Exquisite Awesomeness of Darjeeling and Its Hangouts

bata_agari Darjeeling with LoveMany a love story started here....

If we asked youngsters to vote for the most popular hangout in town today, there will be names that most people my age will not be able to recognize. See, I am not that ancient, I am a 90s child, yet our beloved Darjeeling has seen so many changes in these past 5 years that those who have left home for a while, may not be able to find their way around.

This piece is an ode to the days of yore, when we didn’t have MNCs like Pizza Hut and KFCs in Darjeeling, when people swore by Benis and not Boney’s.

My earliest recollection of heading to a restaurant was when our dad took me and my brother to Keventer’s. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, India was still a closed economy, so we didn’t have Coke or Fanta, what we had was Thums Up and Gold Spot, and for the adventurous lot we had Limca. So when our dad took us to Kevs, I ordered a Gold Spot and my elder brother ordered a Thums Up. The waiter left the drinks at the table with an opener, dad opened my bottle and my brother insisted that he would open his himself. Today, I feel Thums Up has been watered down, back in the day when you drank it, you could literally feel the drink burn not just your throat but also your tummy, and you would burp with a burning sensation felt right up to your nostrils, it used to have that much of effervescence. So as my elder brother opened his Thums Up, the drink started to spill from the top. Unperturbed my brother shut the mouth of the bottle using his palm and started to lick the neck of the bottle, where the drink had spilt from, embarrassing dad to no end. But that is how we were, we didn’t get to drink Thumps Up or Gold Spot every day, it was a rare privilege.

new_dish
New Dish, old school charm

We did not get to go to restaurants every day, or every week or for that matter even every month. We only headed to a restaurant when our uncle came home for his two months holiday from the Army, and by restaurant, I don’t mean Glenary’s kind, I mean Bich-Galli ko Mithai Dokan kind.

soaltee
Classic Darjeeling Hangouts… the charm and awesomeness still remain

However, every once in a while someone or the other would take us to a real restaurant, and Darjeeling had an amazing little collection of iconic places. Washington, Soltee, Freedom, Penang, Orient, New Dish were eternal favourites for those wanting to try Momo, Thukpa and Chow-chow (that is what we used to call it back in the day, there was no Chowmein business).

penang
Penangs eternal favourite with the Momo crowd

Of all my memories of heading to a restaurant as a school kid, one stands out due to the innocence of the moment. So there was this newly opened restaurant Royal Punjab, a bit above Shyam Brothers, National Store line and right below DCM. I remember we were in class 9, this was 1993. During our lunch break, my best friend from school and I headed to Royal Punjab one day. As we checked the menu we realized that we did not have enough money for food, but just enough for tea, Rs 5 for a cup (and this is when you could have ek-double Sabjee ko Momo for that price).

Since we had already settled ourselves we couldn’t walk out, so we ordered tea and waited. The server brought us two fancy looking cups with saucer (Cup-Pirich ma deko chyaa). To our shock it wasn’t tea, it was just milk. So my friend yelled at the waiter and said, “chya bhaneko, kasto dudh deko… tyo pani dhago jhundi rako raicha… we ordered tea and you brought us milk, and there is a string in it…” The waiter looked at us funny, shook his head and without saying anything, he pulled the string and dipped it up and down, that is when we realized the string was for tea bag. Swear to God, we had never seen tea in a tea bag and this was a revelation for us. Needless to say, we were an embarrassed lot, but both of us were thrilled out of our wits. We headed to school and told everyone what happened, such was the innocence of those days that, everyone laughed with us and not at us.

I really only started to go to restaurants once I joined college.

orient_ko_ukkalo
Famous back in the day and even today as a cultural reference point… “Orient ko Ukkalo”

On a free day – which was most days actually – we would meet in front of Tallo Bata and head towards Benis cafe – Orient ko Ukkalo bhayera. Along the way, more friends would join us and by the time we reached Benis, we would have a small posse. Usually, we had Chola-bhatora at Benis, and Pankaj used to be our favourite server there.

benis_cafe
Benis favourite for before and after the movies at Rink Hall

Then we would head to Chowrasta and drink some tea again, from Mantu ko bau – he still sells tea there. A round or two of Mall road and we would head back to Chowk-bazar and end up in Narayan Das for evening snacks – as if we had worked all day :). I loved Kachori-Chat in Narayan Das and their Raj bhog mithai was to die for, i.e. we’d have these when we had money. Else, a cup of tea with numerous glasses of water and a pack of Khukuri cigarettes were our eternal company. Man, we could spend hours over a cup of tea and talk, lord only knows what we talked about or on, but that is what we used to do, drink tea, water and talk. I have attempted to reminiscence about those days in a poem.

