May 25, 2020
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What’s Your Poison?

What makes a great bar? Outlook’s pocket history of our date with drink.

What’s Your Poison?
Apoorva Salkade
What’s Your Poison?
outlookindia.com
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Which are India’s best bars? Any list will probably include Mumbai’s Blue Frog, the sprawling, uber cool complex of lounge, club, recording studio and restaurant, which has been listed by The Coolhunter—that arbiter of contemporary global chic—alongside bars like London’s Coquine’s Bar, New York’s Juliet Supperclub, Paris’s L’Arc and Phuket’s Sound. “The Frog”, as it’s affectionately called by regulars, is the kind of place where you’d sip wasabi Bloody Marys, listen to a live Anoushka Shankar or Mike Stern performance, nibble on Lebanese kababs with tzatziki sauce, and then charge the evening on your Gold card.

At the absolute other end of the snobbery spectrum would perhaps be that well-loved, grungy landmark of Calcutta, Olympia Bar (now “Olypub”). Here the ancient coir floor-matting is tattered, the decor consists mainly of old McDowell’s posters, the air-conditioners rattle and groan, and Paul Theroux, immortalising the joint in his novel A Dead Hand, describes a large, well-fed rat waddling superciliously across its floor. But the booze flows cheap, the company is convivial and the conversation is stimulating and animated—arguably even more than at Calcutta’s famous Coffee House, since it’s fuelled by Old Monk, not just caffeine. Nothing’s changed since the days when the Satyajit Ray tippled here as a young art director, except the place has grown shabbier, acquired greater eccentricity, become somehow more endearing.

In between these two extremes, the list would include bars like Delhi’s Olive Bar, Mumbai’s Leopold, Calcutta’s CC & FC, Bangalore’s Pub World, Chennai’s Distil, Goa’s Joets and others, as nominated here by a group of well-known bon vivants. Between them, these bars span a variety of profiles, price levels and degrees of “see-and-be-seen-ness”.

even in a city like Mumbai, having a drink required a doctor’s certificate stating that you were an alcoholic.

Industry insiders divide “bars” into at least five distinct sub-categories: first the pubs, whose clientele largely comprises of males aged 22-27, and which serve mainly beer. Moving up the evolutionary scale, you get the “clubs” which cater to mixed groups of guys and girls, slightly older, who’ve usually graduated to white spirits like vodka and white rum; these places also offer music, DJs, dancing and events. Further up the scale are the lounges, which cater to the more sophisticated, affluent 35+ age-group, and serve a more premium range of drinks: Scotches, cocktails and wines. There are also the resto-bars—fine-dining restaurants with their own bars or vice versa—with a customer profile similar to the lounges. And finally, you have the bars of the old British Raj-style clubs (referred to as “gentleman’s clubs” to differentiate them from the other type of trendy club).

Today’s average bar-goer, in his/her 30s, takes this array of choices pretty much for granted. For this generation came of age only after the early ’90s, when liberalisation and globalisation had created an array of smart, friendly new pubs and bars for them. They know nothing about what it was like in the ’50s and ’60s, when bars were those few seedy joints, with names like Saqi and 3 Aces, reeking of stale beer and dissolute habits. (Think of the smoke-filled dive in Aar Paar, where a naive Guru Dutt sits munching peanuts while a vampish Shakila sings “Babuji dheere chalna” and various lecherous characters leer from the sidelines.)


No Dead Hands Regulars take their seats at the Oly Pub in Calcutta. (Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee)

While India obviously had its madhushalas from ancient times, the first modern bars were set up by the Brits in the 19th century. (Interesting trivia byte: the modern bar counter was invented in 1854 by Isambard Brunel, the great Victorian engineer, better known for his revolutionary railways, steam-ships and bridges.) After Independence, the bars the Brits had set up became the preserve of the Indian elites that succeeded them, places like Mumbai’s legendary Gulmohur, which boasted one of the world’s longest bars, and Calcutta’s Firpo’s, where a boxwallah’s weekend often began on Friday at lunch-time.

the most important factor is the crowd should belong to your ‘tribe’...the kind of people you’d like to know.

These establishments then went into general decline, victims to the nation’s new socialistic moralism. Some states went on to enforce prohibition, and even in a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai the simple act of having a drink required a doctor’s certificate stating that you were an alcoholic and your system would collapse if you didn’t get your prescribed tot. (Let it be said, however, that through all of this the country’s military messes continued to flourish, and it was a rare treat to be invited to a naval mess, for example, and offered a chilled Dutch beer.)

The first signs of loosening up appeared perhaps in the ’70s, and one important, early milestone was when the Maharashtra government allowed “Grade I and II eating houses” to serve beer. This was a godsend for Mumbai’s Irani restaurants, some of which, like Leopold and Mondegar, soon morphed into thriving beer bars.

