Kolkata bars welcome back tipplers after lockdown-induced dry spell

Topics Coronavirus | restaurants | Lockdown

Given the desperate situation for the industry, the state government's confirmation early this week to allow alcohol again has come as a lifesaver
What happens when you fish out cash to pay at the popular pub and brewery The Grid at Topsia in the old Chinatown of Kolkata? The waiter, who is armed to the teeth with variations of sanitisers and shields, takes out one that sprays light mist and renders the currency safe for transaction.

Sanitising booths, regular temperature checks of waiters and customers, sanitiser mist-spewing chimneys, plastic shields dividing bars and customers or separating tables — scenes at the favourite watering holes on day one of serving alcohol after the lockdown-induced dry spell appeared to haul a city famed for its old-world charm straight into the future.

And they showed that the pubs and restaurants of Kolkata are ready for a tough fight to be back in business.

For their patrons, it is a relief to have a sense of normalcy back in life. In fact, some consider restaurants a far safer and cosier option.

“As doctors on Covid duty, we are continuously exposed to the risk of catching the virus. But we have to be on duty and with the pressures we work under, it is difficult to plan all meals. In such a situation, it is way safer to eat at restaurants like this where good care is taken about precautions. The beer on the side is a plus,” says Tunisha Chatterjee, 35, enjoying a dinner of fried rice and chicken at Trincas.

The restaurant and musical performance venue is a landmark in the city’s original party hub, Park Street, with history dating back to before World War II.

Trincas has used the lockdown creatively to function mostly as a takeaway. It added Thai cuisine to the menu and introduced a half-plate concept for more affordable meals when they reopened last week.

“The nod to serve alcohol helps a lot. For customers who either come for a family dinner or a quick meal, a drink on the side is always something they look for,” says Anand Puri, owner of Trincas.

Around six or seven tables were occupied on Tuesday evening by small groups enjoying a drink outside their homes after long.

A few steps away, another old-school favourite, Moulin Rouge, was serving liquor, too. It had a plastic sheet separating customers from the staff and hand sanitisers for anybody who stepped in. But Oly Pub, known for its immense popularity across generations, was still shut.

Given the desperate situation for the industry, the state government's confirmation early this week to allow alcohol again has come as a lifesaver.

“Nearly 90 per cent of the restaurants that serve liquor were shut because they could not serve alcohol. Some functioned as takeaways and some were just shut, incurring losses of over Rs 1,000 crore overall,” explains Sudesh Poddar, secretary of Hotel and Restaurant Association of Eastern India.

Poddar says that nearly 60 per cent of the revenue of these restaurants comes from alcohol, and even those who drop in for pub grub usually combine it with a drink or two.

He is encouraged by Tuesday’s footfall. Manthan Songhai, his restaurant on Waterloo Street, the old office hub of the city, was running full to the new social distancing limits of 50 per cent capacity. Poddar says that there are around 400 restaurants in the city that serve alcohol, and nearly 80 per cent of them opened on Tuesday. As people become aware of the precautions the eateries are taking and footfall increases, the rest, he says, will follow suit.

Ashwini Mishra, 24, a businessman, came to know that he could now drink at The Grid when he turned up with his brothers to collect some beer and food. “This was a really pleasant surprise. We are regulars at this place but have not had a drink outside for over four months now,” he says.

While choosing a place to go to, some like Deepak Shukla, 30, finds the thorough sanitisation process of places such as Refinery 091 assuring. “We can keep coming here just because of the checks in place. They sanitise your whole body in a chamber when you enter; there are proper distancing norms followed inside and every glass and plate is thoroughly sanitised with hot water before they serve you,” he says.

Most patrons on Tuesday stuck to beer or wine. But independent mixologist Sourav Singh, who is relieved to be back in service, believes that customers will surely be up for cooler drinks soon. For visitors, who are returning after a long hiatus, he has crisp and refreshing drinks such as gin and tonic with a twist or cocktails with fresh ingredients like gondhoraj lemon, mint or orange in mind.

The formal notification that came on Monday, however, was a bit too rushed for some owners. Sudhir Ahuja, the owner of Sector V pub Bakstage, plans to start only by September 7. “Since ours is an entire building, we will need to sanitise the place thoroughly before we allow guests, and this will take a little time. But by then we want to open for good with solid sanitisation measures in place.”

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