mantus_dad
Mantu’s Dad still going strong against all the modernization…. More power to you!!
narayan_das
Narayn Das…. hang out for ever

For beef lovers Nini ko dokan opposite of Old Super Market was a place to swear by for Momo, and even though I didn’t eat beef, I would just hang out with my friends. We were so regular, that Nini would offer me free tea, as I didn’t eat Momo, where else would you find such kindness, but in our good old Darjeeling. Same was true for many restaurants we visited regularly, wherein we would eat in Banki and they would start a Lal Khata in our name

nini_ko_dokan
Nini ko Dokan

One of my closest friend was a Newar and he would usually pressure us into going to Ghaley’s in Bich-galli or to this restaurant which was tallo Bata ko ukkalo lagne sidi [I forgot its name] for his favourite Bhaisi ko Momo, sadly the place got burnt down in a fire a few years ago.

best_snacks
Best snacks in town

Bich-galli always amused me, it had so many amazing places where you could eat from for cheap, from all varieties of mithai to momo dokan… but of all the mithai dokan – sweet shops, our favourite was Kanhaia Lal. Usually we would end up here if we wanted to have tato-tato Julebi, 3 rupey ko ek pawa – hot Jalebis at only Rs 3 for 250 grams. Darjeeling was a cheap place to survive. Then if you wanted to have snacks alone, we didn’t rely on Lays or Uncle Chips, for we had all the awesome shops selling bhuja, home-made chips, roasted peanuts, roasted “makai – maize” right there in Bich-galli, a perfect place to have locally made snacks.

jalebi
Best Jalebi in town

If there was a rebellion in the restaurant business then Chok’s near Fancy Market was the original rebel restaurant in Darjeeling. Chok’s refused to cater to the new, they stuck to the old, and even though I credit Chok’s for introducing Taipo to Darjeeling, they stood out as old school when every new place in town was aspiring to look modern. Chok Dorjee the owner of Chok’s refused to play Boyzone or MLTR when it was cool to do so, they would rather play Jimmy Hendrix or Janet Joplin. This tiny restaurant defined Darjeeling in a way, we were born non-conformist and Chok’s defined that spirit.

choks
Chok’s… they introduced Taipo and re-introduced Hendrix and Joplin in Darjeeling Respects!!

There are some historical events that you cannot forget, for me one such incident was 9/11 terrorist attack. I still remember to this day, where I first heard the news, it was at the Paan dokan right opposite of Narayan Das. If you want to have the best Paan in Darjeeling head to this place, local legend has it that they sell Paan so big, you would shit gobar the next day.

paan_dokan
Best paan in town

I think it was around 1999-2000 that Bich-galli went up-scale with the opening up of Kalika restaurant. See Bich-galli as I said before, was always popular hangout place for food lovers, but the restaurants looked cramped and shabby. Kalika brought in class. They swanked up the eating place, introduced proper waiters and sold the same stuff we’d get in other Bich-galli restaurants, a bit expensive. All the college goers from those days will know what I am talking about, but if you were dating back then, you would invariably end up in Kalika.

kalika
Kalika… the new kid in town

I found the place funny though, the interiors of Kalika made it feel like inside of a night bus, but since I was dating, I didn’t mind the interiors as long as it felt classy and food was still affordable and within budget. Thank God for the fact that I had a “low maintenance” girlfriend, who loved Kalika, so we didn’t have to go anywhere else. If it wasn’t Kalika, she loved this small pop-up shop at Mall backside, where a Didi would sell Alu-dum-bhuja, chya and other assorted stuffs right at the Hawa Ghar, that lady is still there.

mall_road
Mall road back side… the center of innumerable love stories

However, some of my other friends were not as lucky. Their girlfriends were upscale and wouldn’t want to be seen in Bich-galli, eating. They would have to head to more swankier places.

I think, growing up perhaps it was the values instilled in me by my parents who didn’t believe in wasting money heading to expensive places to eat, or perhaps it was perpetual lack of money on my person, or perhaps that I suffered from a mild form of inferiority complex, I never had the courage to head a more expensive looking place.

