Cheers to freedom

Updated: Aug 15, 2019, 09:34 IST | Shunashir Sen | Mumbai

This Independence Day, we scour the city for bars established before 1947, for a sepia-tinted look at Mumbai's drinking culture

Pics/Suresh Karkera
Pics/Suresh Karkera

On track with history

There was a tram junction that used to exist at Grant Road around 140 years ago. A budget guesthouse was built there for transiting passengers, aptly named the Railway Hotel, where Mohammad Ali Jinnah also lived for a bit while studying law in Bombay.

Railway Hotel

But then the Randeria brothers who owned the plot left for England in the 1930s, and the manager of the establishment, JP Kavarana, bought the place off his employers. He built an extension that he turned into a bar, where back in the day you could get a four-course meal and a peg of whiskey for `1.25.

Mohammad Ali Jinnah
Mohammad Ali Jinnah

But the times have changed. Things have come to such a pass that Darius Kavarana, JP's grandson, tells us, "If you now throw a stone at Grant Road, it will land on a bar." But the oldest of these is undoubtedly the Railway Refreshment Room, as Railway Bar is officially known. In fact, according to historian Deepak Rao, it is in all likelihood the oldest watering hole in a city that now has a buzzing drinking culture.

At Railway Bar, Bharat Nagar, Grant Road East.
Time 11 am to 11.30 pm
Call 23821028

Bhel in the bar

There was a man who used to run a bhelpuri stall outside CSMT in the early 20th century. His name was Vithal Khadawala and business was such that he'd make enough to provide for his family. But then, in 1939, the British government evicted all hawkers from the area. Khadawala, too, was asked to pack up. But as luck would have it, a landlord offered him a shop on rent nearby for `20 a month.

Bhel in the bar

And thus was born Vithal's Bhelwallah, which later turned into Vithal's Family Restaurant and Bar in 1978, after prohibition was lifted in the city six years earlier. Things ran smoothly till 2003. But then differences between Khadawala's four grandsons led to the bar being shifted two buildings away.

That's where it still operates, though the essence of the place can be traced back to an era when the cost of renting a shop was the same as what the cost of bhel is right now. AT Vithal's Family Restaurant and Bar, 13/15, AK Vasantrao Naik Marg, near Mukta Cinema and CSMT, Azad Maidan, Fort.

Time 12 pm to 11 pm
Call 22030743

Nostalgic spirits

One of the first two watering holes that you hit after exiting CSMT are New Majestic Bar and Restaurant, and Capitol that's right next to it.

Nostalgic spirits

The former was built in 1929, and the latter is even older. Their glory days are long gone now, but despite the ramshackle state, your pint of beer will still be served with a slice of history if you drop by.

At New Majestic Restaurant and Bar, Capital Building, Fort.
Time 8 am to 1 am
Call 22098573

A sight to sea

The overall structure of Harbour Bar in Taj Mahal Palace Hotel might have changed after the 26/11 terror attacks.

A sight to sea

The wooden interiors have been replaced with marble and the logo was changed to incorporate "1933", the year it was set up. But what has remained the same, and always will, is its status as the city's first ever licensed bar.

At Harbour Bar, The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Apollo Bunder, Colaba.
Time 11 am to 1.30 am
Call 66653366

Showtime in Churchgate

Where would drivers go for chai and bun maska while waiting for their sahibs and memsahibs to finish watching a film at Eros Theatre in the '50s and '60s? The answer is Café Oval, located in the same building as the iconic cinema hall.

Showtime in Churchgate

The place, established in 1934, is now one of the cheapest beer bars in the area, serving only a few chakna options. Head there for a no-nonsense pint and imagine what it was like when the sea was right beside the place, before land was reclaimed for the buildings that now lie next door.

At Cafe Oval, Cambata Building, Churchgate.
Time 9 am to 11 pm
Call 66345721

Smooth sailing

Russian and Filipino sailors sat there for tea and bun maska after docking their ships in Ballard Pier in the 1930s. So did the Indian labourers who offloaded the cargo from their vessels.

Smooth sailing

In fact, even the likes of Raj Kapoor and, later, Kader Khan spent contemplative hours at Café Universal in Fort, mulling over film scripts and trying to get into the mind of their character. The Irani establishment later started serving beer around 1975, says Basudev Rajak, who's been working there for almost half a decade now.

Raj Kapoor

He adds that he started as a domestic help in owner Behram Irani's house, and was initially tasked with warming the milk at the café at 6 am after dropping the "seth's" kids off to school. Rajak adds that he's seen a lot change over the years, but not the chairs and tables, which are still the same as what those Russian and Filipino sailors would sit on.

At Cafe Universal, 299, Shahid Bhagat Singh Road, Fort.
Time 9.30 am to 11 pm
Call 22613985

The usual suspects

The usual suspects

This list wouldn't be complete without two of the city's oldest and most iconic bars. Located close to each other in Colaba, Café Mondegar (1932, in pic) and Leopold Cafe and Bar (1871) are as much a fabric of Mumbai as Brabourne and Wankhede Stadiums are.

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