Whitechapel’s Sonargaon delivers authentic Bangladeshi food buffet-style and provides a place to chat, giving a new meaning to comfort eating
‘Adda’, which roughly means gossip or a bit of conversation, is a favourite pastime among Bengalis. And you’ll see plenty of this at Sonargaon restaurant in Whitechapel, east London. Opened in 2017, on the former site of another Indian establishment, the restaurant has quickly built a reputation as a place where you can happily hangout and catch up with friends and family. With its location by Whitechapel market, there’s a steady footfall from people shopping and stopping for a bite to eat.
The restaurant, open from morning through to the night, from 9am until 11pm, is owned by TufazzalAlam, Babul Ahmed Chowdhury and Misba B S Chowdhury. All three are friends who had already worked together at another restaurant (they also have other business interests including a grocery store, which is located next door to the restaurant). Their aim is to bring a ‘quality Bangladeshi food experience and to ensure this is delivered with perfection.’ The restaurant is run buffet-style, helping to reinforce the idea of bringing communities together and sharing good conversation over food.
The dishes, focusing heavily on Bengali fare, are an obvious draw, with 30 items on offer at any one time, usually 25 savoury and five sweet options. You’ll find authentic dishes such as paratha with beef bhuna and beef liver curry – popular with Bengalis at breakfast time, and Kala Bhuna (on the bone), a fiery dish of fried meat, onion and shatkora (a bitter citrus fruit), cooked with the chef’s own spices. There are also a range of fish dishes, including Mrigal, a fish curry on the bone (using fish flown in from Bangladesh), a choice of homemade chutneys and sweet snacks that are made fresh daily. Buffet concepts often bring to mind food that may not be the freshest, but dishes at Sonargaon are cooked fresh daily, with many ingredients sourced from the grocer’s next door.
“The Bengali community likes to gossip – everyone gets to meet and come here for food and some ‘adda’,” says Alam, who first came to the UK in 2004. “It’s become a place for the local community to gather. There are not many restaurants in this area that have such a strong focus on Bengali dishes. Many of the dishes we serve are influenced by those you would find in Sylhet, in north-eastern Bangladesh.” Ninety percent of Bangladeshi origin people in the United Kingdom are from that region.
Even though the restaurant has yet to celebrate five years in business, it has already built up a loyal customer base; as Alam explains, those who visit Sonargaon feel right at home. The restaurant was also named ‘Best Bengali Food Restaurant 2021’ at the recent Curry Life Awards 2021. People are welcome to stay for a quick snack or for a more substantial meal, while an upstairs space can host events for around 100 or the entire restaurant can be used for events for up to 200 people. An outside counter also does a brisk takeaway business and was used extensively over the various lockdowns at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. With such space on offer, unsurprisingly Sonargaon is a popular venue choice for weddings and perhaps even more so post-pandemic, with its ability to host sizeable, rather than mass gatherings. It’s also in demand as a caterer for external events.
Around 95% of customers are Bengali, and they are not only from the surrounding areas, but from much further afield too, while the restaurant is also popular with westerners who would like to try some authentic dishes. Alam also made the unusual move of ensuring that all of his front-of-house staff are women, which lends a welcoming, caring vibe to an Indian restaurant, an environment that is often male-dominated. There are three main chefs and 10 waiters who work different shift patterns and Alam has known his employees for many years. This means that staff turnover at the restaurant is kept to a minimum and Sonargaon is not plagued by staffing issues to the extent that many other restaurants are in the current business climate.
“Our female front of house staff is a strong team and staffing isn’t such a big challenge for us,” says Alam. “We have more issues with the lack of parking available, as so many people make the effort to travel to eat here.”
Access to the restaurant may not be a problem for much longer, with a new station set to open in Whitechapel in 2022 – part of the Elizabeth Line, while a new town hall will be unveiled, also in 2022, on the site of the former Royal London Hospital. It’s a clear sign that the area is changing rapidly and that passing trade is set to grow. To capitalise on the potential for a growing lunch trade, Alam is looking to launch a ‘grab and go’ concept for the outside counter/takeaway side. He is also looking to expand the Sonargaon concept and is toying with the idea of opening a second restaurant.
“We want to encourage others in the UK to come to this place and try Bengali food to get inspired and be inspired,” he says “It’s a great place for small meetings, people can enjoy a traditional breakfast or a late night dinner in groups. We offer tradition and value for money too.” The name Sonargaon is taken from the popular tourist destination in Bangladesh, which was the old capital of Bengal, roughly about 40km from the capital Dhaka. It translates as ‘golden village’ or ‘heritage village’. Alam and his partners have certainly spotted a golden opportunity and made their own restaurant a special place among Whitechapel’s Bengali community. Their next challenge will be taking the concept to a wider audience.