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Bangalore's pub culture: Then and now

Bangalore's pub culture: Then and now

It’s not just about beer and music any longer in Bangalore, as India’s Pub City has now become home to a wide assortment of lounge bars, restobars and cigar lounges.

The classic pub

On a Sunday evening at Pecos, an iconic pub set up two decades ago as a Mexican food joint, a group of techies in tight black T-shirts and frayed blue jeans plays air guitar and swigs mug after mug of beer, to the accompaniment of Pink Floyd and The Grateful Dead.

The casual visitor, unaware of Pecos’ legendary status among pub-goers, is unlikely to give the place a second glance as he walks by.

34, Rest House Road, off Brigade Road
Phone: 25586047
Cover charge: None
USP: Great music, grungy ambience and surprisingly good appam and stew on Sunday morning.
Beer & snacks for two: Rs 500

From the outside, Pecos looks like a warehouse, a three-storey building with a dark glass frontage and a narrow, chipped staircase leading into the pub.

There isn’t even a board to show newcomers what this place is. First-timers can expect to bump their heads as they walk up the narrow staircase looking for a place on a Saturday evening. “We don’t advertise and we don’t want to modernise,” says K. Elangovan, who has graduated from being just a waiter at the joint to becoming its manager.

The newcomer

Four kilometres to the west of Pecos at The Grand Ashok, a group of four investment bankers strolls into Sutra, an upmarket lounge bar with the seating arranged comfortably apart, allowing guests to relax and enjoy the house and retro music played by an in-house DJ.

The interiors, designed in surreal blue, dominate the set-up, as bartenders perform a full complement of tricks to keep the young and the restless entertained.

From a dour and poorly-lit bar called Lotus when The Ashok was government-run, the transformation of the place has been stark. Sutra is now a high-roofed establishment with wooden floors and a long queue of celebs and P3 types beating a path to its door twice a week. “We are the hippest destination in the city today,” claims an executive at The Grand Ashok.

Happening city

Bangalore is home to some 1,000-plus bars and pubs. We discover this in the middle of the week on Wednesday. Sutra (and many other upmarket destinations) is not empty as expected, but buzzing with life as a Bollywood theme runs wild for the evening.

The latest trend of mid-week parties is in full swing. “We have literally no parking space on Wednesdays when we hold these theme parties,” says a hotel executive.

Old, yet going strong

1/4 Church Street,
Phone: 25586512, 25584595
Cover Charge: N.A.
USP: Space-age décor, with a capsule for the main area, a porthole to enter the pub. Great happy hour deal on beer.
Beer & snacks for two: Rs 500
Despite the rise to prominence of places like Sutra, old-timers continue to haunt their favourite joints. While Pecos is packed to the rafters on the weekends, (and unlike the tonier joints, busy on weekdays too), NASA, on Church Street, too, is crawling with people when we walk in on a Sunday evening.

With a porthole for an entrance and blue streak of light across the roof, Ashok Sadhwani, the joint’s owner, has done all he can to recreate the look of the US space agency he visited in the 1970s. “We wanted to bring something new to the nascent market and we’ve been successful with the concept,” says Sadhwani, who also runs Pub World and Couch—a lounge bar and upscale restaurant rolled into one.

The original pubs set up in Bangalore were bereft of style, instead focussing on draft beer and good music (Pecos and more recently Windsor Pub). The attempts at “style” were kicked off by the likes of Sadhwani, who thought up both NASA and Pub World after going overseas. Incidentally, what started simply as The Pub in 1986, as an old fashioned English pub, got re-tooled to NASA in 1993 when the whole pub-hopping scene kicked-into high gear. “Dozens of pubs opened in the ‘90s and many of them shut down as consumers began narrowing preferences,” says Sadhwani.

Staying power

He may have been an early beneficiary of Bangalore’s evolution from a slumberous pensioner’s paradise to India’s IT Capital, the boost in spending power is no guarantee of success with many well-known names, ranging from the hip 180 Proof (now the more sedate 1912), to downto-earth establishments like Black Cadillac and Oaken Cask, crumbling in the face of newer and more innovative establishments.

“There is little guarantee of success in this market; service and innovation are critical,” says Sadhwani.

Locking in visitors

1, Nagarjuna Building, Castle Street
Phone: 41478624/5
Cover charge: Rs 500
USP: Great music. Tunes here are more mellow, in keeping with the older crowd.
Beer & snacks for two: Rs 1,000
Keeping distracted patrons loyal (or at least returning to your joint) is perhaps the biggest challenge for people like Sadhwani. But Bangalore offers its young and restless people multiple options covering all budgets, and moods too, say pub owners.

While executives like Nandan Nilekani of Infosys are seen at tony places like i-Bar at the Park, P3 regulars like fashion guru Prasad Bidappa can be spotted at Fuga, a trendy joint on Castle Street in Bangalore’s Central Business District.

For the elite only

Blue Bar
The Taj West End , Race Course Road
Phone: 66605660
Cover charge: Rs 2,000
USP: The preferred place for young romantics. Discreetely set tables keep the young happy. DJ Yon’s tunes keep partygoers bogeying
Beer & snacks for two: Rs 2,500
With stuffed armchairs, massive chandelier and granite bar, at the opulent Leela Palace is perhaps the next step in the evolution of Bangalore as a pub city. Targeted at the growing number of expats and high net worth individuals, Library Bar is set up to resemble a classic bar, with not just a full menu of cocktails and drinks (champagne tops Rs 10,000 here), but a complete selection of cigars, too.

Making no bones about its stuffy countenance, it counts the likes of Gautam Singhania as regulars. “We want to be seen as the most exclusive place in Bangalore,” says Leela Palace’s General Manager. Charles De Foucalt.

Elsewhere, at Blue Bar at Taj West End, couples look for some privacy. When this writer wanders in late on a Saturday evening, there is not a single chair free and even the bar is packed with people chilling out.

Bar with a view

The 13th Floor is such a popular hang out on weekends that no reservations are taken after around 7 p.m. on Friday evening and the rush is always for the outside seating, where you could sip your Martini and take in the panoramic view that the joint offers. Frequented by an odd assortment of young pub hoppers and wide-eyed expats, 13th Floor has the added advantage of being right next to Ebony, one of the few restauarants in India's IT capital to serve Parsi cuisine.

Legally speaking

Not everything is hunky dory, though. We soon encounter the disgruntled element in Bangalore’s pubbing crowd. “We’ve barely got started,” complains Chris Avinash, a city-based musician. There is little scope for late workers to grab a drink. With most people working late, it gives them at best an hour after work to hit the happening places. With a quarter of his pitcher left and half his plate of beef tacos uneaten, Avinash may have to hurry if he is to catch the rapidly nearing closing time of 11.30 p.m