Even a city as colourful as Delhi has its limitations. Dive bars, for instance. Traditionally, cheap watering holes have been home to young drunks with little money and big ambitions. Here, those spaces have been co-opted rather forcefully by a certain kind of privileged male: physically strong, lecherous, aggressive, confrontational and looking for a fight. Which automatically rules these places out for the rest of us. Instead, we have to make do with slightly fancier (but almost as cheap) haunts that offer not just affordable drinks, finger food and a functional toilet but also (relative) safety. "Comfort bars", we like to call them. Here's a list of five of them and, surprise surprise, only one of them is in Hauz Khas Village.
Community Centre, New Friends Colony, New Delhi
T: (011) 2684 4380
The hallmark of a comfort bar is that you need it more than it needs you. Pebble Street, in the once trendy Community Centre in New Friends Colony, takes that dictum to its logical extreme, treating its patrons with inflated contempt. In the modern age of open footwear, they've been known to, on occasion, kick people out for not wearing shoes. A smiling server remains a westernised concept that has no place in our respectable Indian society. A clean table a Soviet conspiracy. Their bathroom smells like the aftermath of a battlefield. But then the drinks are cheap and they have all these cool package deals — a bucket filled to the brim with melting ice and half a dozen pints of beer for the cost of four, maybe a vegetarian starter thrown in for good measure. The selection of drinks ranges from plebeian to bourgeois, and the food is not inedible — a crucial if seemingly small detail. They try to keep up with the times with frequent Sufi nights, live match screenings, electronica nights, DJ nights, whatever nights where the music is intolerably loud (and bad) but it's the happy hours and isolation from the buzz of Hauz Khas or Saket that pulls people in. Pebble Street is really an idyllic (well...) post-work spot for a round or two of drinks and some Chinese and Indian and Indian Chinese food.
Main Market, Defence Colony, Near Sagar Ratna, New Delhi
T: (011) 4166 4316
Who is the friendliest man in the world? The gatekeeper at Defence Colony's 4S. He sports a splendid moustache, and smiles his warmest smile at anything that breathes. We suspect he was born with the moustache. And the smile. What it means is that you feel extra special each time you enter this restaurant/bar, just like every single person inside. Judging by the exhaustive Chinese food menu, 4S was ostensibly a family restaurant in a previous life, with food that would rank a level or two above middling (with excellent honey chili garlic fried potatoes and chili chicken). But somewhere along the way, they stumbled on to the concept of Happy Hours, and never looked back. The place seems fairly proud of itself for its unpretentiousness; you won't ever find any imported beer there even though it's listed, and anything beyond the cheapest variant of Kingfisher seems fancy. It's mostly frequented by lawyers and unemployed "creative types" who claim to be freelancers, so conversation often veers on the heavier side of things, as alcohol is wont to induce. Plus, legend has it that 4S actually stands for the "four sardars" who started the place, which is as good a reason as any to visit the place.
The bathroom at Pebble Street smells like the aftermath of a battlefield. But then the drinks are cheap and they have all these cool package deals — a bucket filled to the brim with melting ice and half a dozen pints of beer for the cost of four, maybe a vegetarian starter thrown in for good measure.
Middle Lane, Khan Market,
T: (011) 4352 1811
The Khan Market version of Route04 (there are a couple of others too) still remains the best (or worst) of the lot. The positives: Underpriced drinks with further offers on larger quantities, a decent (if pricey) food menu that features decent pizzas, and a suitably dive atmosphere. But that only works as long as you're content with sitting in a cramped indoor section with tattered walls, obsolete pop art, tear-inducing smoke and many, many kids. (Kids, sure, but not under the age of 25 of course, since that's the law.) Due to their age, a lot of them can't quite handle their drinks. Neither can we, but unlike us, they don't stop when they should — call it the invincibility of youth, which allows them to carry on well beyond their limited capabilities, leading to a smell in the air thick with hormones and regurgitated beer. As for the music, it's been known to shatter an eardrum or two — but it's either that or the noisy chatter of said kids — and they've been playing cheesy pop-rock from the 1990s and 2000s for the past 30 years.
Out of the Box
9A, Hauz Khas Tank, Deer Park, 2nd floor, New Delhi
T: +91 98991 00726
As one of the first few drinking places to open up in the area, Out of the Box has been witness to many different versions of Hauz Khas Village, from the early days of struggling artists setting up studios there thanks to the cheap rent, to fake-hipness and self-parody status, followed by the current embodiment: hep nightclub axis with twice-daily traffic jams and brawls. So it's almost historical, but not quite. In any case, while Out of the Box does veer on the pricier side of things, their pre-rush hour Happy Hours sort of make up for it, plus they offer very nice, experimental-ish fusion food. It used to be one of the more popular bars around before it got overrun by the newer, shinier ones, but they still have a gigantic rooftop, ideal for rainy monsoon days, and, most importantly, a lift to take you there, so you don't have to walk up four flights of stairs.
G 68, Near Metro Exit 7 & 8, Outer Circle, Connaught Place
T: +91 97110 18188
My Bar is practically an institution in some circles. It started off, we believe, as this cult bar in Paharganj before spreading its wings far and wide, but since Paharganj has a strict entry policy (only unwashed hippies allowed, seemingly) we're going with the one in Connaught Place. The thing with pubs in the heart of the capital is that the area is such a great leveler — you get people from all walks of life visiting Central Park, shopping, getting their ears cleaned in the lawns above Palika Bazaar, changing metro lines — that most places end up seeming the same. My Bar has cult of personality, allowing it that extra bit of individuality that a new bar opening up would need years to develop. Good luck finding a place there, though.