Setting the Bar Low: 10 Seedy Drinking Dens in India

From Mumbai to Madikeri, the bars on this list will satisfy the thirst for cheap booze and snacks served under dim lighting.  
Illustration by: Sumedha Sah
Illustration by: Sumedha Sah

The concept of compiling a list of top seedy bars seems like an oxymoron. It’s akin to asking random strangers if they can recall their most memorable drinking binge. Such lists cannot possibly be scientific; they must be based on emotions.

So the following list is no doubt personal, culled from 25 years of travel and discovery of unadvertised gems where one gets an affordable drink at the end of a long day of sightseeing. As a rule of thumb, down-market bars are located near travel hubs. The best of them tend to be atmospheric and have tables to sit at, and sometimes, a kitchen that serves a hot meal. The cost for a drink-and-snack session is typically around Rs150-Rs750 (depending on the establishment).

Despite these salient points, seedy bars have received an undeservedly bad reputation and tend to get torn down or converted into something flashy at an alarming rate because of the redevelopment of city centres—their convenient locations mean that they occupy real estate that’s too valuable. This happened to Volga, once a popular haunt of writers in Delhi’s Connaught Place, Dewar’s near Bengaluru’s cantonment station where artists loved to go ‘slumming’ and the quaint Qualithe in Pondicherry’s heritage quarters.

Most of the bars listed below have been visited during 2017, but the rate at which these institutions of insobriety are shutting down, there’s no guarantee that they’ll still be around at the end of the year. So place your drink orders today.

1. Cafe Military, Mumbai

Most travellers who drink in Mumbai end up in Colaba or Juhu at trendy bars that come and go, and miss the Fort area which is peppered with classic joints. One of the last Irani pubs, Cafe Military, is often quite empty, despite the ice-cold light-to-drink London pilsner accompanied by affordable Parsi specials such as dhanshak and the ultimate bar bite: bheja fry, freshly cooked goat brain served whole. The heritage interiors include café tables with yellow tablecloths and black Windsor-style chairs, and the seediness lies in minor details such as the cheap plastic plates and pre-modern restroom. The location is exactly between the two major railway stations of south Mumbai, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) and Churchgate. Female travellers can spend leisure time here without receiving suspicious stares. (Ali Chamber, Nagindas Master Road, GPO; 022-22654181; open Mon-Sat 8.30 a.m.-9.30 p.m.)

Runners-up The spooky but unexpectedly friendly Royal Country Liquor booze dive at the corner of Sir P.M. Road and Homji Street.

New Majestic (Murzban Road) with dirt cheap but tasty snacks, right across from CST.

2. Shaw Brothers, Kolkata

Ask for “Chhota Bristol” and everybody will know. Although the Bristol Hotel vanished with the colonials, its Indian opponent—started as an act of resilience next-door—remains the most popular joint in town. At a respectable 140 years, it is believed to be the oldest bar in West Bengal and remains packed to the rafters because little has changed apart from an air-conditioner that was introduced in the 1900s. Expect to meet hundreds of loyalists here from noon onwards. Because of the huge demand, most customers order three pegs at a time so the waiters tap dance about, balancing gravity-defying stacks of booze tumblers. All drinks are to be paid for in advance, but they do come with a complimentary snack.
(1, Metro Gully, Jawaharlal Nehru Road, New Market Area; 9830289444; open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m.).

Runners-up The outdated but rich private drinking booths of Chung Wah (in C.R. Avenue) remind visitors of Kolkata’s once-thriving Chinese culture.

The eternal haunt of aspiring intellectuals, Olypub, stays true to its seediness despite its prime Park Street location. It serves decent grub and is a place that single ladies can patronise.

3. Status, Bengaluru

India’s premier pub city is losing dive bars at an alarming rate in this age of microbrewing, but a handful of the classics remain. Inside a grimy commercial complex, up a grubby staircase, those who dare enter Status will find a mint-condition art deco bar of the kind one only sees in vintage Indian gangster films. With comfy diner-style sofa seating and neat tablecloths, this is one of the best eating places in an otherwise downmarket area, showcasing fresh seafood such as delicate kaane and pomfret (First floor, Sujatha Complex, Gandhi Nagar; 080-22257070/22257990; open daily 11 a.m.-11.30 p.m.).

Runners-up In the old city bazaars, Abhiman has a funky circa 1970 vintage exterior. The building is part of a gorgeous cinema called Sharada Talkies (Dharmarayaswamy Temple Road, near Town Hall).

One of the last bars before Airport Road, which is a national highway and therefore has few drinking options, is Royal Garden on the Outer Ring Road near Hebbal flyover. It offers sublime pub grub from juicy crab masala to rich clay pot biriyani, so stop here before catching your flight.

Illustration by: Sumedha Sah

Illustration by: Sumedha Sah

4. Victoria Hotel, Thalassery

This north Kerala establishment, which stands atop a cliff with stunning views of the sea, has the finest location of any bar on this list. Catch the sunset sitting in a gazebo, enjoying freshly fried fish and ice-cold beer. Its popularity was evident on my latest visit from the stack of thousands of empty beer bottles along the garden wall. The bar is part of a fine 16-room 1930s-era hotel (victoriaseaside.com, opposite Thalassery district court; 9895256730/9061357657).

