By Thilak S. Fernando

On 23rd August, London gave birth to another Sri Lankan restaurant in the NorthWest. Lihiniya Restaurant opened its doors at the auspicious time of 6.12 a.m., observing Sri Lankan customs, amidst chanting of Pirith by twelve Buddhist priests according to religious observations. Lihiniya Restaurant is the extension of the well known ŒLihiniyaı shop at Cricklewood Broadway, the only Sri Lankan shop in London which displays the Sri Lankan Lion flag with Sinhala writing on the shopıs name board. The two Lihiniya enterprises in Cricklewood now stand out as the two wings (Upali-Meepali) of its symbol, the messenger bird Œ Lihiniyaı gliding away slowly and steadily.

The history of Sri Lankan restaurants in London goes back to over four decades. The very first ŒCeylonı restaurant was opened in 1926 by a Sinhalase named Peter Warnasuriya, who was brought to London for employment by the world-famous Scottish grocer, Mr. Lipton, whose name became popular with Liptonıs tea. Out of the three Sri Lankan employees brought to London, Warnasuriya was fortunate to inherit £700 from Liptonıs Will, which he invested in the first ever ŒCeylonı restaurant in the West End of London in early 1930s. With the First World War affecting London, Warnasuriya too felt the brunt of the war and had to abandon his business.

Towards the latter part of 1960ıs, hidden away in a corner of Childıs Street in Londonıs Earls Court, another Sri Lankan, Charles Silva, opened his own ŒCeylon Restaurantı. At a time where there was only a handful of Sri Lankans living in London ŒCeylonı Restaurant became the only rendezvous for Lankans to entertain their friends and guests in a homely atmosphere.

Charles Silva always loved to see a Sri Lanakan face inside his restaurant. The joy of seeing one of his countrymen walking into the restaurant was written all over Charlesı face. With a broad smile and with much enthusiasm he could be seen hurrying a bottle of wine towards the Sri Lankan customer and saying: ³ This is on the house². Sri Lankans enjoyed his hospitality even more than the taste of the food. It may have been a diplomatic or a business move, yet the atmosphere he created gave his fellow countrymen a warm feeling and a sense of obligation to patronise the restaurant over and over again. Sadly though, as the time took better of him and Charles Silva becoming senior in his age, the taste and the aroma of ŒSri Lankanı food too deviated seemingly from Sri Lankan to Indian cuisine with chefs, waiters and the owners becoming Indian; a natural death of another Sri Lankan restaurant in London thus occurred.

Upali Kariyawasam was another popular name in the annals of Sri Lankan restaurant operation in London. During 1970s he ran two restaurants from Central London and later from Fulham Broadway offering typically authentic Sri Lankan cuisine. He became a disappointed businessman due to the lack of support he received from the Sri Lankan community in London. As an alternative he packed up his bags and took his gourmet skills to Down Under where the Sri Lankan expatriates in Melbourne are today enjoying the full benefit.

Of late there have been several Sri Lankan restaurants mushrooming right across London, from North to South, under different names and catering for specific needs and tastes of a wider community of Lankans who have come to London from North and South of Sri Lanka. Some of these eating out places have had a very brief life span and for various reasons many have closed down at the same speed they have sprung up.

To be successful in running a restaurant in London is not an easy task in a cosmopolitan city such as in London. ³ Shall we have an Indian tonight², the commonly used phrase signifies how Indian restaurants have caught the lion share of the restaurant market in London. But the wind is changing swiftly today as more and more tourists from England are visiting Sri Lanka.

Once a tourist has been to Sri Lanka, there is no need for much of advertising for Sri Lankan food anymore as a visitorıs experience in the Island will make him go in search of the culinary tastes he has acquired. In this respect Lihiniya Restaurant has an enormous potential ahead of them. When discussing traditions, food or customs in Sri Lanka one needs to be open-minded without any social bias or racial connotations as Sri Lankan society is impregnated with different cultures, traditions and languages which are peculiar to Sinhalaese, Tamil, Muslim and the Burghers alike. Viewing in such a perspective one could expect Lihiniya to incorporate a major part of its menu to Southern Sinhala dishes. In a business sense too one needs to fight for survival and in a climate when there are quite a variety of other restaurants with the same kind of food it will only be suicidal to join the same band wagon.

The main advantage for Lihiniya Restaurant is the location where it is situated. Being at the centre of Cricklewood Broadway, along Edgware Road, one of the oldest Roman roads from London to Ireland via Holyhead the venue will attract not only Sri Lankans but also many others who eat out regularly. All successful businesses in the world today have commenced from humble beginnings. Lihiniya is no exception. Their helpful approach to customers and incomparable hospitality, especially with cups of teas to visitor/customers, have helped them build up their customer base along with newspaper distribution.

Today the average Sri Lankan in London is a wage earner and business prowess is not what Sri Lankans (especially the Sinhalese) have born with compared with many other Asians from the sub-continent. Lihiniya in one respect conveys a message to the young Sri Lankans in London, whose minds are not diverted towards business, that enthusiasm and determinations are two key factors to be successful in life.

Sri Lankans are a small community in London and Lihiniya is already serving this community to a greater extent. Their diversification programme into restaurant business can be seen as their willingness and commitment to serve their community further. Recipe for success is a two-way exercise. As much as their attempts to serve the community, the community in return needs to be mutual in their patronage by extending them a helping hand and being proud of it. In this regard our Sri Lankan Government Institutions have a moral obligation particularly to patronise Sri Lankan restaurants during their official entertainment as part of their tour of duty.