Most of Manali’s restaurant scene caters to its two largest tourist groups: foreign backpackers and Indian honeymooners. In cacophonous Manali town, the Mall Road is dotted with north Indian restaurants serving butter chicken and shahi paneer to giggling newlyweds. In the villages of Vashisht and Old Manali, steep roads are lined with guesthouses and pocket-friendly joints dishing out nutella pancakes and pita with falafel and hummus. (Both, incidentally, also boast of that ubiquitous backpacker eatery, German Bakery).
But there are finer dining options that do justice to the panoramic views that Manali affords. Feast on the grilled chicken that’s won over two former Indian chief ministers while gazing up the deodar-lined Kullu valley. Or tuck into grilled Himalayan trout while looking upon the Beas and Manalsu rivers, where the fish comes from. Here’s our list of options that will make your trip unforgettable.
(In Vashisht, 3 km from Manali; open end-April to mid-October; meal for two: ₹1,000)
True to the restaurant’s name, the musky fragrance of roses wafts up from the garden as you climb the stone steps to its entrance. Settle into the elegant wood furniture inside, or if the rain gods abate, step into the al fresco section with its cast-iron benches and outdoor wood-fired oven. The quaint restaurant is run by Rosalba Lucioli, the Italian mother of India’s foremost Winter Olympian, Shiva Keshavan. Rosalba gets cured meats like Parma ham from Italy and grows most of the herbs and fruit organically. If you’re seated outside, you can watch the pizza dough being kneaded and tossed, and the toppings laid on before it is slid into the oven. End with tiramisu or the poire belle Hélène, warm poached pears with dollops of vanilla ice cream.
(Near Circuit House Road; open through the year; meal for two: ₹1,200)
An Old Manali institution, Johnson’s Cafe serves 10 preparations of the Himalayan river trout. Best among them is the baked trout with almond sauce or, if you’re hankering for local flavours, the trout curry served with steamed spinach and Himachali red rice. The terraced garden is the best place to sit, where they have a bonfire on cold mountain nights, and live music acts on most weekends in season, ranging from head-banging rock acts to trippy electronic sets.
A stone’s throw away from the cafe is the newer Johnson’s Lodge. With an inviting fireplace and year-round service, the Lodge is the perfect place to chill, so to speak, during the frigid Manali winters. Their multi-cuisine menu covers Continental, Pan Asian and Mughlai classics; get the chicken thigh with rosemary. With energetic music and a lively buzz, the Lodge is also a good place for a Saturday night out and offers the best selection of cocktails in town. Definitely order the margaritas—and after the music stops, join the crowd in blurting out loud, “Tequila!”
(In Shanag village, 5 km from Manali; open April to November on Sundays from Noon to 5p.m.; meal for two: ₹1,000)
If you’re just passing through Manali, make sure it’s on a Sunday—that’s the only day Martin’s is open and even then, only for brunch. Run by an avuncular Austrian chef (the eponymous Martin), with a little help from his pahari (mountain-dwelling) wife and family, this place is best known for its grilled chicken, roasted to perfection with a crisp skin and tender, juicy meat. It has a cult following, which includes a royal politician and a political prince—Capt. Amarinder Singh and Omar Abdullah. Here’s the caveat—you need to pre-book it (0-9736246483). If you don’t get the grilled chicken, sulk not; there are enough dishes, rotated on a weekly basis, to satisfy your culinary desires. There’s smoked trout and a great pizza selection. An added delight is the laid-back al fresco setting, with its long, backless wooden benches that have supported many a customer’s post-lunch nap. And since it’s located in a sports club, you could cap proceedings with a game of lawn bowls with the proprietors and their large family.
(Old Manali; open early May to August 31; meal for two: ₹1,200)
A subsidiary of the chic Goa original, La Plage Manali has captivating Himalayan views and food to match. Located up a steep climb, the restaurant offers to pick and drop patrons from the Old Manali pontoon bridge in a blue tuk-tuk. There’s breezy outdoor seating in a manicured garden, a trendy bar counter, and art deco-styled interiors where no two tables are alike—the most inviting table is on the patio against a white wall, offering a grand view of the valley. The cottage is nestled in an apple orchard far above the River Beas, though La Plage’s cosmopolitan vibe makes it seem more like the River Seine. An eclectic selection of paintings hang on the walls, there are all manner of lamps, even a fireplace. Start with trout carpaccio or French onion soup before proceeding to the mutton caillettes with potato gratin, chicken with morel sauce, or the overnight cooked lamb. Whatever you do save room for dessert, they serve a chocolate thali that is as intriguing as it sounds.