Runner-up The nearest authorised or unauthorised toddy shack with freshly harvested palm toddy, best drank at 5.30 p.m. when it has fermented well.

5. Bar Mariano, Panaji

Goa has bars aplenty but this has to be the ultimate purpose-built drinking den. Measuring about two square metres, it fits two tiny benches and about four to five customers at a time. Patrons sample the multiple tipples on display, which typically include fresh unbranded feni or the customary varieties of IMFL (Indian Made Foreign Liquor). There is no beer, no snacks and no loos—nothing unnecessary (Adjacent to Municipal Gardens/ Church Square).

Runner-up Down the same street is Godinho, founded in 1938 and old enough for that connoisseur of seedy bars, Graham Greene, to have set foot in. This is pure conjecture, but in the Sunday Times (March 1964) Greene complained about the cheap but “raw Indian gins and whiskies” and their possible health hazards. Since he stayed at Mandovi Hotel around the corner, this would have been the logical place to sit and pen his article “Goa the Unique.”

6. Kwality, Mysuru

Possibly the seediest bar of India is found in this noble city, conveniently close to the railway station with tablecloths pockmarked by cigarette burns and classic interiors that haven’t been cleaned in any noticeable manner since the late 1940s. It is fantastically laid-back with cheap drinks and greasy but semi-edible non-vegetarian food (5-41, Dhanavantri Rd, Devaraja Mohalla, Shivarampet; 9880533339/0821-2429418; open daily 10 a.m.-11 p.m.).

Runner-up A seven-minute walk from the bus station stands Park Lane Hotel (Sri Harsha Road) with a menu that includes tips on how to handle hangovers (a combo of antacids washed down with chicken soup and pranayama). The reason it doesn’t top Kwality is because it was recently rebuilt and I miss the heritage structure’s lovely garden. This is also a decent stop to break journey for single women.

7. Grand Hotel, Pune

The grandest bar on this list doesn’t top it because it’s damn expensive to be a seedy bar; some chicken items cost over Rs500. The drinks are also not cheap as they used to be. Despite the pretense, such as wholesome vegan dishes on the menu, the red plastic furniture in the beer garden and sloppy service gives the game away. The hotel also offers accommodation and is a reasonable place for female travellers (grandhotelpune.co.in; M.G. Road, near Ambedkar Statue, Camp, 020-26360728/020-26362329; open daily noon-11 p.m.).

Runner-up There are a handful of dives opposite the railway station and although my memory isn’t 100 per cent clear, I seem to recall that Nateshwar (Sassoon Road) has, for the last 25 years, been a dependable place for a beer before boarding.

Illustration by: Sumedha Sah

Illustration by: Sumedha Sah

8. Sweety Cafeteria, Shillong

Due to an unfortunate combination of legal and religious circumstances, Meghalaya, where booze once flowed freely and seedy bars were the name of the game, has become restrictive. Now, in the capital city it is hard to get a beer for under Rs700. Virtually the only proper seedy bar left is Sweety, which has a family cafeteria downstairs and a decent bar upstairs where folks converge from 1 p.m. Friendly service, functioning loos and Tibetan-Chinese snacks makes this the perfect watering hole before one catches the daily archery games in the adjacent Polo Grounds (Polo Bazaar; 0364-2500580; open daily 1-9 p.m.).

Runner-up A nameless den above the liquor shop in Burrah Bazaar that involves climbing lots of steps; ask locals to direct you and once you are here, you will get drinks at MRP.

9. Disco Junction, Jaipur

This bar doesn’t advertise itself with flashing lights (despite its name) and is situated, like so many north Indian bars, in a dark dungeon under a hotel–namely Hotel Chitra Palace. If one gets too drunk, one can rent a bed upstairs. With the railway station, bus stops and the RTDC office virtually next door, it is the perfect pit stop on any tour of Rajasthan. Once the eyes get used to the poor light (mostly provided by a flatscreen pumping out Bollywood item numbers), one notices the felt-topped snooker table and welcoming lounge seating. Food is better than one might expect, with some hearty chicken gravies on the menu. The waiters always offer free snacks with drinks. There’s no disco dancing though (Hotel Chitra Palace, opposite railway station, Gopalbari; 9950888333/9829313870; open daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m.).

Runner-up Ladies may feel more comfortable at the adjacent government-owned RTDC bar where one can try hot aloo parathas with chilled beer.

10. Capitol, Madikeri

Last but not least, I’ll list the bar where I spend most of my time, including while I was writing this article. Steps away from the main bus station in Coorg, Capitol is the perfect joint to recover from a long journey. The lunchtime Kodava veg meals provide excellent value, while the fried pork goes down well with any beverage. If the main drinking hall is unappealing, try the fancier basement. Food and a drink or two can be had for under Rs300 (near Madikeri bus stand).

Runner-up An average boozer on Temple Road, Kodagu Retails has a semi-secret basement canteen which is the only place I know where one can enjoy the amazing combo of Karnataka’s staple ragi balls with pork and a glass of red wine.

  • Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).

  • Sumedha Sah is an architect and a self-taught illustrator, and is currently a resident artist at the Industrial Design Centre, IIT, Mumbai. She is one-third of the Mumbai based architectural design practice called Apt. Her work focuses on the transformation of the relationship between man and nature.

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