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So Long, Sweet & Spicy

March 27, 2013
by the gentle author

As a tribute to Sweet & Spicy, which closed yesterday, I am republishing my feature celebrating a beloved Spitalfields institution on Brick Lane since 1969.

If you ever stood in Brick Lane, baffled by the array of curry houses and harangued by the touts, and wondered “Where do the locals eat?” then you could always seek out Sweet & Spicy down on the corner of Chicksand St. There proprietor Omar Butt worked conscientiously from eleven until eleven every day in this celebrated Spitalfields institution opened by his father Ikram Butt in 1969. Established originally as a cafe, Sweet & Spicy was only the third curry house to open on Brick Lane and, such was the popularity of its menu, it remained largely unchanged through all the years.

You could come for lunch or dinner and you would always meet Omar Butt, tall with lively dark eyes and a stature that befits an ex-wrestler, yet modest and eager to greet customers. You chose your food at the counter, let Omar stack up your tray, then took your place in the cafeteria-style dining room at the back, lined with posters reflecting the Butt family’s involvement in wrestling over generations, and enjoyed your meal in peace and quiet.

Sweet & Spicy offered a simple menu of curry dishes complemented by two house specialities, both popular since 1969. Halva puri with chana (spicy chickpeas) which Omar described as the “Pakistani breakfast,” – traditionally the food of wrestlers who, he says, were characteristically “big rough men that ate halva all day.” Omar made the halva personally twice a week exactly as it is done in the halva shops of Pakistan where they also display the same wrestling posters that he had on his wall. And the warm halva made a very tasty counterpoint to the spicy chana – sweet and spicy, just as the name over the door promised. Most customers popped in as they passed along Brick Lane for the famous kebab roll – Omar’s other speciality – a shish kebab served in a deep-fried chapati with onions and chili sauce. “It has so many dimensions of flavour that people really like,” waxed Omar, his eyes gleaming with culinary pride.

There was an appealingly egalitarian quality to this restaurant where anyone could afford to eat, where Omar oversaw every aspect of the food with scrupulous care and where people of all the races that live in Spitalfields could meet in a relaxed environment, unified by their love of curry – honestly cooked, keenly priced and served without pretensions. Twice a day, Sweet & Spicy filled up with the lunch and dinner rush, but you could drop by late morning for a Pakistani breakfast, or visit in the afternoon, and you would discover Omar taking a well-deserved break to read his newspaper and eager to chat. With an understated authority, he presided over a unique community hub that had evolved naturally, offering a refuge of calm and civility amidst the clamour of Brick Lane.

“I used to come here at six years old. I guess I was be the youngest busboy on Brick Lane, serving and clearing tables for quite a few years. My family have always been involved in wrestling. My grandfather Allah Ditta, he was professional wrestler in Pakistan and my uncle, Aslam Butt, was National Champion. I have done international freestyle wrestling and I’ve tried very hard at an Indian style where you wrestle in a sand pit. I have travelled and wrestled in America, here and in Pakistan.

I studied business after I left school and then I came to work here full -time at twenty-four years old. I am a self-taught cook and I taught myself how to cook everything. Each morning I do a little cooking when I arrive and then I spend the rest of the day upstairs serving customers. It’s important to me, to attend to everything. For a restaurant to have long life-cycle, the owner has to be able to cook as well.

We open seven days a week and I am here seven days, from eleven in the morning until eleven at night. It’s been non-stop lately because of the economic situation. No-one likes a recession, but it shows you what you are capable of. Before, I didn’t know that I was able to work seventy hour weeks, but it is possible. I have a wife and two kids and I live on the Isle of Dogs but, because I have spent so much of my time on Brick Lane, it’s like I live here as well.

We were always a cafe, whereas the others became restaurants serving English customers but here it has always been a mixed clientele. People used to come for snacks after the visiting the Naz cinema next door and we served the machinists working in the clothing factories. We have a long loyal gallery of locals. It’s a cosmopolitan place. Today I had an Asian sea captain who first came forty years ago, Bengali businessmen, a table of Cubans, and some born and bred East Enders who have been coming all their lives. We run the business off our regular customers. I often get young men who say their father brought them here as a child. There’s something about this place, it’s a father and son place.”

One of Omar’s collection of wrestling posters. His uncle and grandfather were champions in Pakistan.

In the cool of the curry house in the afternoon.

Sweet & Spicy’s celebrated £2 kebab roll – the burrito of Brick Lane.

Halva with puri £1.45 – traditionally the food of wrestlers. Served hot with chana as ‘the Pakistani breakfast.’

Faraz

You may also like to read about

A Walk With Clive Murphy

The Curry Chefs of Brick Lane

26 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy T permalink
    March 27, 2013

    Thanks to Omar for the hard work and lovely food. Spreading joy since 1969. Sweet and Spicy will be missed by many. Good luck to him and his family.

  2. Adrienne permalink
    March 27, 2013

    I’m sure Omar and his cafe will be much missed. Hope he’s going to get a lie-in now!

  3. March 27, 2013

    Sad to hear you’ve closed

  4. Libby Hall permalink
    March 27, 2013

    How very disappointing that it has closed. Tony and I had a lovely lunch there once, we chose it by instinct and felt smug that we had been so clever in our choice. I was planning on taking my brother there next month when he visits from America. I will have to ask around now to see what our second choice should be.

  5. Jim Howett permalink
    March 27, 2013

    I stopped in on Monday to get lunch for Marianna Kennedy and we discussed the closure at the cafe Naz, Clive Murphy was having his lunch also, but Omar was on his own, I have always had the impression that the Sweet and Spicy had a culture slightly at odds with the Brick Lane community, I don’t know why, perhaps they felt it too old fashioned,, I feel knee capped.