The real inflection point, however, came in the early ’90s, when the Karnataka government (gently persuaded by a certain Bangalore-based brewery group, it was said) allowed the setting up of pubs in Bangalore. It’s hard to imagine today the frisson this sent through the emerging Indian middle class, and I remember people from Mumbai, for example, finding excuses to visit Bangalore so they could check out these sleek new lifestyle pubs, with their snappy names, like Black Cadillac and Downtown. Almost simultaneously, however, there came a serious, emotion-charged argument about how this insidious western pub culture—supported, allegedly, by the newly globalised liquor industry—would subvert our traditional Indian values (no, today’s debate on the subject is nothing new). But then, as the old joke goes, five minutes after the world’s first bar opened, the world’s first prohibitionist launched a protest outside it.

If one is to talk about India’s best bars, then one obviously needs to ask: what exactly makes a good bar? It’s a complex, personal issue: what a 22-year-old girl would look for would naturally be different from what a 44-year-old male would want. Further, the latter would himself look for different things at different times, depending on whether he was going out with his clients, his college buddies, his wife, his girlfriend or just by himself. However, certain basic, universal requirements generally apply, such as:

  • First, a good drinks menu, with a sufficiently wide selection of good drinks, poured generously.
  • There should be a great bartender. He doesn’t have to be a circus juggler, but he must be good at his job, able to mix interesting, innovative cocktails.
  • Probably the single most important factor is that the crowd should belong to your “tribe”. Not necessarily people you know, but the kind of people you’d like to know. That’s what gives you a sense of belonging, and makes you want to come back here next time.
  • The place must be 60 per cent full. Less than that and it’s uninvitingly empty; more than that and it’s too crowded.
  • The service must be efficient, anticipative and unobtrusive. You shouldn’t have to keep waving out for a waiter.
  • The music must be interesting, with a mix of familiarity and slight surprise. And the volume must be just right: not so loud that you can’t figure out what your companions are trying to say.
  • Great lighting can make a huge difference to any bar.
  • Comfortable chairs. Un-ergonomic furniture soon becomes a pain.
  • The prices can be premium, but they should never leave you with a feeling of being ripped off.
  • A distinctive character, a sense of history, or even a slight eccentricity always adds something special to a bar.
  • Ultimately, no bar ever attains perfection. And if it did, it probably wouldn’t be any good anymore. Some small imperfection is always interesting.

So a great bar is not just about cutting-edge design, celebrity guests and the trendiness quotient; it’s ultimately about doing the basic things exceedingly well. Sometimes, though, a bar might strike some inexplicable emotional chord, making it special for you regardless of all else: if you talk to Mumbai old-timers about their favourite bar, for example, some of them will still speak fondly of places like “Kerala John’s” illegal bar in the bad old prohibition days, where they sat drinking inferior alcohol on the roof of a seedy Colaba building, with a managing director on one side and a taxi-driver, perhaps, on the other. To those who’ve done that, no swanky bar today can quite capture that old sense of convivial drinking and fellowship.

Today, the Indian at the bar is evolving and trends are changing. While a few years ago the objective of going to a bar was to have a drink, today the point is to hang out with friends, socialise and “chill”, and the drink itself is merely a part of that experience. Meanwhile, women, from the twentysomethings to the new fifty-somethings, are increasingly finding bars an attractive place to relax in...the Rama Sene notwithstanding. In the staid British Raj-type clubs too, where bars used to be all-male preserves, women members have rallied indignantly to get the rules overturned.

Double Or Nothing: A patron finishes up at Pub World, Bangalore. (Photograph by Jagadeesh N.V.)

The bar business is a really, really tough business to be in: competition is more fierce than most people realise. The clientele is fickle, and constantly looking out for the Next New Thing. And every time a new bar opens, an old bar somewhere begins to slowly close. Hence bars have to keep reinventing themselves, to keep one step ahead of not just their competition, but ahead of their clientele itself. The option is either that, or to shut down every 2-3 years, and then reopen in a new, completely updated avatar.

The clientele is fickle...and every time a new bar opens, an old bar somewhere begins to slowly close.

So where do we go from here? Good question. One trend we can perhaps expect is the emergence of specialist niche bars. In cities with well-developed bar cultures, whether New York or Hong Kong, you’ll find things like, for example, single-liquor bars (specialising in, say, only tequilas, only rums, only whiskies, or even only bourbon whiskies). Or you can find other kinds of specialist niches: New Yorker magazine recently ran a piece on ‘A Bar for Every Stage of Your Mating Life’, covering bars for seven different life stages, from ‘Impressing a First Date’ to ‘Post-divorce Rebound Party’ (with, tellingly, ‘Extra-marital Tryst’ somewhere along the way).

And then, of course, there are the theme bars, the most extreme being, predictably, in Tokyo, where you can choose from an array of weird options—like “Vows” bars, where you’re served by monks dressed in robes to the sounds of solemn chanting. Or, even more bizarrely, Goth Rori (Japanese for “Gothic Lolita”!) bars: ornately macabre joints where campily dressed Lolitas serve cocktails with names like ‘Gretel’s Suffering’, whose slightly bitter flavour is attributed to the addition of real tears. But something tells me India is not quite ready for that, yet.

One final thought. While this list of India’s best bars may hold good today, you can be sure of one thing: in the next three years perhaps two-thirds of the bars in this list will drop off, and be replaced by new-kids-on-the-block, better tuned in to the bar-goers of the time. As the saying goes, those who live by the trend, die by the trend.

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