(Log Huts Road, off Old Manali Road; open April to November; meal for two: ₹800)
Many come to the mountains for solitude, meditation and self-realisation, what in Sanskrit we might call tapas. This restaurant offers a different kind of tapas, the Iberian kind. Run by a Spaniard and her Indian husband, Casa Belle Vista has a convivial ambience and a menu of wine and flavourful, vegetarian small plates. With tall pine trees blanketing one side, and the Manalsu River on the other, this popular vegetarian restaurant is located in one of the most scenic spots in Manali. The tables are all made from a single tree trunk, and arranged round the centrepiece, the wood-fired oven. Start with the French onion soup, follow it up with the green ravioli, and finish it off with the indulgent chocolate coolant, oozing with molten chocolate.
(Old Manali; open through the year; meal for two: ₹800)
If a hearty breakfast is the key to a happy day, then you’ll be happier than a hippie if you have yours at Drifters’ Café. They do a decent eggs benedict and eggs Florentine, and the waffles and pancakes are drowned in enough maple syrup to lift the gloomiest of days. One must, however, keep a watch on the clock because time can slip by fast at Drifters’. Between their vast selection of board games, low seating and laidback music, you slowly lose track of the hours. Not that that’s an entirely bad thing. Flavoured hookahs and musical nights ensure that even your mistakes have a way of correcting themselves.
(Mall Road; open through the year; meal for two: ₹800)
It is an unavoidable fact that at some point during your sojourn to Manali, you will have to face the pell-mell of human activity that is Mall Road. When you do, stop by for a meal at Chopsticks, which serves a good mix of Chinese and Tibetan fare, with a few Japanese dishes. The decor is distinctly Tibetan: there’s a snow lion flag draped on the walls, a Laughing Buddha on a shelf, a bhavacakra (Tibetan wheel of life) wall hanging and, of course, a photo of the Dalai Lama. Definitely order the gyakok, a Tibetan hot pot served in a large copper vessel above a burner, into which you dip noodles, bok choy, tofu, vegetables, chicken, and boiled egg.
(Rohtang Highway, 3 km from Manali; open March to November; meal for two: ₹600)
This eatery is slightly under the radar owing to its location, and more popular with the folks heading to Rohtang and beyond. The serene pizzeria is set in a beautiful apple orchard, with a large gazebo housing a few tables at its heart. The best day to visit is on a Saturday for brunch—that’s when they cook their patented lamb roast, served with a tangy beetroot puree that’s more purple than a jumpsuit worn by Prince. Any other day, their pizzas are just as good; wash it all down with beer.
(You’ll have to search for it; through the year; meal for two: ₹40)
Siddu is a local favourite: a steamed, puffy wheat-bread stuffed with a spicy walnut-green chilli-coriander-based stuffing that’s best enjoyed dipped in liquefied ghee. Often made in homes of Manali locals, siddus are sometimes sold on street corners by pattu-draped pahari woman. The best way to sample some is to ask around.
Few restaurants in and around Manali accept cards and ATMS are few and far between. It’s best to carry cash when you set out for a meal.
During busy weekends, the ATMs around Manali are often out of cash, while others don’t function during the bi-monthly power cuts. It’s best to withdraw money during the week.
Travelling around Manali in peak tourist season can be annoying, and to many city-slickers, it can feel like they’ve brought the traffic with them, especially on the crowded Rohtang Highway where traffic grinds along nose to tail. If you’re going to a restaurant in that direction, it’s best to avoid the road between 11 am to 5 pm. Although on some days the traffic’s not so bad, during season time it’s mostly jammed.
There’s no dearth of autos in Manali, but if you’re planning a late night, it’s best to fix up with a driver in advance.
worked as a sports journalist with Hindustan Times and Deccan Chronicle for over a decade. In 2014, he moved to the village of Vashisht near Manali, where he enjoys life at a slower pace.
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