  6. March 27, 2013

    Does anyone have a “second choice”?

  7. Janice permalink
    March 27, 2013

    Sweet & Spicy was one of only two restaurants I loved on Brick Lane and I’m so sad to hear this news. I’m on holiday and didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. I’ll take this opportunity to thank Omar very much for all the lovely food I’ve had there and disappointed I will never now get there to have that breakfast! All the best for the future.

  8. March 27, 2013

    Does anyone know why it closed?

  9. Nick permalink
    March 27, 2013

    Good luck Omar, sad to see that you’re gone, I’d like to know where you would have chosen to eat on a rare day off, that might become a passable second choice. All the best.

  10. March 27, 2013

    Saddened to read this news. Sweet & Spicy was a real highlight for me when I worked in the area in the late 90s. And as luck would have it, I’ll be in the area again next week for the first time since then and it was the one restaurant I had my heart set on revisiting. The memories of such an honest and delightful place will remain, though.

  11. March 27, 2013

    what a shame! Dedicated, talented and passionate people who brought so much to all their customers! I hope they have plans to carry on feeding the discerning.

  12. March 27, 2013

    What a shame it’s closing. Another East End institution bites the dust! Thanks to the gentle author for keeping a finger on the pulse of Brick Lane.

  13. shane permalink
    March 28, 2013

    damn. we gonna miss you sweet & Spicy!

  14. March 28, 2013

    This unassuming curry place on Brick Lane and its wonderful owner Omar was my saviour and friend during frequent skint and unhappy periods. It is also one of the principal locations for a TV show pilot that I’m involved in and Omar was kind enough to let us shoot over two days, even opening late one day and guarding the door when we ran overtime. It provides little solace but at least we have been able to immortalise it in some small way.

  15. Etain permalink
    April 1, 2013

    I am so sad, a neighbourhood institution gone. Now it is going to be a Buffalo Wing place, gross!

  16. Gerry Cleary permalink
    April 4, 2013

    As periodic Irish visitors to Brick Lane my wife and I and extended family had some wondeful meals in “Sweet and Spicy”. I always found Omar to be a perfect gentleman and a true professional in his domaine. The original was the best as far as Brick Lane was concerned. This is truely a sad day.

    Gerry Cleary

  17. May 17, 2013

    Yes very sad – we will sorely miss our cantine round the corner!
    Not sure another chicken place is needed, unless perhaps they can guarantee it’s free range chicken and not battery?

  18. Mathew permalink
    June 13, 2013

    Gonna miss you.
    I run bike tours and pass down Brick Lane most days and big up Sweet and Spicy to my customers. One very cold day a couple of months ago my group wanted to stop and eat there but I had forgotten my locks and cables so would have to wait outside while they had a break. No such thing, Omar insisted on clearing some tables to the side and letting me stack the bikes in the café. Thank you Omar. That act summed up what I love about Brick Lane.
    Does anyone know why it closed?

  19. sam permalink
    June 30, 2013

    Really sad to hear it closed, i love the red sauce they sell in their shop. Does anyone
    know whether they closed permanently or have they moved to another address.

  20. Sabeha permalink
    July 9, 2013

    Was shocked one day when I headed down there to pick up a snack and all the shutters were closed…thought nothing of it til I saw the new place!!
    I was truly grief stricken!

  21. Ravi Juneja permalink
    July 9, 2013

    Sad to hear this. Fond reminisces of the 70s for me; dad had a shop in Fashion Street and we used to go into Sweet’n'Spicy on a Sunday for their legendary kebab rolls.

  22. Patrizia permalink
    September 21, 2013

    I just went to brick lane and as always my first thought was to stop
    At sweet and spicy for lunch. But suddenly I found out
    That has closed…I couldn’t believe, it was one of my London
    Landmark. I want to thanks Omar for the amazing
    Food that he served us since 1969. We will miss you
    A lot.

  23. Sambal permalink
    September 26, 2013

    I never had the opportunity to eat here but it would seem that I missed out on a gem. Sad to hear of your closing. Good luck to you all!

  24. Dolma permalink
    October 2, 2013

    I used to work around the corner from Sweet and Spicy, and would pop in for lunch on a regular basis. With so much choice on Brick Lane, Sweet and Spicy was the real deal! The food was delicious and authentic. It felt like eating something home made with love. I moved offices and had not been back for a few years, but a craving overtook me yesterday, a Tuesday, which from memory was ‘Matar Paneer’ day, so I headed out of my way to Chicksand street, and to my horror was confronted by a Buffalo wings shop…what had happened? how could the best restaurant in Brick Lane have gone? I’m gonna miss you Sweet and Spicy. So happy to have had so many great meals though…

  25. October 29, 2013

    Sad loss!
    the artwork of Lahori wrestlers were just brilliant!
    Will miss you!
    : (

  26. mark ashdown permalink
    November 6, 2013

    always fond memories of the old boy who owned sweet and spicey, my wife junette and my kids dan and stevie marie were really sad to hear that the best curry house was no more. my favorites were kurai spicey dry lamb with pilau rice with small side orders of dahl or saag paneer, two purees and served with chutney and salad. and i always had to be awkward and ask for chopped coriander which was never a problem. Junette raved about the chicken curry has did stevie marie, dan was like me and never ventured further than a kurai i had 20 years of great food and service and never once was i not satisfied. So i’m pretty sad to see the end of my saturday or sunday morning curry pilgrimige to brick lane.

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