[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
A tattooed foreigner, backpack by his side, sips masala chai at a pavement tea stall. An Israeli rabbi walks out of the Jewish Chabad House. An elderly hippie goes past on his Royal Enfield Bullet. A second-hand book store plays the Buddhist chant Om Mani Padme Hum. A cow ambles through the melee of rickshaws and autos. Far above the ground-level hubbub, patrons of rooftop cafés help themselves to pasta, cake and ginger-lemon-honey tea, their appetite whetted by winter. Heavy bargaining is going on at the stalls selling “Om” print tunics and T-shirts popular among nirvana-seekers.
This is Paharganj as we know it.
But even several days and nights spent in Delhi’s budget hotel hub might not reveal one of its most alluring elements to a visitor—the bars. These dozen-odd watering holes remain open from midday to midnight, but come alive only in the evening, when many of them serenade customers with live music bands. Even a teetotaller must visit these places to complete the experience of the jigsaw puzzle that is Paharganj. Here’s The Delhi Walla‘s round-up of the most fascinating and popular bars.
Green Chilli restaurant and bar
Green tables, red chairs, fake flowers and a short flight of stairs going down to a dark room give it the feel of a 1970s Bollywood action movie set. You half expect gangsters in bell-bottoms to come rushing with revolvers and molls. But this is actually a den of staunch loyalists with perfectly legal day jobs. There is a railway ticket collector who hangs out here at least once every week when his train, the Goa Sampark Kranti Express, reaches Delhi. There is a wedding card merchant from Old Delhi’s Chawri Bazar. And once every week, the waiters say, there is a Japanese visitor who happens to be the head chef of a luxury hotel’s prestigious Japanese speciality restaurant. The chef always sits in front of the TV, has a bottle of beer, a few pegs of whisky and a chicken dish. He doesn’t talk to anybody. I saw the man the day I was there. His driver said he always comes on his weekly day off, after a day spent playing golf.
The live band, which starts playing after 8pm, is headed by a woman who often dresses in a leopard-skin patterned jacket. They sing Bollywood numbers on request. A space upstairs with a bar counter offers a small and snug sanctuary to those wanting to flee the music. You see foreign tourists seated there. In fact, the ambience there has no relation to the drama downstairs. You could well be in a Defence Colony pub.
One regular customer, a trader from Jodhpur who visits Delhi frequently on business, says he keeps coming to Green Chilli because “I feel at home here”. Another, a regular visitor from Bengaluru, frequents it for the music band.
Gold Resto Bar
This is a place with heritage value. In its earlier avatar, it was Paharganj’s first bar and was known as Chandni Bar; no relation to the award-winning Bollywood film of the same name. The bar is part of a hotel. The manager says the bar first opened in 1994 but closed down, along with the hotel, in 2008. It reopened under a new name and a new owner in 2012. Today, its clientele chiefly comprises train travellers who walk down with their suitcases and bags from the New Delhi Railway Station.
The bar has two areas. The first section is a long, narrow space with tables on either side. During the day, men sit here alone or in twos and threes. Red and blue light radiates from the side panels; the walls are decked with two images: One shows a man pouring wine over a woman lying in a bathtub, the other shows a woman pouring wine over herself.
The second section looks like a banquet hall, which opens after 8pm. One evening, I spotted the aforementioned Japanese chef there too. There’s a stage for a band, which usually performs slow Hindi film songs, mostly from Gulzar’s tearjerkers. But don’t visit it if you have just broken off a relationship.
The Gem Bar & Restaurant
The Sikh owner is a Che Guevara fan. His turban is printed with Che’s images. The other revolutionary aspect is the women-dominated band that performs upstairs. Their behaviour is rather radical on weekday evenings. Not for them the usual stage manners. They are glued to their mobile phones, leaving the solitary male singer to perform one romantic song after another.
The back table on the first floor is the best place to lounge. If you don’t want to concentrate on the music or are feeling too low, then look out of the glass window at the bright and busy Main Bazar lane with its trinket vendors, tourists and touts.
Sam’s Restaurant & Bar
Opened in 2013, it’s the new kid on the block. No live music here; only English pop that played one afternoon from a stereo was Rihanna. It caters mainly to foreign tourists staying in the local hotels, though the weekends see many Indians. The best place is a corner table squeezed into a large alcove that keeps you partly hidden. Visit it if you aren’t in a mood to partake of Paharganj’s kitschy underbelly. This is a more formal setting, but flashes of the Paharganj bedlam are visible through the large glass window.
White Heart Resto-Bar
Come evening and single men carrying helmets and laptop bags start trooping in. No romantic couples here. Lonely people can find consolation in staring at the heart-shaped red light on the roof, the promise of elusive romance. The band sits at the extreme end, against a backdrop of blenders and fruits.
By 10pm, the atmosphere changes; perfect strangers at different tables chat with each other and with the singers on the stage. There are jokes and repartee. It’s like being in a friend’s drawing room. A large aquarium stands at the entrance.
Cheers Lounge Bar
Visit after 8pm and very loud music welcomes you. One evening, a burqa-clad woman could be seen chatting loudly with her friend, while the band performed Bollywood chartbusters from the 1980s. Her presence was a surprise because this place draws mostly men.
The lighting is very dim even by usual bar standards. If you visit during the afternoons, you encounter a world barely visible, and utterly quiet. Gradually, as your eyes adapt to the dim light, you begin to notice customers lounging alone—half-finished glasses beside plates of chilli chicken or peanuts.
Le Fairway Restaurant & Bar
It feels out of place—too neat and sleek to be in chaotic Paharganj—and is probably the only bar in the area to offer a wide variety of imported liquor. The bar—part of the Paris-inspired Hotel Le Roi—has a large counter behind which hangs a portrait of golfer Tiger Woods, a clue to the bar’s name. Golf sticks and framed photographs of other golfers hang on walls. The manager says the owner is passionate about the game. There is no live music, though contemporary English songs play on a loop (the management stops the music if a guest so desires). You hardly see Indian faces here. Most of the customers are foreign backpackers.
This is your bar, my bar, everyone’s bar. So wildly popular, especially with cash-strapped college students, that it also has outlets in other parts of the city, including the pricey Connaught Place a couple of kilometres away. This is also the only bar in Paharganj where a lot of young Indian women hang out in groups. The band is all-boys. Arijit Singh’s songs are extremely popular, and sorry, a placard says you cannot place requests for favourite numbers. Waiters are usually summoned with a whistle. Deep-fried chilli mushroom is a favourite. Lonely people without company prefer the back tables near the entrance.
Don’t forget to return the greeting of doorman Trilok Das, a very polite man with a great smile and salute.
Moments from Green Chilli restaurant and bar