“Where did they go?” I gently lament as I tread on, with the high-altitude Deccan sun, augmented by global warming and shrinking green cover, hammering down on my balding pate. The name Bengaluru is, according to local lore, Kannada slang for ‘beer galore’. If you were ET and landed anywhere in town in the 1990s, there’d be a handy watering hole within 333 metres of your UFO, as attested to by statistical data (three per sq km was the norm), which made this city attract lots of aliens who wished to get ‘Bangalored’. Just slide in through the darkest door in sight and find a comfortable seat away from the sun, and an unfussy waiter would bring you a 650 ml UB Export while other clients minded their own bad habits.
However, with the IT outsourcing boom resulting in a hike in disposable income, most of those nice old pubs were torn down. Today, if you happen to feel thirsty, you need to locate the discreet elevator that takes you to the rooftop of some mall where there’s a hoity-toity cocktail lounge, beer is misspelled ‘biere’, and hard-selling waiters force you to sample overpriced microbrews.
Being something of an aficionado of the unfashionably seedy taverns of yore — I spent so much time lounging in the cane chairs at Dewar’s in Bamboo Bazaar that some drunks mistook me for the portrait of Queen Elizabeth that hung behind the bar — I am unapologetically nostalgic. Dewar’s, born in 1933 and gone in 2010, was like a caring mother, a homely bungalow where those in lungis mingled with khadi-clad intellectuals, and everybody felt safe, as the rosewood tables were too heavy to be used in bar battles. The beer snacks were excellent, too. Apparently the bread-crumb coated fish fillets were introduced by an Irishman who manned the kitchen until he went home after Independence.
Sarovara in Lavelle Road was another unpretentious beer hall — across the street from the Bangalore Club, where non-members weren’t welcome, it offered a similar old-fashioned ambience and great prawn fry to go with the chilled brew. Ultimately the building was sold to some random luxury hotel, and today one can only revisit it by rewatching the gangster classic OM (1995), the Kannada equivalent of The Godfather — its epic bar fight scene, directed by Real-Star Upendra, was shot at Sarovara.
Others that vanished post-2000 include Victoria Hotel, which had perfect verandas for an afternoon beer and is where Central Mall now stands, and Carnival — half-garage, half-dive located in what is now a petrol pump at the corner of Residency and Brigade roads. Lesser-known but equally stunning watering holes include Kishore (quaint gingerbread bungalow at 95, MM Road), which is currently boarded up and awaiting demolition, and the art deco Highway (40, Broadway) — a favoured hangout among ruffians who conducted their wheeling-dealing in the Russell Market area.
An era is simply over. It all started with a Scotsman who founded the Castle Brewery in 1857, making Bengaluru’s beer history 160 years old. The bigger Bangalore Brewery was built to cater to army needs in the 1880s, on the spot where UB City shopping mall stands today. These, plus another three, merged into the United Breweries in 1915. Business thrived and huge barrels of beer were carted through the city — all the way to Madras, in fact. Subsequently, the UB company was bought from its British owners 70 years ago (another jubilee), at the time of Independence, by 22-year-old Vittal Mallya, after whom a street in town was named.
Kingfisher, the leading beer brand, was introduced in 1956, the year that Karnataka — or Mysore State — was born. A third jubilee. Today the UB Group produces upwards of 60 per cent of all beer in India, available at 89,763 outlets countrywide, and of which an estimated 50 per cent is actually drunk in Bengaluru itself. So, mathematically speaking, in this town we imbibe over 25 per cent of all the Indian beer and I, personally, consume the lion’s share and can vouch for its frothy goodness.
To begin with, beer production was a strictly medical strategy to provide the troops of the Civil & Military Station, as it was known in those days, with a health drink — a mildly alcoholic, bacteria-free beverage that could be drunk like water and wouldn’t poison them like the cheap hooch they got in the bazaars. Around that time, the 1890s, a government gazetteer lists four exclusive beer taverns — huge halls for sinking tankards.
In the 1900s, the aptly named Funnels on South Parade (now the Deccan Herald newspaper office in MG Road) was the place to drink the night away. Furthermore, Fazlul Hasan, in his Bangalore Through The Centuries , lists Brigade Road watering holes from that era such as Adelphi Shades, Elysium and New Inn, where local bohemia supped and guzzled. These were, of course, geared towards the English, Eurasians and Anglo-Indians, but as Janaki Nair notes in The Promise of the Metropolis: Bangalore’s Twentieth Century , to “many from the old city area, they spelt an unmatched social freedom” as, apart from non-veg and alcohol, these were public spaces where women and men co-mingled without social taboos. This was the true birth of the pub city. After Independence, when parts of the country went for prohibition it was never an option in Karnataka — the various kings of good times owned schools, hospitals, newspapers, cinemas and cricket teams.
However, the Indian pub was invented as late as the mid-1980s, when draught was first served in the Cantonment. Ramda’s was backed by the Khoday distillers, The Pub by United Breweries — two booze giants facing off. By the time I set foot in the city, there were thousands of places that called themselves pubs, no matter if they poured from the keg or out of a bottle.
On a train to Bengaluru in 1992, a businessman from what was then known as Bombay, excitedly enquired what the difference between a pub and a bar was.
It took me a while to explain, but in the end he got it when I told him that pubs focused on beer-cheer, bars on getting sloshed.
It was at that moment I realised how important Bengaluru was to civilisation.
Although (according to a 2011 census) there were 1,330 sit-down bars and 830 stand-up dives, very few genuinely old ones — in businesspeak, ‘first-generation pubs’ — remain. The Pub, which by the time I had drunk there had turned into the city’s first theme-pub, NASA, designed to look like a space shuttle, appears to have been replaced by a Mumbai-style cocktail disco called Blue Frog, where a tiny beer will cost you ₹250. Who even remembers Underground, once an MG Road institution made to look like a London tube station, and thus a precursor to Namma Metro? Believe it or not, in those days alcoholics drove up all the way from Chennai to pub-hop.
The only 1990s pub that thrives is Pecos (34, Rest House Road), the original rocknrolla saloon that featured good music (patrons could hand in mixed-tapes at the bar and they’d be played later in the night), vomit-filled wash-basins and Tex-Mex combined with inventive Indian pub grub such as chicken curry dosa combos — a success formula that has now branched out all over town.
However, a few classic watering holes remain — though by the time this piece goes to print, they too may be gone. You all know the heritage bar Koshy’s (39, St Mark’s Road), but have you ever been to Iravatha, next to Malleswaram Cross? Slide in through the unremarkable entranceway and, suddenly, like Alice in Wonderland, you stand before a most enchanting bungalow with stained glass windows. Don’t let the exterior fool you: this is the cheapest dive, frequented by local goons, a volatile vibe is in the air by 11am, the furniture is plastic and the kebabs are deadly. To experience a tavern, hit New Mohan’s (15, Rajaram Mohan Roy Road) which, despite its name, is an ancient destination for beer lunch with parathas — no table cloth but a scattering of drunkards and stray cats will keep you company. Finally, the last gem not yet lost, Abhiman has the funkiest exterior that suggests c.1970 vintage — the building is part of a gorgeous old cinema called Sharada Talkies in Dharmarayaswamy Temple Road, roughly between City Market and Town Hall. Once inside, you’re plied with ice-cold lager and the snacks, such as fish fry, are more than decent.
I would recommend heritage status be proclaimed for the above three watering holes.
Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist based in Bengaluru
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