I remember going to Hasty Tasty in 1999 like it was yesterday, I couldn’t believe that despite paying such a high price, we had to get our own food . Before Hasty Tasty, Darjeeling didn’t have a self-serve restaurant, so that was quiet a revelation. The Park and Glenary’s were out of budget for most college goers and my friends I were no exception. To a certain extent, so was Star Dust, however we could always head there for a cup of tea or coffee just to feel being a part of the upward and mobile crowd. I honestly feel that it was idiotic for the Stardust owners to hand over their place to CCD, as Stardust was a Darjeeling Icon much like Glenary’s or Keventers and to see an MNC which sells crap coffee and generic food take over from a local restaurant was most painful. It was particularly painful for me, as I have the fondest memories of that place.

So one time when I was in class 7, on my birthday – that rare occasion when I was flush with money – I ordered a Masala Dosa in Stardust and took it to school. Imagine, instead of chocolates or toffee, I took one Masala Dosa for everyone in class. All my classmates loved it, even though we only had tiny pieces each, but for most of us, this was the first time we had Dosa in our lives, at least for me it was. So to see Stardust change hands, was literally very painful for me.

Mentioning hangout places in Darjeeling would never be complete if we didn’t mention the watering holes. For every 18+ youth in Darjeeling, heading to a bar with their friends and getting drunk, used to be an important growing up ritual for the teenagers in our times. An all time favourite with the young revelers used to be Golden Dragon bar opposite of State Bank on Ladenla road. Despite all the modernist outlook, Darjeeling still frowned upon drinking and smoking in front of adults, so much like watching porn in a video hall, seeing a youngster in a bar was also equally frowned upon. So we had to time it right and enter the bar when there would be very less chances of adults hanging around – 11 AM on a weekday.

phipsing_dhungro
No Tongba better than here

I still remember my first tryst with GD as it was popularly known back in the day. We were actually headed for a mid-day concert (as tickets were cheaper for day show) of Nepal’s famous Pokhaerli Samuha – bands from Pokhara – who were performing at Capital Hall. So 11 AM, we were at GD and had Gin with Fanta, instead of Gold Spot – as sadly by now MNCs had entered India – and reached the venue shit drunk. I remember forcefully getting an autograph from Karna Das of “Zindagi Ko K Bharosa” fame, Hallindai – with halka niu khojne attitude.

As I grew older, I discovered Neelamber in Bich-galli – thanks to a much older friend, Ghang-Jong on NB Singh road for Tongba and the legendary Joey’s Pub. Despite all the people writing about Joey’s Pub, I am yet to meet the owner Puran Gongba ji who is as legendary as the pub itself. Despite not meeting the owner, nothing beats the feeling of being at Joey’s – another iconic Darjeeling place.

joeys_pub
Up-scale and world renowned

No Darjeeling mention of old places and restaurants would be complete without mentioning the legendary Glenary’s. I got the opportunity to head to Glenary’s with another Darjeeling legend Late. Fr. Van Walleghem of St. Joseph’s School. We had a chance meeting and ended up becoming fast friends. He invited me to lunch one day and we went to Glenary’s. It was a special feeling. I had never entered Glenary’s before then, and honestly I was awed by the splendor of the place. The visit however, was made more memorable, as the owner Mr. Ajay Edwards who was present that day, refused to hand us the bill, as it was Fr. Van’s treat.

Thus proving, “Only in Darjeeling, relationships matter more than profit.”

I know for the kids these days, MNCs like KFC and Pizza Hut matter more, they would rather be seen in CCD drinking a Cafe Mocha then be seen in Bich-galli sipping tea. I know that kids these days would rather be sipping Coke than Thums up… I know that the youngsters would rather be seen eating Pizza than be seen slurping Thukpa… And I also know that kid these days will prefer Unique ko Mithai over Kanaiha Lal’s Julebis…. However, this I tell you, Darjeeling of today is as diverse and colourful as the Darjeeling of our times.

Maybe, we have more sophistication now, and maybe we, are more worldly wise, but still Glenary’s, Keventers, Penang, Benis, Narayan Das, and even Mantu ko bau are holding on to our roots, and therein lies the exquisite charm of Darjeeling and its hangouts. 

mathlo_bata
Mathlo Bata where no one asked you to meet

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1 Comment on "Exquisite Awesomeness of Darjeeling and Its Hangouts"

  1. That was an wonderful piece. However I regret to state that Puran Gongba Sir is no more. Joey’s pub is now run by his wife and son.

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