Meera and Ramesh Thakur will retire from their business, Surtaj Indian Restaurant, on July 2 after 27 years of hard work and good food in Newcastle's CBD.
Originally from Delhi, the Thakurs moved from India straight to Newcastle in 1987, shortly after they were married. Ramesh came first on a chef sponsorship and Meera joined him a few months later, bringing their 11-month-old-daughter. In 1995 they decided to lease the unforgettable pink and mirrored restaurant on the second level of Hunter Street. Now, 35 years later, with three adult children and two grandchildren, the Thakurs are looking forward to a bit of a holiday.
Prior to moving to Australia, Ramesh worked as a chef in a five-star hotel in Deli called The Oberoi.
"I worked a few places, some workers clubs, got a bit more knowledge, before I put my feet in the restaurant," he says.
They considered moving to Sydney at one stage but it was too busy for them and they'd already opted to leave the busy lifestyle of Delhi. They found everyone in Newcastle to be welcoming and thought it was a good place to raise a family.
At the time, bar a few Chinese restaurants, Newcastle didn't have a great deal of unique cultural dining of options.
"I came as an Indian. I had a bit of knowledge of every cuisine, but I came as an Indian chef," Ramesh says.
"We thought 'We'll sign the lease, if anything happens we'll walk out easily'. Then, things started getting better."
They started on a two-year lease and then increased it to five years. They left the décor as is, so if things went poorly they wouldn't have to renew. But, much to their delight, Surtaj continued to bring in business, even during the light rail construction and the pandemic.
"One of the customers told me 15 years ago 'Hunter Street isn't as good, it was better but slowly it went down' because of Beaumont street and other popular places," Ramesh says.
"People say 'You are on the worst street and on top of that you're upstairs, you must be doing something good'."
Despite the odds, the good food and the hospitality kept people coming in again and again over the years. The Thakurs tried to keep their food as authentic as possible, sticking to their roots. The most popular dish is the vindaloo or the butter chicken. Everyone loves their fluffy naan; it's less chewy than the naan you get at other places.
Meera has watched customers' children grow up and return to the restaurant with their own families. She remembers the customers' takeaway orders. Sometimes the customers don't know the name of what they want, but they know she knows what they want.
"We know our customers by the curry name. They order the same thing; we remember their order," she says. "They say 'can we check with your mum what we eat?'."
All of their children have worked at Surtaj at different stages of their lives, and their son Arjun is working for them until they retire while also working during the day as an accountant.
They were happy to pass the business along to their children if they wanted, but they've all chosen other career paths.
While the Thakurs are moving on, it is not be the end for Surtaj as a local restaurant and institution. A young Indian family will be taking on the business from July, with expectations of a smooth transition. There's a good possibility the venue and cuisine can continue to defy the odds, and remain a popular restaurant on Hunter Street.
The Thakurs encourage everyone to have a meal with them before they retire.
"Our family will definitely miss the customers and remember them all our life," Meera says.
Adds Arjun: "We're a family business and the customers are family too."
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