I really wish this account could be narrated in reverse even though I wouldn’t change the order in which it actually happened. I did give, cheating you a bit, some thought—I could just tell you that I first went to Dharamkot and not Bir for my long-due café crawl in the hills. But as I sat looking jadedly at my beverage and then at the woman who had collapsed on her partner’s shoulder and was gazing away at the faraway hill, eyes wide awake, as if in a Fleetwood Mac song, I decided to tell you as it happened.
But first a little about the drink that was on my table. The perky honey-lemon-ginger tea is at most places and times, decent at worst and unbelievably uplifting at best. At Morgan’s Place—seemingly Dharamkot’s best-known café, I couldn’t believe I had sipped half a glass of hot lemonade on an unusually sunny day. Making our way through all the smoke in search of some crisp mountain air and some half-decent coffee, we hiked through the one-lane village wearily, downsizing our choices with each shut door we encountered. Finally, at a café named Moonlight, where digital nomads smoked endlessly and two enormous German Shepherds strutted from one table to the other, we had Turkish coffee and falafel.
The Bir Buzz
In Bir, where we went looking the previous day for an up-and-coming café movement with quite a billing, things, however, were different. Everyone we had met had vouched for the food and the environment in the village—one half of the paragliding site adventurers and frequent travellers in these parts know as Bir Billing. Harmit Singh, co-founder of Exsul, a travel company that curates experiences in the Kangra Valley, had sounded particularly excited. The young scions of the tea-growing Prakash family, too, had their share of good things to say. And that was how we decided to do the hour-and-a-quarter’s drive from Palampur, our base, to Bir.
On the day of our visit, the sun was out in all its glory and it was early summer but it seemed business as usual in the paraglider’s Bir. The streets swarmed with cyclists riding rented bikes and backpackers with rucksacks on their backs. Amar, our capable friend driving us, pulled over at what was really a small establishment whose underdone façade would have meant that only insiders knew about the exciting flavour experiments cooking inside.
Anyway, we stepped inside, and having greeted the silent lady at the reception with a smile indiscernible from under our mask, settled down at the table near the entrance. The lady, as we later found out, was actor Ritu Barmecha—sister of Udaan (2010) star Rajat Barmecha—and co-owner of the café along with her husband, Sumit Soni, also an actor. The name is June 16, after the date Sumit 'professed his love' to her—as everyone finds out. I did too.
For all its understated exterior, a modish vibe fills the café area inside. A chalkboard menu describes the fare on offer; there’s an impressive variety of coffee, too, from the usual lattes and mochas to Vietnamese and cortado. On a hot day, one could order the Kokum Cooler or the equally interesting-sounding Beetroot Lemonade. The breakfast section had some interesting picks as well, but it not being breakfast time gave me the excuse to order Shakshouka and Nutella Pancakes.
As far as the hippie-village phenomenon goes, Bir seems hippie enough. That familiar profusion of fluttering prayer flags and monasteries and respected institutions like the Deer Park can be found here, too. There's a Tibetan Colony and matted-haired and pajama-wearing backpackers, and shaggy mountain dogs enthusiastic about being petted. Though I will say—and you may disagree—there is a distinct sense of purpose in the goings-on here, as opposed to the do-anything charm that pervades the iconic Tibetan enclave of McLeod Ganj and its diminutive sibling Dharamkot.
The Deer Park, established in 2006, is an educational institution in tune with the spirit of Nalanda from ancient India. It conducts workshops and courses in disciplines such as Buddhist literature, Kashmir Shaivism, wilderness writing, classical music, calligraphy and a lot else throughout the year
This whole difference in vibe is definitely to be credited to its status as one of the country's top paragliding destinations. It is this difference that trickles down into the café business in both places, not to mention the vast difference in taste. And the Shakshouka at June 16, rustled up and brought to our table by Sumit, tasted just perfect—a gooey indulgence that carried the familiar anxiety that most good experiences do. The Nutella Pancakes looked just as fabulous as they tasted.
