Bangalore’s pubs were like tourist attractions. We showed them off to our friends from other cities,” says designer Prasad Bidapa, talking about the mid-1980s when the city’s first trendy watering holes began to emerge. Just out of college then, Bidapa recalls getting dressed up for evenings out that started at 10pm and wrapped up only after 3am. “We’d start in one place in the evening and end up at some place entirely different in the morning,” he laughs.
The “pub capital of India”, a moniker the city earned in the 1990s for the sheer number of pubs that sprang up in that decade, has stayed with it despite the pre-midnight closing deadline for bars. While the Karnataka Excise Act of 1965 prevents the serving of alcohol after 11.30pm, the rule has only been enforced strictly by the police since 2005.
A watercolour painting of Dewar’s Bar by Bangalore-based artist Paul Fernandes. By Paul Fernandes
The city’s tryst with beer began as early as 1915. United Breweries (UB), which supplied beer to the British cantonment, was at the time run by a Thomas Leishman, who sold it to Vittal Mallya in 1947. Mallya’s United Breweries Ltd produces several brands of lager, including the city’s favourite Kingfisher. Now, the city consumes more than 55% of the Kingfisher beer (all types) sold in the country, according to Samar Singh Sheikhawat, senior vice-president of marketing, UB group.
At Ramda’s, believed to be the city’s first pub, an evening usually included a few mugs of Khoday’s draught, served with masala peanuts and vadas. “It was the place to go to for a mug of draught after work,” recalls Bidapa, adding that it didn’t make the cut as a party spot. “The idea was that people could come in, relax and have a beer and eat some snacks after a day’s work,” says Sri Hari Khoday, 70, managing director, Khoday India Ltd, a company that produces a range of products from rum to diamonds. He named the pub after his elder brother Ramachandra Khoday. It was a hit and the ambitious younger Khoday opened another branch in the more conservative Chamrajpet in south Bangalore. “Opening a pub that would serve our brews was a logical progression to expanding the business,” he says, adding that though they did well, he found hospitality to be a tough sector. “And we got tired of handling goons who would break and tear our furniture,” he says, hinting that the trouble was instigated by the competition.
In an almost parallel development, Ashok Sadhwani realized in 1986 that the city had no pubs like the ones in Britain. Taking notes from his visits to London, he started The Pub on Church Street. Exclusively serving Kingfisher draught beer at Rs 6 a glass, the pub was inaugurated by Vijay Mallya, chairman, UB group.
A weekday evening at the Windsor Pub. By Sriram Vittalamurthy/Mint
Ramjee Chandran, who at the time ran a free magazine called The Bangalore Monthly, recalls that The Pub was the talk of the town.
“Bangalore never really did have a local ethnicity. There was a Western influence that ruled these areas,” says Chandran, adding that on weekends people would drive from Chennai and Mysore to go pub-hopping in Bangalore.
Ranjit Narang’s Black Cadillac on Residency Road, which opened in 1992, was a key stop on the circuit. Narang claims that Bangalore’s best crowd hung out at his pub. With a large open-air space, Black Cadillac, in keeping with its name, was done up in black and red with streaks of chrome, and attracted a slightly more mature crowd. But 10 years later, Narang had to close the popular hot spot when it ran into trouble with the city corporation.
Even before the pubs of the late 1980s, the city was dotted with frayed drinking holes frequented chiefly by men. The most well-known was Dewar’s; it closed in 2011 after 78 years. Originally a watering hole for the British, Dewar’s, with its wicker and rosewood furniture, hosted a steady clientele that came in for the liquor, mutton chops and liver, kidney and brain dishes. “It was like a run-down room with red oxide flooring and white wicker chairs. It was dull and there was a constant din and somehow all of that made for a perfect ambience for a drink,” says Tushita Patel, who moved to the city as a journalist in 1996. The walls, with pictures of Indian gods and goddesses alongside those of Queen Elizabeth II, didn’t hamper anybody’s desire to drink.
Sadhwani, however, claims that The Pub was the first “true” pub in Bangalore. It was there that mugs of beer flowed over conversation and music and men did not always outnumber women.
Bangaloreans try Toit Brew Pub’s in-house brews. By Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
In the following years, the city saw a pub overload. Many existing bars simply changed their names to add the word “pub”. Bangalore, according to Sadhwani, grew to have 3,000 pubs. “Happy hour” boards became a common sight. Kavitha Muthappa, 40, who was part of the pub circuit in the early 1990s, says: “It was a great time to be a young Bangalorean. We girls hung out over drinks without causing scandals.”
Two decades later, the city is still reinventing its drinking hangouts. When Sibi Venkataraju opened Toit Brew Pub with three partners, he had just returned from Singapore and felt that Bangalore needed a pub like the many he had frequented in that city. Of course, there were many such establishments, “but we didn’t have that one great pub”, Sibi said in an interview in 2011, when Lounge reviewed Toit’s brews. One year on, Toit, the second micro brewery after The Biere Club in 2010, still runs to a full house almost every day of the week.
And last month Bangalore saw the opening of Monkey Bar, the country’s first gastro pub. “Pub food need not be bad food,” says chef Manu Chandra, who has designed the space and the menu. Maintaining the atmosphere of a pub with worn furniture, classic rock and jazz music and a pool table, Monkey Bar’s menu includes eclectic items such as Jerk Chicken on Buttered Rice, Dabeli and Sorpotel Jam Pot.Chandra hopes Monkey Bar will help recreate the pub charm of Bangalore, a concept he believes has been “bastardized”, with first-generation pubs now frequented only by those who want an inexpensive drink. “We did initially look for spaces in Mumbai as well but I have always felt that Bangalore makes a great testing ground,” says Chandra, adding that since Monkey Bar is across the street from his Mediterranean restaurant Olive Beach, he had the added advantage of shared resources.
As the city transformed from a sleepy retirement haven to India’s Silicon Valley in the 2000s, the drinking options changed.
“There was the time when people started drinking dark rum and Coke, followed by a white rum and vodka craze in 2000,” says Vishal Nagpal, director, operations, at The Biere Club. “Five years ago, when cocktails zoomed in popularity, every bartender claimed to be a professional mixologist.”
“Bangalore was oriented towards pubs but with new people coming in, new options have to be created to satisfy them,” says Manoj Kunisseri, CEO and founder at MCorp, a hospitality consultation firm. He says, “Now, there is an active lounge culture, breweries and a gastro pub.”
Another big change over the years has been that music stepped down the priority rung. “It was the music and the people that once used to define a place in Bangalore,” says restaurateur Satish Thomas, who frequented pubs like Pecos and Black Cadillac in the rock age of the 1990s. This was an era when the best access to great music was at pubs where the management put considerable effort into collecting albums.
Styx was an all-metal pub, Pecos was for rock and at the Windsor Pub (run by Satish Thomas), people gulped beer listening to Frank Sinatra. Many of these places still exist, but they have ceased to be the centre- points of the city’s drinking zone.
“The old pubs were smaller, intimate places with fewer people and so it was easier to focus on the music,” says Thomas, who has tried to retain the same music in his new and sleeker venture I & Monkey.
And you can still occasionally get a sense of the old times. Though Toit’s owners let go of music during the weekends, on weekday evenings women and men tap their feet to some good old rock as they empty their beer mugs. The drinking ritual might be changing gradually but Bangaloreans continue to deserve their reputation as people who can hold their drink.