Propped up by his friends, an elderly gentleman slowly walks into Olypub. The customers smile as he takes a seat among them and orders a drink. Kamal Singh, a server who has been working at the iconic pub for 25 years, says, “This man is suffering from paralysis but keeps coming for a drink every day. They say he has been coming here for over forty years, but no one can be sure because while the staff keeps changing, regulars like him treat this place as if it was their home.”
Olypub opened on Park Street in Kolkata in 1947, as Olympia Bar and Restaurant. It is among the handful of old dives in the city that stand still against the march of time, patiently watching the churn in Kolkata’s nightlife.
In late August, the West Bengal government announced an end to dry days in the state. This means bars and restaurants in the three-star category and above can serve alcohol 365 days of the year. As for those in a lower category, such as the dive bars, they have to be closed for only four days a year as opposed to the mandatory 12 days earlier.
The new rules are bound to buoy up the new entrants. Three microbreweries have opened in Kolkata this year with another four in line. Several new joints like Bodega Y Cantina, Bar Stock Exchange, Smoke House Deli, Hoppipola and TGIF have become the places to be seen at. Monkey Bar, a popular gastropub chain with branches in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, opened its doors in the city this week. All these places have a paint-by-numbers approach to achieve their hipster aesthetic. These chains had ignored the city so far. They are coming now because market reports tell them that the city’s spending power is increasing.
Kolkata’s dive bars, like an old friend, have been around through thick and thin, when these chain bars did not deem the city worthy of their time. They provide a simple selection to a regular clientele. They run on the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it principle and refuse to put in any effort beyond the minimum required for serving drinks to their patrons. Unlike new establishments, with their homogenised experience, industrial furniture, exposed brick walls, molecular cocktails and thumping music, they live on character and history. They don’t care for disgruntled Zomato reviews. There is no dedicated selfie zone, no wine selection or Wi-Fi or customer feedback form. No one here will half-heartedly sing Happy Birthday to you.
Conversation really is the cornerstone of the Kolkata dive bar scene. A visit to any of them would reveal how much Kolkatans love to talk. Sometimes someone at an adjoining table will overhear your conversation and join in or correct you. Heated political arguments, office banter, animated discourses on the meaning of life – all find place on the table. Varun Desai organises live music events in the city’s premier nightclubs but prefers to drink in the dive bars because, “the alcohol is cheap, there is no music and the layout is usually conducive to having an interesting conversation”.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at Olypub. It remains the favourite haunt of writers, filmmakers, journalists, artists, professors, students, among others. A Haque, the manager, appears wistful when he says that “there was a time when we used to have so many great personalities drop by on a daily basis. Great people like Satyajit Ray, Uttam Kumar and Ritwik Ghatak used to drink here.”
Olypub’s cheap rates were revised after a fire in 2014. The renovation after the accident has also meant that instead of the rundown interiors that regulars were used to, there is now comfortable seating and generic music posters on the walls. The rats that used to scurry about are, however, not missed by anyone. When asked about the competition from new bars and nightclubs in the area, Haque laughed and replied, “Olypub is Olypub. We have seen many places open and shut down. We are as old as India because even we started in 1947.”
Another old bar still bustling is the Chhota Bristol (or Shaw Bar, as it is commonly known) in New Market Area. Nothing prepares one for the manic activity here. There is no menu in this 144-year-old place. Instead, one is pointed to an LED board on which alcohol rates are displayed like shares at the stock exchange. This is the cheapest bar in Kolkata. One must pay before ordering because the sheer number of customers makes it difficult to keep track. You cannot occupy a table exclusively (this results in curious conversations such as the time a man from Barrackpore sat on the chair next to me and tried to sell me a gun). There is no in-house kitchen and snacks such as aloo chat, mutton liver, fish fingers and chilli chicken are brought from street vendors camped outside. Only confirmed teetotallers are employed as waiters, which perhaps explain their skill in balancing up to twenty glasses at a time.
At Chung Wah in Chandni Chowk, the Chinese food is as good as the alcohol is cheap. “We have been in business for a hundred and thirty years but every day is different,” Deepak Mukherjee, captain for the past 15 years, said. “Someone faints. Someone is abusive. Someone drinks too much and throws up. But we have a regular flow of people. All sorts of people.” The sides of Chung Wah’s hall are lined with booths that offer a private drink-and-dine experience. It is not uncommon to hear couples fight as they mistakenly assume that the booths are soundproof. The restroom is a visceral reminder of one’s mortality.
Unfortunately, like many old bars in the district, Chung Wah has annoyed its regulars by adding a live music section on the floor above featuring crooners belting out classic Hindi tunes. Its neighbour, the Elfin bar, which used to be popular with journalists from The Statesman and The Telegraph, has gone a similar way and fallen out of bhadralok favour. Hirak Chatterjee, 53, stops here for a drink after work: “I have a long way home in a slow tram so a drink really helps me relax. Crooning bars are no good because they play very loud Bollywood music. I just want to have a drink in a quiet place and collect my thoughts.”
A short distance from Chung Wah is Broadway Hotel, which was opened in 1937 by Iqbal Singh, who came to India from what is now Pakistan. Its colourful French windows, high ceilings and art deco interiors give the feeling of the sets of Mad Men or a Wes Anderson film. They have good finger food and cheap alcohol. There was a time when patrons would be given free cucumbers and black salt as a snack but these days a sign politely informs that there are no free snacks.
The Broadway is what every cheap bar should aspire to be – it has pleasant service, cosy interiors and good pricing. Frequented by students, backpackers and those working in the Central Business District, this is a place that you can go to on a date or a binge. Broadway’s proprietor Jivraj Singh is a musician who was recently featured on America’s Billboard charts. When asked what he made of increasing competition from trendy gastropubs and nightclubs he replied, “We don’t compete with anything trendy. Trends come and go but history can last forever.”
Friso Maecker agrees. At nearly 7 feet, the Director of Goethe Institut (the German Cultural Centre) is a towering figure and is quite used to the curious gawks of Kolkatans. “In Germany, we have this concept of the Wohnzimmer bar, which means a local pub or bar that is styled like one’s living room,” said Maecker. “In these places, there is a lot of talking and cheap alcohol and it allows people to meet and have conversations. I find something similar in the Bengali way of organising an adda at the city’s cheap bars and cafes where they can talk about issues that interest them. The city needs to build on its existing foundations because if Calcutta doesn’t wake up soon to its incredible heritage then it may lose the opportunity to present its true uniqueness.”
Kolkata’s dive bars understand that sometimes people just need a drink and want to be left alone. They understand that within their crumbling walls many friendships and memories have been formed. Most importantly, these bars know that in these times of relentless evolution and the constant need to reinvent, their customers find it comforting to be in a place that stays the same.