During last year's restrictions, Little Lagos followed the modus operandi of many restaurants – it survived on takeaway orders.
But this time things are different. The uncertainty of Sydney's current outbreak has taken its toll, with lockdown extensions, low vaccination rates and ever-climbing infection numbers whittling away what remained of Ade Adeniyi's confidence. The owner of Sydney's only Nigerian restaurant has decided to close his business for now.
"In the first lockdown people generally thought: 'We're still going to get our food, it's not going to last too long. Let's do this!' This time around, people are feeling very hopeless," says Adeniyi.
You sense it in the number of closed shopfronts in Enmore in Sydney's inner-west, where Little Lagos sits on the usually bustling main road. You sense it too, in Adeniyi's weary voice.
"We just don't have that mental capacity to go through it again. We're working twice as hard for less results," he says.
Little Lagos opened in the middle of the 2020 lockdown, and buoyed with the enthusiasm, energy and determination of a new restaurateur, Adeniyi raced around the city buying up a specific variety of long-grain basmati rice from secret suppliers – he needed to stockpile a couple months' worth of the grain to make the restaurant's signature jollof rice for takeaway orders.
But 15 months on, and the novelty – to put it crudely – of lockdown has waned, and the health implications of a far more infectious COVID variant plays on his mind. As daily case numbers pass by in the triple digits, Adeniyi fears he or his staff may contract the disease. "Is it really worth it? This time around, we don't have that courage to keep going anymore. We've sadly had to accept defeat."
There are very few West African restaurants in Sydney (see: El-Shaddai in Guildford, operated by a Sierra Leonean-Australian owner), and Little Lagos was unique. It branded itself as specifically Nigerian, with the name of the nation's capital city up in the lights, and the country's green-and-white flag displayed out the front.
What started as a pop-up project at bar Earls Juke Joint has since morphed into a permanent restaurant, with a menu of fufu, jollof rice and a great many Nigerian stews, and an all-woman kitchen team led by head chef Kemi Fajemisin. Throw in a festive atmosphere, live music and imported beers, and Little Lagos was a place for the Nigerian and broader West African community – a diverse collective of ethnic tribes and groups – to eat, drink and feel at home.
Jollof rice, the spiced tomato rice that is Nigeria's national dish.
The closure of this rare, public and community-minded space drives home what the city has lost. When the news went public on social media earlier this month, Adeniyi spent some three days replying to messages of support and devastation from customers. "We're one of only [a handful of] black-owned hospitality venues in the whole of Sydney. Having that being taken away from us is very hard," says Adeniyi.
But he says Little Lagos will live on, in some shape or form. He's planning the Èkó Festival (Èkó being the pre-colonial name for Nigeria's capital), a celebration of Nigerian food, arts, music and culture, for October. And customers can still order jollof rice and ewa agonyi (fried black-eyed beans with chilli sauce) from home delivery service Chef Prep. In the meantime Adeniyi is keeping an ever-watchful eye on the current lockdown. If the situation improves in the coming weeks, Little Lagos may return. The alternative, however, is bleak. "God forbid if this drives for another two or three months. There's no coming back from that."