At its height in the mid-2000s, Banglatown was home to around 60 Bangladeshi or Pakistani-owned curry restaurants and cafés. In February 2020, there were only 23 such outlets on Brick Lane and Osborn Street – a decrease of 62% in 15 years.
The years since 2008 have seen the eclipsing of Banglatown as part of a broader process of gentrification. Where there was once a concentration of curry restaurants, Banglatown’s curry eateries are now interspersed with Swedish delicatessens, French patisseries, pizza parlours and vegan cafés. A local Bengali restaurant owner reflected on the recent changes:
‘For the last 15 or 20 years Brick Lane was only about Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants, and people came for the restaurants. But the number of restaurants has really gone down. So many have gone, just disappeared!’
Our interviews with Brick Lane's Bangladeshi restaurant owners from 2018 to 2020 reveal some of the reasons why the street’s curry restaurants have so rapidly declined in number.
The role of the local council
Many of the Bangladeshi restaurateurs still operating on Brick Lane were particularly critical of the role of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in fashioning the Banglatown concept. Reflecting on the limitations of the Banglatown regeneration project, a local Bengali resident told us:
‘I wanted Brick Lane and the surrounding area to be a vibrant Banglatown, like a Chinatown, which it never became. It was just an announcement, and to an extent, a regeneration branding for the council, but not what the community wanted, which was similar to Chinatown.’
Other restaurant owners blamed the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and the officers responsible for the management of Brick Lane for the declining fortunes of Banglatown since its inception. One said:
‘the local council isn’t doing anything to promote Brick Lane. That’s why the restaurants are closing down.’
Others pointed to the fact that, compared with the late 1990s and early 2000s, there had been no significant regeneration agency working in the area in recent years. As one restaurant owner explained:
'Brick Lane needs someone to give it some care – to give it some love. We haven't really had anyone doing that since 2004 when Cityside Regeneration was wound up. The people who worked at Cityside did a lot of good for Brick Lane – they gave it a lot of attention.'
Rents and business rates
Bangladeshi restaurant owners were very conscious of being priced out of Brick Lane’s market due to spiralling rents and business rates. One owner told us:
‘Over the last three years profit has declined by about 20% and that’s mainly because the rent has gone up 40%. Business rates have gone up too – about 25%. Nowadays, you can’t save a single penny’.
‘Where, apart from West End, where do you see £16-, £17,000 rate bills? Can you name a place?’
Investment and infrastructure
In the early 2000s, the growth of ‘grab-and-go’ eateries such as Pret A Manger and the burgeoning number of globally themed street-food stalls in the redeveloped Spitalfields Market site meant that the City workers who once frequented Brick Lane’s curry restaurants now had alternative lunchtime options. On this point, one restaurant owner said:
‘City workers are stopping in Spitalfields Market to get something to eat, they’re not coming here anymore. It’s killing us.’
Another restaurant owner echoed these sentiments, but identified the competition posed by The Old Truman Brewery as the main issue:
‘People from the City no longer come to Brick Lane for lunch. And the food court [in The Old Truman Brewery] killed off our lunchtime trade on Saturdays and Sundays. Before it opened our only competition were the bagel shops at the end of the road.’
For other Bangladeshi restaurant owners, the increasing dominance of the ‘flat white economy' in the area was the main problem. Once Bangladesh returned owner said:
‘Most of the cafés and restaurants in this area are closing, it’s like the corporate businesses are taking over – Starbucks, Costa and the rest of them. They’re already in Commercial Street and Spitalfields Market. The Tesco on Commercial Street is killing the local shops. Small businesses like ours are not going to survive.’
Furthermore, the opening of a new overground train station at Shoreditch High Street in 2010 directed footfall away from Banglatown towards the hipster bars and cafés around Hoxton and Shoreditch, which impacted trade in the southern end of the street.
The Vibe Bar
The loss of trade and footfall was compounded by the closure of the Vibe Bar in 2014. This popular nightspot was located in The Old Truman Brewery and once drew lots of post-clubbing diners to Banglatown’s curry restaurants. According to Bangladeshi restaurateurs, its closure was particularly damaging to trade. One of Brick Lane’s longest-serving restaurant owners said:
‘The Vibe Bar used to bring in people from outside, especially university students. They’d drink, they’d dance – they’d have a good time and then they would come for a curry. Now you don’t have anything like the same number – not even half, not even a quarter of the people. Brick Lane has lost its image.’
