Chhota Bristol A Peoples Bar In Kolkata

A reminder of the times past, this popular watering hole in the heart of the city recently completed 150 years.
Inside Chhota Bristol, a 150 year old bar in Kolkata
Inside Chhota Bristol, a 150 year old bar in Kolkata

We cautiously turned our heads as an emphatic voice, speaking in Bengali, floated down to us &ndash &lsquoNa apnake ar debo na, boudi apnake du peg er beshi khete baron korechhen na&rsquo &ndash &lsquoNo I will not serve you any more, didn&rsquot your wife tell you not to drink more than two pegs&rsquo From the corner of our eye, we could see the waiter standing over the middle-aged drinker who looked sheepishly to his empty glass, to the waiter, and then back to the glass.

At any other place, this might have led to a huge ruckus. But not here, not at the Chhota Bristol. This 150 year old watering hole in the heart of Kolkata enjoys a unique bonhomie between patrons and the service staff.

Tucked within the (in)famous Metro Gully, not far from the Esplanade crossing, is the bar, popularly known as Shaw's bar - formally called Shaw Bros (Wine) Pvt Ltd - after the family which runs it. Even today, the operations are managed in shifts supervised by a family member, said Dibyendu Shaw who was present during our time of visit.

Nobody knows for sure how the bar got its moniker Chhota Bristol and different people tell different tales. The most popular being, the bar was located on the backside of the popular Bristol Hotel (which occupied the corner of Chowringhee Road and Dharamtola Street), and it was the journalists from nearby publishing houses, who were regulars, used to call it the Chhota Bristol. The journalists are long gone but the name stuck.

Inside Chhota Bristol

Once you go past the lone security guard and enter the bar, the first thing that hits you is the noise. Just when you get in those doors, you will find the menu on your right, printed on a glow sign on the wall and one LED screen displaying the liquor prices.

Inside, it seems like you are in a busy marketplace. Everybody is shouting, rather talking among themselves, having small talks- the topics ranging from politics to football, political leaders to religious leaders and any damn thing in between.

The first challenge is to find a chair and settle down. Once you find your chair, your ears begin to adjust to the buzz around you, and you learn to discern the individual talks and chit chats. And suddenly, out of nowhere, a waiter appears. No, it is against the norm there to carry a printed menu. They expect you to know your drinks and of course, you're not expecting any fancy cocktails there.

Order your drinks and pay the waiter (it is a prepaid world). He will come back with your drinks and exact change, serving several tables at the same time. And in my15 years of experience here, I have never seen them mixing up the orders- never. With the booze comes a complementary chat of chhola (chickpeas), sliced ginger and rock salt. You need to pay a meagre amount for a bowl of ice though.

Food and drinks at Chhota Bristol

The beer is chilled and the glass is clean. Chota Bristol does not have a kitchen, nor do they plan to have one in the near future.

In the pre-Covid days, there used to be local street food vendors, sheepishly trying to sell you their food items. They used to move inside with their offering and you just needed to choose from the selection. A tip of a mere five rupees above the price ensured they took special care of your order. The range varied from peanuts to a platter of mutton liver served stir fried with onion and sliced green chilly. The mandatory fish finger came with a humble dash of kasundi. Mutton Liver Kasha. There was chilly chicken, cheese cubes, salted cashew etc. But the pandemic, like many other things, changed this wonderful system.

Now, some of the employees of the bar  have set up something like a canteen and sell snacks themselves. While it caused an outrage among Shaw&rsquos Bar loyalists, soon it was accepted.

The food is good, but nothing extraordinary. Regular honest spicy food, which goes well with booze. You are likely to have your fill at Rs 200 to Rs 250 per head.

It is the atmosphere that matters

In a place like this, you get to see the real Calcutta (or Kolkata as it is called now). People from the nearby offices, college goers, junior to mid-level executives, businessmen- they all come down here round the day. It&rsquos more like an adda-zone with booze thrown in. A mini version of the city itself, in its brilliant diverse state. It is definitely not a place for snobs. By the way, women are not allowed here (whether that is a good or a bad idea is a matter of debate). But I know for sure many prefer it this way &ndash the last frontier for the fraternity.

In all likelihood, the bar and its atmosphere has remained the same over the past century, with rare concessions to modern trappings (like the air conditioners)

And frankly, nobody minds that. Certain places are meant to represent a city- its insider stories and Chhota Bristol is one of them. It has been privy to the city&rsquos share of gossip from the sailors of yesteryears, heard the office babus of the 20th century bring the roof down with their debates, and now watches the antics of the modern youth.

I personally believe, history or heritage does not only mean old houses.

Tip Shaw&rsquos Bar remains open till 10pm on regular days. If you are a new visitor, best to avoid the bar between 5.30pm and 7pm, when the regulars crowd there. The bar remains closed between 6pm and 6.15pm when the daily puja is held.

(Indrajit Lahiri, an IT entrepreneur by profession and a food and drinks specialist by passion, is also a well-known blogger with a couple of books and various awards to his credit.)

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