A bar crawl through Mumbai's 6 most legendary drinking holes

A bar crawl through Mumbai's 6 most legendary drinking holes

If you had to drink your way round Mumbai covering panoramic views, dive bars and haute hotels, these 6 landmark drinking dens would have to be on your list
Cafe Mondegar Mumbai
Mondys won't make you feel guilty about getting a beer at noon. We need more of those.

Let’s face it, you don’t really go to a bar for the alcohol. Okay you do... but the best local bars are as much about character as they are about beer lists and vodka selections. 

Next time you're in town make sure you check out this selection of pubs, each of them as unique to Mumbai as an over-burdened local train network. Some of these bars have featured in bestselling books, some are more humble venues for daily druken behaviour and two are so iconic, so resilient and historically relevant they even became targets for the 26/11 terror attacks. Luckily for us they are still going strong.

Here are six bars you could only ever find in Mumbai. 

Cafe Mondegar, Colaba Causeway

Cafe Mondegar

When it comes to cafes and bars, for a sheer volume to quality ratio, there’s no beating Colaba. And the first one you’re likely to hit on your trip down the stretch is Cafe Mondegar, or "Mondys" to friends. Mondys stands at the lip of Colaba Causeway, offering blessed refuge to anyone too lazy to bother wading down the stretch. Like Leopold, it lies in the shadow of the Taj Mahal hotel, and like Leopold, its loyalists will give the doubters no quarter. Mondys is more all-day cafe than bar; in fact, its alcohol selection is restricted to a selection of beers and now wine. So get a cold one (or a pitcherful of cold ones if you’re in it for the long haul) and soak in the downtown Mumbai buzz.

Squeeze yourself into one of the sardine-like tables and revel in the cafe’s relatively untouched and unchanged interiors, especially the giant mural (loosely about a day in the life of a bustling cafe in Mumbai) by legendary Indian illustrator Mario Miranda that dresses one wall. If there’s a song you want to listen to, get some change from the cashier and work the jukebox in the corner (or you’ll be doomed to endless replays of The Eagles' "Hotel California"). And then just settle down to some solid food and drink. Lather, rinse, repeat. The menu’s pretty even, but if we had to pick, we’d recommend a round of chicken lollipop and onion-rings. Mondys is among the last of its breed -- the perfect hybrid of Mumbai’s fast-dying Irani restaurants (chequered table-cloths? Check. Netted chairs? Check) and beer bars. Because it’s been there forever. But most of all, because it’s the sort of place you can buy a beer at noon in without feeling guilty. And god knows every city needs more of those. 

Cafe Mondegar, Metro House, 5-A Shahid Bhagat Singh Road, Colaba; tel. +91 (0) 22 2202 0591

Aer at the Four Seasons Hotel, Worli

Four Seasons bar Mumbai

Located on the rooftop of the Four Seasons hotel, 34 storeys above the chaos that is central Mumbai, one of the city’s busiest (and buzziest) emerging commercial districts, Aer is as brash as an investment banker on bonus day. Which, oddly enough, is also a perfectly good way to describe the crowd that drinks, nay, preens there. It isn’t the fact that Aer is a roof with a view that makes it such an essential Mumbai destination, it’s what makes up that view that does it. As you sip a Horizon (the club’s signature drink, a mix of curry leaves, coconut and vodka) you lord it over insane views of Lower Parel, once home to some of the city’s oldest mills, and now a giant construction site with posh commercial and residential spaces in various stages of development.

It’s a steel-laced picture of a city on the make, the sort of image that makes you want to go work some place where you can put on a suit and lay claim to being a master of the universe. While you’re at it, it’s a great place for that business drink with the client who isn’t easily impressed. For those with different ambitions, it’s also a great place to be seen with the Page 3 crowd. It’s minimalist, it’s mellow and mad by turns, it’s money, and most important of all, it’s Mumbai at its capitalist best. Gordon Gekko would approve. A fully-redeemable cover-charge of Rs 1,500 per person is applicable on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays if you can get in, that is. Entry on all other days is free.

Aer, Four Seasons Hotel, 114, E. Moses Road, Worli; tel. +91 (0) 22 24818 000

Cafe Leopold, Colaba Causeway

Cafe Leopold Mumbai

These days, it’s easy to get lost in the myth of Leopold. More than any other Mumbai bar in memory, "Leo" as the regulars call it, has lent itself to legend. For starters, it’s been around since 1871. The kitschy tourist trap that is the Colaba Causeway pretty much grew around it. Then there’s Gregory David Roberts' best-selling Mumbai fable titled "Shantaram". Leopold is the book’s version of the Mos Eisley Cantina from "Star Wars", an oasis for sun-scorched travelers that is home to both villainy and valor (no light sabers, sadly). And on a summer afternoon, Leopold shamelessly plays to the myth, packed with tourists tossing back cold booze and hot meat (try the chilly beef. We dare you). You can even buy a copy of "Shantaram" at the counter. If you’re lucky, you can get it signed by the author at his regular table.

The myth takes a darker turn when you notice the bullet-holes in the glass. On the night of 26/11, this is where the gunmen opened fire first. But the truth is, Leopold is at its best when you throw out the baggage surrounding it and just enjoy your drink, and watch the tourist machine that is Colaba hum to itself. Or, if you want to shut the city out completely, round up some friends, vanish into the cafe’s more pub-like upper section, and treat yourself to the steak (medium-rare works best) and leave the myth-making to the tourists.

