At the Halal Restaurant
It is just before midday at the Halal Restaurant, the East End’s oldest Indian restaurant, and Mahaboob Narangali braces himself for the daily rush of curry hounds that have been filling his dining room every lunchtime since 1939. On the corner of Alie St and St Mark’s Place, occupying a house at the end of an eighteenth century terrace, the Halal Restaurant has plain canteen-style decor and an unpretentious menu, yet most importantly it has a distinctive personality that is warm and welcoming.
For the City workers who come here between midday and three each day – nipping across the border into the East End – the Halal Restaurant is a place of retreat, and the long-serving staff are equally comfortable at this establishment that opens seven days a week for lunch and dinner but only get busy at lunchtime on weekdays. Stepping in by the modest side door of the Halal Restaurant, it is apparent that the small dining room to your right was the original front room of the old house while the larger room to your left is an extension added more recently. The atmosphere is domestic and peaceful, a haven from the nearby traffic thundering along Aldgate High St and down Leman St.
Even though midday was approaching, Mahaboob was happy to talk to me about his beloved restaurant and I was fascinated to listen, because I realised that what I was hearing was not simply the story of the Halal Restaurant but of the origin of all the curry restaurants for which the East End is celebrated today.
“Usman, my father, started working here in 1969. He came to Britain in the merchant navy and at first he worked in this restaurant, but then he became very friendly with the owner Mr Chandru and soon he was managing all three restaurants they had at that time. The other two were in Collum St in the City and in Ludgate Circus. Mr Chandru was the second owner, before that was Mr Jaffer who started the Halal Restaurant in 1939. Originally, this place was the mess of the hostel for Indian merchant seamen, with rooms up above. They cooked for themselves and then friends came round to eat, and it became a restaurant. At first it was just three kinds of curry – meat, meatball or mince curry. Then Vindaloos came along, that was more spicy – and now we sell more Vindaloos than any other dish. In the early nineties, Tandoori started to come in and that’s still popular.
My father worked hard and was very successful and, in 1981, he bought the restaurant from Mr Chandru. At twenty-one years old, I came to work here. It was just on and off at first because I was studying and my father didn’t want me to join the business, he wanted me to complete my studies and do something else, but I always had my eye on it. I thought, ‘Why should I work for someone else, when I could have this?’ And in 1988, I started running the restaurant. The leases of the other restaurants ran out, but we own the freehold here and I enjoy this work. I’ve only been here twenty-five years while many of our customers having been coming for forty years and one gentleman, Mr Maurice, he has been coming sixty-five years – since 1946! He told me he started coming here when was twelve.”
Intrigued to meet this curry enthusiast of sixty-five years standing, I said my farewells to the Halal Restaurant and walked over from Aldgate to Stepney to find Mr Maurice Courtnell of the Mansell St Garage in Cannon St Row. I discovered him underneath a car and he was a little curious of my mission at first, but once I mentioned the name of the Halal Restaurant he grew eager to speak to me, describing himself proudly as “a true East Ender from Limehouse, born within the sound of Bow Bells.” A little shy to reveal his age by confirming that he had been going to the Halal Restaurant for sixty-five year from the age of twelve, yet Maurice became unreservedly enthusiastic in his praise of this best-loved culinary insitution. “My father and my uncles, we all started going round there just after the Second World War.” he recalled with pleasure, “Without a doubt it is the best restaurant of any kind that I know – the place is A1, beautiful people and lovely food. I remember Mr Jaffer that started it, I remember holding Mahaboob in my arms when he was a new-born baby. Every Christmas we go round there for our Christmas party. It is the only restaurant I recommend, and I’ve fifteen restaurateurs as regular customers at my garage. When Leman St Police Station was open, all the police officers used to be in there. It is always always full.”
Held in the affections of East Enders and City Gents alike, the Halal Restaurant is an important landmark in our culinary history, still busy and still serving the same dishes to an enthusiastic clientele after more than seventy years. Of the renowned Halal Restaurant, it may truly be said, it is the daddy of all the curry restaurants in the East End.
Asab Miah, Head Chef at the Halal Restaurant, has been cooking for forty-two years. Originally at the Clifton Restaurant in Brick Lane, he has been at the Halal Restaurant for the last nineteen years.
Quayum, Moshahid Ali, Ayas Miah, Mahadoob Narangoli, Asab Miah and Sayed.
At 12:01pm, the first City gent of the day arrives for curry at the Halal Restaurant.
Abdul Wahab, Mohammed Muayeed Khan and J.A. Masum.
At 12:02pm, the second City gent of the day arrives for curry at the Halal Restaurant.
Maurice Courtnell, owner of the Mansell St Garage and the Halal Restaurant’s biggest advocate, has been going round for curry for sixty-five years. – “The place is A1, beautiful people and lovely food. I remember Mr Jaffer that started it, I remember holding Mahaboob in my arms when he was a new-born baby.”
Mahaboob Narangoli, owner of the East End’s oldest Indian restaurant.