, with burgeoning Indian American communities outside Philadelphia and New York City, those Saturday lines at Moghul are gone; grocers specializing in Indian food are no longer the exclusive domain of Edison. Still, the restaurant has its draw—and its loyal customer base.
Zankhana Parekh of Princeton is effervescent when she recalls her wedding at Moghul in 2004. Her soon-to-be father-in-law had insisted on Moghul: “For my son, I want the best of the best.”
About 800 guests were invited, with more than 500 in attendance. Parekh remembers the silver platters, an enchanting lotus-root dish, sparklers, a live band, the spotlight shining on the bride. Parekh came from humble beginnings. “For me, it was a world I had never seen. I just remember the elegance and the opulence.”