The Das family is part of Sheffield’s Indian restaurant heritage, ever since Nishit Das ran the Curry Inn, his first venture near the traffic lights on Eccleshall Road, before taking on the Taj Mahal in the 1970s.
From Sheffield, the family moved to Atlanta in the early 80s and returned to Sheffield just before Nilendu Das married Aparna in 1992. Aparna is an arts graduate and comes from Varanassi in Uttar Pradesh, which inspired the name and outlook of their restaurant. Aparna and Nilendu run Varanassi as a partnership.
The family vision has always been for Varanassi to be an ‘Indian restaurant like no other’ and the eclectic and tasty menu is a far cry from the standard, including dishes such as Maharaja Mutton, Naaga Delight King Prawns and Machli Kalimirchi Curry. Their famous ‘green sauce’ is supervised by Aparna and is a family secret!
But this vision has been applied to business and not just dishes. Above the restaurant, the previously neglected bar space has been re-imagined with the restart grant payment that Varanassi received from Sheffield Council. The team created a new bar in 2021, with screens showing news and sport throughout the day, and live music and dancing in the evening.
When Nilendu and Aparna bought the building, the first floor was completely empty. Turning it into their comfortable, welcoming and visually unique bar space has taken a creative vision for what will work, as well as lots of hard graft. They thought about hiring someone to fit out the space, but eventually decided that Nilendu and Eric could do it themselves.
They bought their impressive bar second-hand for £600, driving to Nottingham to pick it up and putting it together themselves. The curved upholstered benches around their tables were salvaged from a closed down shop. The large, wooden-framed lamps that stand around the space also came as a job lot; when customers ask about them, as they often do, Nilendu has been known to offer them a spare one.
Since its opening, the bar has proved a success. Nilendu remembers customers who have come up to the bar after dropping in to collect a takeaway; and two older ladies who had dinner in the restaurant and, when Nilendu encouraged them to try the bar after their meal, ended up staying and dancing until midnight. “At the end of the night I’m tired and keen to get home, but no one else wants to go!” jokes Nilendu, “But I like to see everyone happy and enjoying themselves.”
Throughout the pandemic and the fit-out of the bar space, Nilendu has been working with Esther Morrison, expert place maker and food consultant and one of Business Sheffield’s Business Information Officers. Nilendu first got in touch with Esther about applying for grants, and she visited the bar when it was just a shell.
“When she told me what she does,” says Nilendu, “I said, ‘I might need your help!’ It was Esther who gave me the idea to apply for a grant from Business Sheffield to help us through COVID-19, and she helped me identify that a bar upstairs would be good for the Crosspool area.” Esther advised Nilendu on the set-up and running of the bar space, as well as nominating him for the Star’s Small Business Awards.
“What we’ve achieved through Esther’s support,” says Nilendu, “is that the Varanassi Bar is doing really well, with live music on weekends, which no other pubs in the area have, and gives a lovely vibrant atmosphere. Everyone loves it.” As well as practical assistance, Esther’s enthusiasm for the bar project has given Nilendu valuable confidence. “This is your kingdom,” he recalls her saying; “You have the potential to make this place work.”