The tipsy, men-only, cheap-as-sunshine world of Kolkata’s Chhota Bristol

Among the city’s oldest bars, Chhota Bristol or Shaw’s Bar has been a rite of passage for everyone from high court judges to college students.

Published on:May 5, 2016 4:13 pm

I have always believed that there are numerous Calcuttas within Calcutta. Little worlds inside one big, chaotic world. The bar this piece concerns itself with is one of them. The other day I told a friend of mine about this place that is located around Esplanade Crossing. It had proper seating, I told him, and was air-conditioned. Plus, it sold a bottle of Tuborg beer for Rs 115 (all inclusive). He looked at me as if I was high on grass. And so, I decided to take him to one of Kolkata’s oldest, characterful (and cheapest) bars.

Chhota Bristol was set up around a century ago. (Photo: Indrajit Lahiri) Chhota Bristol was set up around a century ago. (Photo: Indrajit Lahiri)

Now, if you are standing in front of the famous KC Das shop at the Esplanade Crossing, you need to take the SN Banerjee Road towards Moulali. The first dingy lane on your right is the (in)famous Metro Gully. Walk into the lane and look for an establishment on your right that is marked by a number of parked motorcycles and numerous people awaiting their turn to get inside. Yes, you have reached Chhota Bristol or Shaw’s Bar. It’s open every day until 10pm.
But, be warned: it’s impossible to get a seat between 5:30pm and 7pm, thanks to a large number of regulars who flock to the bar at around those times. There is no service between 6 to 6:15pm, when the daily puja is performed at the counter — Mr Gour Chandra Shaw, the owner, is extremely particular about the puja.

Regulars say that, despite the sheer number of customers, the staff never mix up the orders. (Photo: Indrajit Lahiri) Regulars say that, despite the sheer number of customers, the staff never mix up the orders. (Photo: Indrajit Lahiri)

As soon as you enter the bar, you’ll find the menu on your right, printed on a glow sign on the wall, and an LED screen displaying the liquor prices. Welcome to Chhota Bristol (once again).

Inside, it will seem like you’re in a market. Everybody’s shouting, rather talking among themselves, there is a lot of small talk. The topics range from politics to football, political leaders to religious leaders and any damn thing in between.

The first challenge is to find a chair, or even to find one shared chair and settle in. Once you start settling in, your auditory sense shifts its focus from the humming to dialogue and chit-chat. And suddenly, out of nowhere, a waiter will appear. No, it’s against the norm here to carry a drinks card. They expect you to know your drinks and, of course, you’re not expecting any fancy cocktail here. Order your drinks and pay the waiter (it’s a prepaid world at Shaw’s). He’ll come back with your drinks, the exact change and drinks for adjoining tables in a unique fashion. And in the last 15 years I’ve never seen them mix up orders — never. A complimentary chaat — chola, sliced ginger, and rock salt — is served with the booze. You need to pay Rs 2 for a bowl of ice, though.

The food is honest and spicy; goes well with booze. (Photo: Indrajit Lahiri) The food is honest and spicy; goes well with booze. (Photo: Indrajit Lahiri)

The beer is chilled and the glass is clean. Please don’t mind the floor. As they say, let sleeping dogs lie. Chhota Bristol doesn’t have a kitchen or food options, and neither do they plan to have it in the near future. Instead, there are snack vendors outside on the pavement, who make some excellent chat, among others, all of which is sold inside. Tip the waiters around Rs 5, and special care will be taken of your order. The options range from peanuts (Rs 6) to mutton liver stir fried with onions and sliced green chilly (Rs 70). The mandatory fish fingers are available — eight pieces for Rs 70. It is served with the humble kasundi, and there is also a Mutton Bheja Fry. You also get Chilli Chicken, cheese (diced into small cubes), salted cashew etc, but one can’t have everything at one go. The food regular, honest and spicy, and goes well with booze. One can eat his heart out for around Rs 250 per head.

Fish fingers with kasundi. (Photo: Indrajit Lahiri) Fish fingers with kasundi. (Photo: Indrajit Lahiri)

As I said, the food is not extraordinary, but the overall ambience is. In a place like this, you get to see the real Calcutta. 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. Like a small version of the city herself, in all its brilliant diversity. Snobs are not welcome, and, I have heard, neither are women. It’s a dedicated man’s world, and everyone seems to prefer it this way. But even here I’ve seen a waiter deny drinks to a guest saying, “Boudi has allowed only two pegs, and I won’t serve you more than that.”

Now, Calcutta is meant to be this personal, whether we like it or not.

Mutton liver stir fried with onions and sliced green chilly. (Photo: Indrajit Lahiri) Mutton liver stir fried with onions and sliced green chilly. (Photo: Indrajit Lahiri)

In the last 100 years or so, Chhota Bristol has been like this only (only the AC has been added). And frankly, we don’t normally mind that. Certain places are meant to represent a city, tell visitors its inside stories, and this is one of them.

This post originally appeared on mohamsukhil.wordpress.com.

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