Many Calcuttas live within Calcutta: this is something I've always said. When I told one of my friends that there's a bar near Esplanade crossing, where you still get Tuborg beer for ₹115, all inclusive, all I got was a glance of disbelief. And when I said that the bar came complete with proper seating and AC, he was pretty sure I was stoned. Thus started the journey to arguably one of Kolkata's oldest and cheapest bars -- Chhota Bristol, aka Shaw Brothers.
Location and timings
Standing in front of the famous K C Das sweet shop at the Esplanade crossing, you need to take the S N Banerjee Road towards Moulali; the first dingy lane on the right is the (in)famous Metro gully. Get in and on your right, you'll see a place where numerous bikes are parked. The adjacent door is closely guarded by one security guy and lots of people waiting outside for a seat. Just as you enter, you'll find the menu on your right printed on a glow sign and tucked on a wall and one LED screen displaying the liquor prices. Welcome to Chhota Bristol.
The bar is open on all regular days until 10pm. But here's a tip: avoid visiting between 5.30-7pm as it's usually chockfull (of mostly regulars) then and it's almost impossible to get a seat. The service is closed between 6-6.15pm, which is when the daily puja is performed at the counter. Mr Gour Chandra Shaw is extremely particular about this.
Inside it seems like you're in a market, with everyone seeming to talk at the top of their voice about everything from politics to football to religion to everything in between.
The first challenge is to find a chair, or even get someone to share their table with you. Once you get settled, you get used to the din and can separate strands of conversation from one another. And then suddenly, out of nowhere, a waiter appears. Don't expect a drinks menu here. They expect you to know what you want to drink, and of course, fancy cocktails are out of the question. Order your drinks and pay the waiter (it's a pre-paid world). He'll come back with your order and exact change, along with drinks for more tables/persons. In my 15 years of experience there I've never seen them mixing up orders -- never. With your booze comes a complementary snack of chhola, sliced ginger and rock salt. You need to pay ₹2 for a bowl of ice though.
The beer is chilled and the glass is clean. Please don't try to look down at the floors -- as they say, let sleeping dogs lie. Chhota Bristol doesn't have a kitchen, but they do have snack vendors outside who make excellent chaat and sell their wares to customers inside the bar. Tip them around ₹5 extra and special care will be taken for your order. The range varies from peanuts (₹6) to mutton liver stir fried with onion and sliced green chilly (₹70) to the mandatory fish fingers (₹70 for eight pieces). Then there's the humble kasundi, mutton bheja fry, chilly chicken, diced cheese cubes, salted cashews... take your pick. There's nothing extraordinary about the food but it's the kind of honest, spicy grub that goes well with booze. You can eat to your heart's content for just ₹200-250 per head.
As I said, the food is not extraordinary, but the overall ambience is. In a place like this, you get to see the real Kolkata. Normal people from nearby offices, college-goers, junior- to mid- level executives, businessmen -- they all come down. It's like an adda-khana with booze thrown in. It's a microcosm of the city, in all its diversity. Not that EVERYONE is ushered in with open arms. Snobs are not welcome here, and women may not feel entirely comfortable in the gents'-club atmosphere. It's a dedicated men's world inside. Even then, I've seen a waiter denying drinks to a guest saying, "Boudi (referring to the guest's wife) has allowed only two pegs and I won't serve you more than that". Now, Kolkata always going to be this personal, whether we like it or not. Chhota Bristol has been this way for the past 100 years or so and little has changed other than the addition of the AC. Certain places are meant to represent a city, its insider stories, and this is one of them.
Needless to say, I won the bet with my friend, and even he's a regular at this joint now.
PS: If you're still looking for dinner, you may try the nearby Anarkali Restaurant, for its Indian chilly chicken... bon appétit!
A version of this post first appeared here.
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