Delhi nightlife has finally come of age. The city has always been home to countless hotel-bars and clubs whose names and ambience seemed to change by the season, for the Delhi crowd is as fickle as it is diverse and opening a new spot remains a risky venture. Then there’s the seemingly unending issue of licensing: how can a city’s nightlife truly take off when bars are forced to shut by 11pm? But while our laws and short-shelf-life remain unanswered questions, a crop of restaurant/bars with innovative approaches to music and food are ensuring Delhi stays at the top of the game. Last year there was Thai Wok and Calypso, flea nights and brunches at Olive; this year they’ve all been replaced by a sweep of fresh destinations. We take a 12-hour cruise through some of Delhi’s trendiest spots—including some old favourites and the newly happening—to find out why the capital’s nightlife is more thriving than ever.
5pm Back in the day, before 10-page-long wine lists became endemic, before restaurants even thought about smoking their halibut, before saketinis were a vague rumour—there was TGIF. You have to give this spot its due. In a city where it’s dicey to even provide numbers of restaurants because they might shut down before you get there, TIGF has not only stayed alive but remained ridiculously popular. The lunchtime crowd has faded out by the time we arrive, but I know that it will pick up in a matter of minutes. We head for my favourite tables at the back, near the windows that overlook a park, because you need to claim your place and TGIF does not take reservations.
The menu matches the décor: kitschy, busy and slightly overwhelming. We’re feeling adventurous, so we order an ultimate lemon margarita and a Long Island Iced Tea instead of the usual beer. They arrive in goblets big enough to bathe in—and then double, since it’s one-plus-one on all domestic alcohol till 7.45pm. The food is American-serving-sized and reliable; you can’t go wrong with a burger or a chicken Chimichanga. But we’re not here to eat—we’ll leave that to the families that’ll start filtering in by 7pm. This is dedicated drinking time, when the air is filled with smoke, drunken conversations and the same alternative rock CD in happy rotation. Predictably, we’ll be swaying slightly when we totter out of here.
62 Basant Lok, Vasant Vihar, 26140964. Two (plus two) happy hour drinks: Rs 1,200
6.30pm After the rowdiness that happy hour necessitates and a view to the long night ahead, my senses need quietening and some fresh air. No restaurant combines these ingredients better than the Lodi Garden Restaurant, superbly located in Lodi Gardens. Lodi’s been around a while, but recently come into the spotlight due to the clever decision to utilise its large gardens for music events. It was suddenly the place to head on Thursday nights—cars parked bumper to bumper down stately Lodi Road, music saturating the pure night air. From rock to electronic, different live acts are still often held here, and you can’t find a prettier setting. The restaurant—which serves temperamental Lebanese—is empty when we arrive, but people are scattered through the garden, lazing on the lounge beds and by the attractive bar made of polished bamboo. Excellent Bloody Marys are the perfect sundowners, and we soak in the oxygen in readiment for the next stop.
Near Gate 1, Lodi Gardens, 24655054. Drinks for two: Rs 1,000
7.30pm Tabula Rasa has been much talked-about since its recent opening, and as we enter I understand just why. The ambience is quite an outstanding blend of lounge and fine dining, mood lighting inside and natural light on the terrace. A fish-filled waterbody in the centre of a tall raw-food counter, bamboo, the DJ playing progressive house: every detail is successful and harmonious. Since it’s still light outside, we take a terrace-table and savour the long, tempting menu. Part of a new wave of restaurants that aim to break gastronomical ground, the ‘small plates’ concept of Tabula Rasa is unique in Delhi—and what’s even more unique is that they carry it off. From ebi-shitake yakitori to clams and chorizo in sticky rice, hand-rolled sushi to delectable prawns open-faced in their shells, the immaculate bite-sized portions make ideal pre-dinner starters. With its massive ground space, open-air option, Sunday jazz brunches and visiting DJs on special nights, the restaurant has quickly become a party favourite with Delhi’s social set.
