Gulshan Alibhai was ready to sell Lahore Tikka House, her beloved family restaurant. Then her son persuaded her to carry on
A tragedy, a life-changing discovery inside the pocket of a denim jacket and a heartfelt plea — how the extraordinary family behind the liveliest landmark in Little India found their happy ending.
The offer came in shortly after the first lockdown. Big money. A developer wanted dibs on the space encompassing Lahore Tikka House. A sprawling, masala-coloured restaurant that seats 450, it has long been a bastion of biryani, spicy kebabs and crispy naan bread — one of the fixtures of Gerrard Street.
“I came so close to selling,” admits Gulshan Alibhai, the woman behind the landmark. Like many restaurateurs, she was facing intense COVID-related challenges, as 95 per cent of her business used to come from dine-in customers with her tent-style patio often drawing family groups of up to 30 and flocks of friends during the summer.
At the eleventh hour, something stopped her. Her oldest son, Adam, asked her not to sell. Actually, he implored her not to sell. A student at the Ivey Business School, he even floated the idea of franchising down the line.
For Adam, however, it was emotion as much as finance that guided his request. His dad, Alnoor Sayani, a Ugandan immigrant of Pakistani descent, had arrived on Gerrard Street at 15. After years of sleeping in his car and selling roasted corn on the street, he started the restaurant in 1996.
When Alnoor died suddenly in 2013, Lahore Tikka House became a legacy project of sorts for Gulshan. She left her job as a social worker and took over the restaurant. It was a tough run, trading in her identity and past life while becoming a single mother to teenagers. Still, when Adam made his pitch, she looked tenderly at her first-born and agreed.
A suitable joy
The first time Gulshan ate at Lahore Tikka House — in the ’90s, at the restaurant’s original, humbler iteration — she had the channa, an Indian stew. “You could taste the ginger, you could taste the garlic,” she says now, marvelling at how the dishes smacked of homemade authenticity. That was also the night she met Alnoor. He hand-delivered freshly barbecued chiles on sticks to her table. Gulshan was smitten.
She and Alnoor had a lot in common. Gulshan’s family of Asian Ugandans became refugees in the ’70s after being driven out by Idi Amin. They immigrated to Vancouver, then settled in Texas — where Gulshan spent her formative years — before moving to Toronto. “Gerrard Street felt like coming home,” she says. Once she and Alnoor became a couple, Gulshan started moonlighting at Lahore Tikka House on weekends. Then her parents — who had previously worked at Kohinoor, the neighbourhood’s grocer — moved over to the restaurant too. The marriage proposal, when it came, also happened there. “Alnoor proposed to me on the patio. He came in a rickshaw down Gerrard. It was like a Bollywood moment.”
Two sons and a major restaurant expansion later, tragedy struck when Alnoor died of a heart attack. He was 58. Gulshan’s own life was altered in innumerable ways. The decision to leave her own career was reinforced when she discovered a handwritten note in the pocket of Alnoor’s jean jacket shortly after his death. It was a 30-point plan for his Lahore Tikka House vision. “He was telling me what to do,” she says.
Asked if she ever came close to walking away entirely, she is frank: “So many times. It was very male-dominated, the old boys’ club of Gerrard Street. I am still trying to crack that.” She also faced backlash from the neighbourhood when the restaurant, which used to stay open until 2 a.m. (creating a positive spillover effect for other businesses nearby), started closing around 10:30 p.m. because Gulshan was mindful of keeping some semblance of work/life balance for her kids.
“As much as it was painful, it was liberating,” Gulshan says of that time. She hired more women and more newcomers to Canada, something that connects her to her social-worker days. “I had to roll up my sleeves and say ‘Listen, no one is going to take this away.’”
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Like any neighbourhood, Little India is constantly changing. Gulshan says that 25 years ago, the live/work percentage was roughly 80 per cent — essentially, South Asians living “above the shop.” Today, she puts it somewhere around the 40 per cent range. A strong advocate for sustaining these niche neighbourhoods — which only make Toronto more interesting — she laments that there are often too many splits even within Gerrard. “There is the Pakistani enclave, the Sri Lankan enclave, the Bangladeshi enclave. We need to work together to bridge our differences.”
As for changes at the restaurant itself, the menu (halal, with nods to Pakistan and North India) remains true to its original vision, save for some minor tinkering. “My boys put Nutella naan on the menu,” Gulshan says with a laugh. “That was their invention.” She cites the bhartha, a whole eggplant roasted over a traditional clay oven, as one of her own favourites. Since that conversation with Adam a few months ago, the restaurant has been doing 80 to 85 takeout orders per day on the weekends.
“You can only lead with gratitude in life, not sit and cry and ask ‘Why is this happening to me?’” says Gulshan. Seven years after Alnoor’s death, she is still grieving. “Grief is so bittersweet because part of it is knowing that you will see joy again. I know that.”
Until then, Gulshan, Adam and Ayaan keep working, paying tribute to the man they loved so deeply with every order of lamb curry, aloo ghobi or channa, the soul-lifting dish that started it all.