Two weeks ago, Tulsi Bhandari, owner of Situl Indian Restaurant, received a phone call he never expected.
“They said, ‘We don’t want you, you need to move out,'” Bhandari said his property manager at Park Road Shopping Center told him. “They don’t know what they’re going to do yet, but they want to put some kind of pub or bar or something like that. But they want us out.”
Situl has until the end of the month. Their departure is the latest example in the evolution of the shopping center, which has seen an exodus of small and family owned businesses as national retailers move in. And Situl — with its large and passionate following — becomes another prime example.
The story of how Situl came to be starts long before its opening behind Park Road Shopping Center in 2002. In 1990, Tulsi Bhandari moved from Boston to Chapel Hill with a dream: to open an Indian restaurant with his friend.
The business took off. Rightly so, as Bhandari hails from the Punjab region of India, a region that flies under the radar but whose culinary feats know no bounds. Chicken tikka, daal makhani, and singhara fillets there are not to be missed.
A few years later and with a handful of recipes up his sleeve, he decided to close the Chapel Hill restaurant and open Diamond India in Monroe in 1995. It flourished for years until he decided to take a break that was short lived. His brother came to the United States, and in the blink of an eye, they opened Situl behind Park Road Shopping Center.
Situl was different, not only from Diamond, but from every Indian restaurant in Charlotte because this time, Bhandari had his wife Mutki by his side. Mutki, who was born in Nepal, also had a lifetime of culinary experience. Together, they created a menu that offered both Indian and Tibet Nepali dishes.
“The Tibet Nepali dishes are like Chinese and Thai food mixed with Indian,” Bhandari told Creative Loafing in 2010. Think things like dhal bhat, Nepalese pot stickers, and lentils with long grain rice.
But what makes Situl special (and there is a difference between being different and being special) is that, at its core, it’s 100 percent family driven and family focused.
The Bhandaris have three daughters: Situl, Sukti, and Priti. Situl, the oldest, is who the restaurant is named after. Each daughter has a menu namesake and spent most of their childhoods behind the scenes.
“My daughters always say to me, ‘We grew up here,'” Bhandari told me. “They did. I love my neighborhood, I love my customers.”
He’s loved his neighborhood and his customers for the last 13 years. Both have been good and faithful to his family and his business — there’s practically a cult following — but Situl is leaving.
And not by choice.
Why is this a theme in Charlotte? It follows closely on the heels of South End, which began its own transformation earlier this year after announcing the sale of the triangular block that houses Common Market and the Food Truck Friday lot to create an office complex.
Does this mean that before long, Park Road will look the same as everywhere else? All signs point to yes — in an effort to give the area a face lift, property manager Edens has pushed out small businesses such as Toys & Co, A Time and Place, and Roland’s Salon (the last original tenant) to open spots for businesses like Chopt and J.Crew Mercantile.
Edens did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Like many of the small businesses in South End that have been made to leave, Bhandari isn’t sure where he’s headed.
“My daughters keep saying to me, ‘Well daddy, this is our space, we grew up here. We love this place, we don’t want to move out,'” he said. “I want to stay here too, but we don’t have a choice.”
For now, it’s about finding a balance and enjoying the last days in the place that Situl has made home. But there’s also a sense of helplessness.
While Bhandari doesn’t know what his next move is, he does hope to re-open.
“I am looking around,” he told me. “I’ve been looking at a couple of spaces in Matthews, Dilworth and Elizabeth. But I don’t know.”
While the general direction in which Charlotte is headed (presumably for bigger and better things), when does too much of a good thing become a bad thing? Just how much of its skin is Charlotte going to have to shed before it finds who it wants be — and what will be left?