Square One Mall, Saket District Centre, 29562666. Six small plates with two drinks: Rs 2,200
8.30pm Given Delhi’s embryonic gourmet scene, it’s actually possible to go from trendy to trendier without slipping. Smoke House Grill, our next stop, is also a concept restaurant, and it’s possibly even more pleasing than Tabula Rasa. The emphasis here is on the food, with a large fine-dining section upstairs and a smaller bar and lounge downstairs. Neither section suffers from the success of the other, mainly because the cocktails at Smoke House are terrific. From cinnamon mojitos to smoked apple, each drink is a pure work of art, and the wine list no less impressive.
But looking through the menu that highlights its smoked ingredients, you see why eating here is equally essential. We start with a cheese tart and move on to smoked sole and a steak. Although not every item is impeccable, it’s the combined effect of all its separate elements that makes Smoke House stand out. From the attentive service to the fabulous vector art patterning the walls in subtle shades of grey, this exceptional place reminds me that the ‘restaurant-bar’ combination really can work.
North Wing, VIPPS Centre, Plot No. 2, L.S.C. Masjid Moth, GK-II, 41435530. Meal for two with drinks: Rs 4,000
9.30pm From GK-II it’s a short drive to New Friend’s Colony, the location of yet another new bar/restaurant, Ivy. We’re curious to see it: I’ve heard it has the longest bar in town, and it’s been the subject of much recent hype. It’s too soon to eat again, so the idea is to just have a drink—a good decision, as it turns out. Although there’s a kitty party in full incongruous swing, I can’t imagine eating here. Ivy is a bar first and foremost, from the shiny plastic-white panelling to the super-loud electronic music to, of course, the luminous orange bar. Not to mention the kitschy red chandeliers, which strike an interesting balance between funky and gaudy. I can’t say whether its bar is Delhi’s longest or if its popularity will sustain, for who knows how the Delhi crowd swings? But my guess is that Ivy will need to find a niche—being pretty just isn’t enough anymore.
Lotus Towers, New Friends Colony, 41627744. Two drinks: Rs 1,200
10.30pm How can I legitimately place a three-year old spot in the same list as Delhi’s newest offerings? The answer to that lies in another question: why do I not find myself alone in constantly returning to Shalom? Let me count the reasons. To begin with, the chill electronic played here is always among the best in town. Also essential, the drinks are good—expensive, but good. (The mojitos and margaritas are particularly tasty.) And the crowd is equally reliable: Shalom follows a very strict entry-by-approval-only policy, so you won’t see any rowdy fights happening here. More likely, you’ll bump into someone you know—this place has a way of drawing ’em back. We also come for the atmosphere: low lighting, simple wooden seating, rough, earthy white walls, candles flickering. It’s all per the ‘med-lounge’ name, and it never goes wrong.
If these aren’t reasons enough, just eat, as I generally do. This time I stick to smaller picks off the tapas menu—fish skewers, crumb-fried prawns and succulent ham-and-cheese filo wraps—the night holds more ahead.
18 N-block Market, GK-I, 41632280. Two drinks, three tapas: Rs 2,500
11.45pm I’d like to go elsewhere in between Shalom and Laidbackwaters, since they’re of the same parent company, but with our tight schedule there’s no point running back and forth across town. Although the two share some of the same crowd and vibes—lounge atmosphere, low seating—they also differ significantly. The space here is probably four times the size of cosy Shalom. The bar is also larger, backed with a hypnotic LCD marine underworld, and as we experience, tough to reach on a Friday night. Most importantly, Laidback is a venue for live electronic acts. Popular bands from India like the Midival Punditz and Jalebee Cartel perform here regularly, but they also bring in international artists. One of the most interesting I’ve seen was a breakbeat guy from England; the Israeli group J.Viewz ran a close second.
Like today, most Fridays feature a live act, and by 12am Laidback is super packed. It takes 10 minutes to even walk across the room; getting a drink is near-impossible, and I’ll be happy just for a beer. This extreme social atmosphere is the opposite of Laidback’s usual insouciant feel, when you can get a bar stool, order a lychee martini and have a quiet conversation. Or pick a crustacean from the seafood-heavy menu over dinner. But hey, I’m not complaining.