Across the road, a little further on, is Moonshine Madness Café, which, by the looks of it, is meant for more boisterous crowds. The café can be spotted easily as you enter Bir, and is known for its trippy vibe. Our visit saw service a bit low, so I asked for a blueberry smoothie, which took a while to be whipped up. During that time, I checked out the psychedelic artwork painted on the walls and enjoyed the view of the street from the community seating area on the first floor.
Wild West Meets Hippie Chic
Cafés in Bir are largely just lined in quick succession by both sides of the road that takes one to the landing site. For our run, we had a list in hand, thanks to Harmit, and they are quite a few here for only so much of one’s appetite—so get recommendations. Our selections had passed through multiple hands, so we kept walking and having crossed the landing site—a meadow that looked a little drier than usual under the daytime sun—came upon Silver Linings, a curious establishment in a garden setting whose coffee came highly recommended. We deliberated on grabbing some homestyle, wood-fired pizza with a side of waffles at the cute-looking Gliders Pizzeria, but then decided against it.
At Silver Linings, a wooden signpost signals one’s arrival and the café itself waits in a corner of the same field that sees hundreds of people make haphazard landings. We entered the premises and were left amazed by what we saw—a latticed wooden frame supporting a slate-panelled, sloping ceiling and mud-plastered walls. Proprietor and de-facto barista Sanjay Thakur explained that the element helped with temperature control. It looked like a hippie café right out of the Wild West, but that spell was broken by the iced frappe that is served in a chilled mason jar.
I proceeded to make some conversation with the no-nonsense Thakur, and it turned out that the man is a paragliding pilot when he is not fixing sandwiches (ask for the aubergine ones) and burritos at his kewl café. Thakur has been running the place after his partner had to rush back home owing to an emergency thanks to COVID-19. The pandemic has got everybody thinking, myself included. How did things happen earlier? In what ways have they changed? How are they going to be when all of this is over (heh) and the like? Earlier, I would just walk into a restaurant, order and pay, do my business and walk out. But when everything came crashing down in 2020, I started wondering the exact same things that you were wondering.
I would get pretty good answers next door. The last name on our list was Avva’s, which, as anyone who has been to Bir in the past three years knows, is Bir's only café/eatery serving south Indian fare so far. Its sea vessel-like calmness—grounded on both levels by gravel flooring and its contemporary white exteriors almost reminding you of establishments in Santorini—exists in the middle of a field of gregarious golden-green stalks of wild grass that wave and chortle when whooping paragliders float unheroically to the ground.
The Shakshouka, available at cafés throughout Bir, is an inventive one-pot Maghrebi dish, which, in its present form, features eggs poached in a thick, creamy sauce with tomatoes, olive oil, green peppers, cumin, onions and garlic
Man and Wife
Avva’s is run by the cutest couple around—the chatty Sunil Dikonda manages the counter and keeps affairs in order while the wife, the shy and ever-smiling Sunanda Dikonda, is in charge of the kitchen. Before we could order your food, a steel tumbler of tangy, hot rasam covered with a little dish with fragrant boiled channa (an appetite-booster) was served. We placed the order and seizing the right moment, I stole Mr Dikonda for a quick chat.
The jolly middle-aged gentleman from Pune told me that the couple started the place after their son, employed with an advertising agency in Delhi and smitten by the charms of Bir, urged them to move here and start their own restaurant serving Andhra-style South Indian fare. First, they refused, then the son insisted and insisted and finally got them to relocate. The man has endless stories to tell about their experiences in Bir—including how a young woman once stayed back till the restaurant was done for the day, to request them to make her their bahu so she could eat all the great food that Mrs Dikonda makes!
It isn't just the Dikondas who moved here from far away in search for an idyllic life. Ritu and Sumit of June 16 Café, too, were charmed by the youthful vibe of the paragliding hub. Interestingly, upon first looking, Bir is no Khajjiar or Darjeeling, but I suppose there is some appeal that draws people who love food—both cooking and eating it—here. It could also be that the ever-growing demand among adventure buffs and the active paragliding community, has metabolised into this throbbing café movement. As opposed to the Israeli, Tibetan and faux-Maghrebi fare you get throughout Dharamkot and McLeod Ganj, Bir has a richer smorgasbord to offer to the visitor. And it is just the beginning.