The Star Democrat
How East London’s oldest halal eatery survived the pandemic
LONDON (RNS) — With the fate of East London’s oldest halal restaurant on the line, a desperate call went out on Twitter.
“Not one to do this,” wrote @ mehnazmeh, “but my dad owns the oldest Indian restaurant in east London and has been struggling with customers, so please show some love! If you’re in Aldgate, come and have a curry, I’m biased, but it’s the best!”
Mehnaz Mahaboob included parallel images of both her father and grandfather seated in the restaurant over the decades. The tweet went viral, earning more than 40,000 interactions on Twitter, and for a few glorious weeks Halal Restaurant was packed.
“It really worked. There were people waiting outside the door because of the tweet.We had to turn people away for dinner, which is something we never had before,”
said Mahaboob Narangoli, Mehnaz’s father and the current owner of Halal Restaurant, which serves a wide variety of South Asian food, with the meat found in its curries and biryanis slaughtered in accordance with Islamic law.
The brief boom brought in enough to keep the business afloat through a second pandemic lockdown in the U.K., when the restaurant had to again close its doors for seven months, according to Narangoli.
Halal Restaurant first opened in 1939 to serve the needs of Muslims in the maritime industry. Over the ensuing decades the restaurant has changed with East London and now relies on the lunchtime crowds of bankers, shipping agents and insurance industry employees who work in the city of London. But the pandemic cut much of that traffic, forcing the restaurant to rely on delivery and takeaway orders as the normally packed streets of London went quiet.
“We have many customers who have been coming here even before my father took over. We just had someone in today who has been eating here since the 1960s,” said Narangoli.
The restaurant was originally part of London’s Hostel for Indian Seamen. In those days, the nearby Saint Katherine’s Docks, named for the church demolished in 1825 that once stood on the site, was a working part of London’s docklands. The area attracted many South Asians who worked as lascars aboard various ships.
In 1932, the Indian National Congress had estimated there were just over 7,000 South Asians living in the United Kingdom — many tied to the maritime industry.
The docks and the Tower of London, which is a five-minute walk away, were both heavily damaged during World War II. Even today, Halal Restaurant’s sparse tables seem to recall the establishment’s maritime heritage. A photo of the restaurant’s allwooden interior in the 1970s could easily be mistaken for a mess hall on a ship.
Narangoli’s father, Usman Abubakar, was no stranger to the sea. Abubakar first came to London as a member of the Merchant Navy. In 1970, he started working as a waiter in The Halal Restaurant. By 1978, Abubakar was the proprietor, after purchasing the restaurant from its second owner.