Reflecting on the closure of the Vibe Bar, another Bangladeshi restaurant owner told us:
‘That affected us a lot – it affected everyone. When the Vibe Bar was open Brick Lane was booming. But it’s not happening anymore’
Changing immigration policy
In the early days, Brick Lane’s Bengali restaurant sector was heavily dependent on family and community contacts and on ‘chain migration’ for staffing. In recent years, tighter immigration controls, including income levels and English language requirements, have made it very difficult for restaurant owners to get staff – particularly chefs, but also waiters and kitchen staff. One restaurant owner said:
‘Relax immigration rules – that way we could get some full-time staff who are focused on the work.’
Another told us:
‘how are we going to afford to bring in a chef from Bangladesh and pay them £35,000 a year? It’s just not possible.’
A different restaurant owner lamented the impact of immigration policy on the availability of casual kitchen and waiting staff:
‘Bangladeshi students aren’t coming to this country any more, which is a shame for them and a shame for us.’
In terms of the pool of workers that was available to them, Bengali restaurant owners expressed concerns about high turnover. One restaurant owner told us:
‘most of the people that we have, our staff, they’re only ever short term. Like most people leave after four, five weeks, so we’re…. it’s constantly… our labour turnover’s really high’.
When we asked him why this was the case, he continued:
‘I don’t know the answer to that, but I think it’s maybe because people have more options now – you got Uber Eats. It’s just like you don’t need any qualifications. And then also taxi.’
Another restaurant owner echoed these sentiments:
‘Business is okay but these days it’s difficult to get staff – everyone wants to be an Uber driver’.
Tough working conditions in restaurants, coupled with improved educational attainment and employment prospects for the younger generation of Bangladeshis, mean that the vast majority of children of restaurant owners are reluctant to enter the trade themselves. One Brick Lane restaurateur said:
‘Running a restaurant means you don’t have any time because you’re working unsociable hours, there’s no family life. Anyway, kids who’ve got qualifications want to become a solicitor, accountant or what have you. Why would they want to work in the curry business?’
In response to a question about the prospect of his children taking over his business, another restaurant owner commented:
‘London boys don’t want to work in this business – unless it’s very profitable.’
The role of restaurant owners
For some restaurant owners, the uncertain prospects of Brick Lane’s curry restaurants were exacerbated by the lack of dynamism among restaurant owners themselves, and their failure to adapt to the street’s changing tastes and markets. One Brick Lane curry restaurant owner was frank with his thoughts:
‘I think the problem with the Bangladeshi restaurants is they have this belief that, just because they make food, then people are going to come to you. You know, they ... they don't seem to understand that you have to kind of evolve. Especially in ... people want, people want authenticity. They don't want the same old bog-standard chicken tikka masala.’
Another restauranteur believed the changing fortunes of the street’s curry trade were partly to do with the lack of co-operation and strategising among Brick Lane’s Bangladeshi restaurateurs:
‘At the end of the day we need to get all the business owners together and fight for it. It’s hard, but we need some cooperation. But one or two people is not enough. We need to sit down and talk about it. The trouble is no one is sitting down and talking about it.’
More broadly, the ready availability of Indian food in local supermarkets and the growth and diversification of the curry restaurant sector beyond Brick Lane have played into the declining fortunes of Banglatown. Reflecting on the growth of the curry sector, a Bengali Brick Lane restaurateur said:
‘In the '70s and '80s there weren’t that many curry houses. But now if someone wants a curry, they can have it anywhere.’
High street curry houses, in Brick Lane and beyond, have found it hard to compete with new fashions for global street food on the one hand, and high-end Indian dining on the other. Michelin-starred curry restaurants in the West End, such as Gymkhana and Jamavar in Mayfair, established a new category of high-end Indian cuisine in London. New, innovative, midmarket Indian restaurants, like Dishoom, have had the effect of diverting business away from many of the long-established and more traditional Bangladeshi-owned restaurants in London.