On a narrow strip of East London road, there’s a sense of anticipation in the kitchens of Brick Lane’s famous curry houses.
The buzz emanating from the area, adorned with Bangladeshi flags, has dimmed in the past year, as restaurants were hit by Covid restrictions.
In an area which had made its name on the cultural melting pot atmosphere of the street as much as its food, those that remained open relied on takeaway income.
Now many of those establishments are preparing for customers to return. England’s loosening restrictions, which allow diners to eat outside, will have a limited impact on the cramped street – but a return to in-house dining is hopefully not far away.
The first changes also coincide with the start of Ramadan, an important time for restaurant owners and the local community. It’s the second year the holy month will be observed during the pandemic.
Guljar Khan, chairman of Brick Lane Bangla Restaurant Association and owner of the Gram Bangla and Masala curry houses, said there was no doubt the holy month has added importance for the community this year because of Covid-19 and local job losses.
"What we tend to do, as restaurant owners, we try to help the local charities. Last year and the year before as well, we join up with some charities to give out iftar for the evening," he told The National.
They prepare meals “for the old, vulnerable people who can’t cook at home and so forth. So, a few of the restaurants get together and we try to help the community”, he said.
Many said the area had been changing before the pandemic, with rents surging and more and more shops either selling non-South Asian cuisine or no food at all.
But despite this, the character on Brick Lane remains, said Abdul Ahad, the owner of the widely acclaimed City Spice, who described it as the root of the Bangladeshi community.
Restaurant owners hope the loosening of restrictions will go smoothly and that they will soon be able to welcome back customers.
“It’s been a drastic year for everyone. I mean, it’s just been over a year and since the pandemic, everyone around the world has been hit – and so have we,” said Mr Khan.
“As a restaurant owner, it’s impacted us a lot. I know the takeaway sector is doing really well, but in terms of people coming in and sitting and dining in, it’s impacted us a huge amount. So, it’s been a very hard year for us,” he said.
Unfortunately, Brick Lane is much less likely to benefit compared with the wider restaurant industry from Monday’s major rule changes in England, which say restaurants can serve food to customers seated outside.
Mr Ahad said there simply isn’t enough space on Brick Lane for widespread outdoor dining.
City Spice has been closed since December and Mr Ahad only plans for it to reopen at the next stage of restriction loosening – currently set for May 17 – when customers are allowed inside.
Jubar Ahmed, the co-owner of family-run Bengal Village, said come Monday, there would be effectively “no change”.
Mr Khan said consultations were ongoing with the local council and some restaurants had obtained permission to put tables and chairs outside.
"But as you can see, it's a very narrow street, very small. So there's only a handful of restaurants which will be allowed chairs and tables. Unless the whole street is closed for us, it doesn't give us a very big head start," he told The National.
Mr Ahad says that while the support from the government in 2020 was greatly appreciated, businesses need help to get back on their feet.
He says the uncertainty the pandemic caused has affected everyone badly. Mr Ahad poured thousands of pounds into making City Spice Covid-compliant when restaurants reopened at the end of the first wave of the virus last year, he said, only to close it again not long after the UK began to battle a new surge of Covid-19 cases and increasingly strict rules were introduced.
“Our business, we had a balance sheet of ‘plus plus’ all the way through the years we’ve been trading. But, as I say, we’re in many thousands of pounds of debt,” he said.
Many restaurants on Brick Lane, including City Spice and Gram Bangla, are not currently offering takeaways. Gram Bangla is being refurbished in preparation for people being allowed to sit inside.
Mr Khan said it had tried offering takeaways during the first lockdown last spring, but he just didn’t find it viable. Part of the reason is the emptying of the nearby City of London, one of London’s main financial hubs, and the lack of tourists.
But he said it is also because his restaurant – like others on Brick Lane – promotes itself as a dine-in experience, one that thrives on the interaction with family and friends and serves traditional food.
“Gram Bangla is known as authentic Bangladeshi cuisine. A lot of our main customers are traditionally from Bangladesh, India and so forth.”
While there has been in an increase in takeaways compared with before, it could never replace the revenue that comes from being fully open, said Mr Ahmed of Bengal Village.
“We still have a 60-cover restaurant. That’s gone. Now, we’re doing takeaways. So, life’s been hard. It’s been difficult.
“We had 10 staff. Out of the 10, now we’ve got only three people: one kitchen man, me doing the packing of the foods and a delivery driver,” he said.