The Qutab, Shaheed Jeet Singh Marg, 41688962. Two drinks: Rs 1,200; with food: Rs 3,000
1am It’s a standard joke that no one leaves Laidback without getting drunk. So, clearing our heads with some fresh air sounds good. And visiting Aqua, once known for its Sunday daytime parties, is still like going to a farm party in Chhattarpur, albeit without the free alcohol. It’s polished to the extreme—deckchairs running alongside a gleaming pool, lounge beds, expensive drinks and, of course, Delhi’s beautiful people. An ad for this place would feature shiny hair, glossy lips, shimmering short skirts, towering heels, air-kisses and polite conversation. It’s upscale and you can’t get in without an entry charge, which is rare for a non-club. But lovely Aqua is one of the only poolside bars in town, and you have to pay (and prove you can) for this privilege.
The Park, 15 Parliament St, Connaught Place, 23743000. Redeemable cover charge: Rs 1,000 per couple
2am First Capitol, then Orange Room, and then Capitol again—don’t let the vacillating name confuse you, it’s the same place. It’s open till late, but that’s not the only reason why Capitol is still thriving when we arrive at 2am. The entire entryway is littered with young party people, but even this won’t prepare you for the masses gyrating to the latest Bollywood tracks inside. Capitol is essentially one huge dance floor and it’s a rare weekend night that doesn’t see it straining at the seams. Don’t even think of attempting a conversation or finding the ‘orange’ bar: this is when you understand why a guest-list-only VIP section exists. Luckily we know some people who know some people and our hands get the special stamps that allow us into the hallowed zone. From here, we finally manage to get drinks and an elevated vantage point of the less fortunate herd below (are they really, though? They seem to be having the best time).
The Ashok, Chanakyapuri, 26879802. Redeemable cover charge: Rs 1,000 per couple
3.30am Elevate is the only club that stays open till daybreak. It’s also the only Indian club to have featured in a list of the world’s best clubs, and no expense was spared with its décor, lights and psychedelic visuals. Elevate’s been around for a few years now, but loyalists to its music policy ensure there’s been no break in its popularity. The concept, the basic reason for which people continue to travel across state lines to get here, is the electronic Friday nights—international heavyweights like Sasha, John Digweed, Skazi and Infected Mushroom have all played here. The signature psychedelic trance has given way to progressive house of late, but that’s a trend permeating Delhi at large. When we arrive, the dancefloor is teeming with electro-heads, and we soon leave them behind to head up to the scenic rooftop terrace. The music up here is laid-back; the sun is soon to rise; and we suddenly realise we need to eat again. Because it’s a long way home.
Centrestage Mall, Noida, 9818777803. Cover charge: Rs 1,000 per couple, Rs 500 redeemable; Rs 1,500 on big-name nights
Bohemia (Kasbah Complex, N-block Market, GK-I, 29243328) has a nice view of the park and is sheltered enough to ease your guilt about drinking this early in the day.
Buzz (PVR Complex, Saket, 26533000) is possibly the loudest bar in town. Its youthful dive atmosphere will take you back to your college days.
Geoffrey’s (Ansal Plaza, Khel Gaon Marg, 26259999) has nothing in particular that should make it so popular, but it just is. Perhaps it’s the cheap beer. Or the big screens for broadcasting matches.
H20+ (The Ambassador Hotel, Sujan Singh Park, 24632600) is that rare find—a quiet, elegant place where you can actually have a conversation over your happy hour freebies.
Moet’s (50 Defence Colony Market, 41550571) was once Delhi’s shadiest-fun-bar. It recently cleaned up and matured into the dressier Shack and Stone. Both sections are popular and offer cheap happy hours.
Baci (23 Sunder Nagar Market, 41507445) is great for upmarket Italian food, but also go on a Thursday to catch the popular electronica nights. They usually kick off after 12am.
Café Morrison (E-12 South Extension-II, 26255652) is known for its solid old-school rock every night except Tuesday, when they promote psychedelic. The casual atmosphere is a nice bonus.
Ego Thai Lounge (53 Community Centre, New Friends Colony, 26331181) should be visited for the décor alone—plush sofas, a wall of mirrors, and a suitably loungy mood. Plus, you can get a good meal at Ego Thai right next door.