Leopold Cafe, Colaba Causeway, Bhagat Singh Road, Next To Regal Cinema, Colaba; tel. +91 (0) 22 228 28185

Janata Lunch Home, Restaurant & Bar, Bandra (W)

Janata bar mumbai

The name’s a mouthful, we know, but relax. Kick it like we do and call it "Janata", which is Hindi for "common people". With a name like that, it’s safe to assume that this is a no-frills place, and you’d be right. Nestled in the western suburb of Pali Hill (zip-code to loads of Bollywood), Janata is for the more adventurous, or the more broke, which explains the bar’s enduring appeal with generations of cash-strapped college kids and people looking for a quick weeknight drink that won’t dent their wallet. Janata is a true-blue dive; you wouldn’t notice it while walking past, the food’s cheap, the booze is even cheaper. It’s one of the city’s most popular quarter bars, a place where you buy and drink your liquor by the bottle, like you would off a shelf. You might in fact, want to drink straight out of the bottle, given that you’re likely to get a barely washed glass.

Don’t bother asking for a cleaner replacement. Your overworked waiter has more pressing business, like slamming more filthy glasses down on other tables as he runs past as harried as the rabbit in "Alice in Wonderland". The rule of thumb with most dives in Mumbai is that the 'air conditioned section' is shorthand for 'slightly cleaner, slightly posher section', but Janata couldn’t be bothered. And it needn’t be either, because once you’ve had a crack at the superb pub food on offer, you won’t really care. Our picks? The chicken tikka, the chilli chicken, and crispy vegetables. And as you consider complaining about the cheap plastic crockery and cutlery on offer, remember you’re paying a shade under 400 bucks a pop (less than US$10 a person). So instead here’s a tip: Drink yourself blind so you don’t remember the dirty bits the next day.

Janata Lunch Home, Dr Ambedkar Road, Pali Naka, Bandra (W); tel. +91 (0) 22 2600 5180

The Harbour Bar, The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, Colaba

The Harbour Bar, Taj Mumbai

The Taj is one of Mumbai’s oldest sentinels of the good life, and you couldn’t complete a drinker’s tour of Mumbai without a visit to the hotel's oldest, most historic watering hole, The Harbour Bar. It isn’t the sort of place you go to do shots with your friends, it’s where the city’s power list mulls over matters of import, and has for decades. First opened in 1933, it is the city’s oldest licensed bar and after it was gutted in the 26/11 terror attack the Taj worked relentlessly to restore it to its former glory. The new version might be more modern, but the bar’s original, iconic art-deco theme still underpins this sleek new look, and if you want a further slice of history, all you have to do is look out the street-level windows at Mumbai’s ageless harbor, almost anchored in place by the iconic Gateway of India monument.

And then there’s the fact that The Harbour Bar’s menu is also a chronicle of its history. Take for example, "Since 1933", the bar’s signature cocktail, a blend of tropical fruit flavour, Chartreuse, fresh fruits, Tanqueray Tan and Peach Liquor. One (possibly apocryphal) story suggests that "Since 1933" gets its name from an American whose boat was moored at the Gateway in 1933, which is when he heard about the end of Prohibition. He celebrated by asking for a special cocktail at the bar, and voila. But this being the Taj, it’s no surprise that the Harbour Bar has a formidable arsenal of malts and whiskeys for the connoisseur’s more puritan palate. But here’s why The Harbour Bar is really a must-do watering hole: If you’re a connoisseur of the good life, it’ll feel oh-so-familiar to you. And if you’re not, it is a splendid taste of the life you’re missing out on.

Harbour Bar, The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, Apollo Bunder; tel. +91 (0) 22 6665 3366

Toto's Garage, Bandra (W)

Totos Garage

Toto’s is more than a bar, it’s a scientific anomaly. The very laws of physics get turned upside down at this motor-themed watering hole in Bandra’s Pali Naka area. For starters, there’s always about twice as many people in there than should fit in that amount of space. And then there’s the gravity-bending Volkswagen Beetle that hangs off the ceiling. And in case you think that’s some sort of token nod to the "Garage" name, think again. There’s the Omni-van cut-out that the DJ sits in (he only spins classic rock, a spot of alternative, and metal by the way). There’s the garage-like wire mesh that separates the seating areas, and in the world pre smoking bans, your ashtrays were clutch-plates.

But Toto’s shouldn’t be on your must-do list just because it’s one of Mumbai’s oldest themed bars. No, if you go, do it for the vibe, go for the chaotic, boisterous, beer-fueled roar of its regulars (don’t worry, there’s only about a billion of them). Go for the moderately priced alcohol (a pint of local brew should cost you Rs 150). Go for the chilli chicken, and cheese pakoras that make superb dates for your drinks. Forget a quiet chat over a quick G&T, here you get tanked up and join the entire bar singing to an Iron Maiden chorus. If you’re too drunk to remember the lyrics, just headbang like an angsty sixteen year old. Also, if you can, try and figure out what the man with the sunglasses does in a bar that’s this dark. He's always there. He's important in that mysterious sort of way, but we're still trying to work him out.  

Toto’s Garage, 30, Lourdes Heaven, Pali Junction, Bandra (W); tel. +91 (0) 22 2600 5494

Rohan Joshi is a writer, TV presenter and stand-up comedian (not necessarily in that order) born and raised in Mumbai.
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