Hookah (1 Basant Lok, Vasant Vihar, 41663522) does the Mediterranean-lounge thing right: good food, comfy mattresses, belly-dancers and tasty hookahs. Reservations are a must.
Kylin (24 Basant Lok, Vasant Vihar, 41669778) was a pleasant addition to the market with its super ambience, and the highlight is still the outdoor terrace.
Q’ba (E-42/43 Inner Circle, Connaught Place, 41512888) boasts a view of CP you’ve never seen, as well as decent food and jazz on Sunday nights.
Swing (11 Basant Lok, Vasant Vihar, 41516666) is always buzzing with the crowd from Punjabi by Nature below and has a unique draw: golgappa vodka shots. They’re surprisingly good.
Turquoise Cottage (81/3 Adchini, Aurobindo Marg, 26853896) is Delhi’s favourite rock/retro bar. Expect the basement to be filled with smoke, sweat and crowds, and possibly not enough beer. Media members get happy hours on Wednesday nights.
Aura—The Vodka Bar (The Claridges, 12 Aurangzeb Road, 2335080) has passed through its phase of overcrowded overpopularity, but it still has the widest selection of vodkas in town and a fun ambience.
Dublin (Maurya Sheraton, Sardar Patel Marg, 26112233) has a commendable beer and single-malt list, and is massive enough to offer several different ambiences: sporty bar, Bollywood dance floor, diplomat hangout, private party. Its heyday might be over, but Dublin lives on.
Patiala Peg and 1911 (Hotel Imperial, Janpath, 23341234) both appeal to the ex-colonial, expats and lovers of sporting memorabilia alike. Dependably good drinks in a masculine atmosphere.
Polo Lounge (Hyatt Regency, Bhikaji Cama Place, 26791234) is a posh unwind for the diplomat and hotel crowd, ideal for a beer before dinner at TK’s or La Piazza.
Ricks (The Taj Mahal Hotel, Mansingh Road, 23026162). Still going strong, Rick’s is always crowded on Wednesday and Saturday nights. If the commercial/retro music and super-socialite crowd intimidate you, pick a quieter night.
Tapas (Jaypee Vasant Continental, Vasant Vihar, 26148800), usually a sedate lounge, transforms on Saturdays with its popular hip-shaking Salsa Nights. Come to watch, participate, or take part in a workshop.
Azurro (PVR Complex, Saket, 41664274) actually lives up to its claim of good Italian food, unlike some restaurants we could mention. And the wines, desserts and coffee are super.
Eggspectations (Jaypee Vasant Continental, Vasant Vihar, 26148800) is the perfect early-morning stop after a long night, especially for its excellent eggs and pancakes.
Flavours (52-C, Moolchand Flyover Complex, Defence Colony, 24645644) is ever-popular for its reliable Italian food, outdoor seating and affordable alcohol.
Mashrabiya (The Ashok, Chanakyapuri, 26111065) has arguably the best Lebanese food in the city. The belly-dancers might even take your attention away from the gorgeous environs.
Nudeli (40 M-block Market, GK-II, 40537773), another of Delhi’s trendy newbies, boasts French-influenced meals in a plush setting. But the highlight is the deep red lounge-bar, ideal for a glass of wine
Ploof (13 Main Market, Lodi Colony, 24634666) has stuck out a rough patch to emerge as a seafood standout in a fickle city. The lighting is dim, the prawns tasty, the setting right for a few drinks.
Agni (The Park, 15 Parliament St, Connaught Place, 23743000) brings you the best of Bollywood and all the excitement that entails for some. It’s loud and crowded—and you can always escape to Aqua.
Decibel (Hotel Samrat, Chanakyapuri, 26110606) attracts a young, rambunctious lot—only go if you can withstand the sheer volume of people. Music is generic Hindi and R&B/Hip Hop.
Ministry of Sound (The Pyramid, 11 LSC Sector C, Pocket 6/7, Vasant Kunj, 46045310) follows its international policy of Friday-night house; Saturdays are commercial. The newest club in town, hopefully it’ll bypass its licensing woes to kick off again soon.
Soho (The Ashok, Chanakyapuri, 26111066) is the erstwhile Ssteel, a large space you can get lost in. Like most clubs, it attracts a younger crowd.