By Poulomi Das Oct. 15, 2019
Last month, when Alps, a four-decade-old beer bar at Colaba, shut down unannounced, no one seemed to instantly notice. It didn’t warrant blockbuster social media obituaries like Cafe Zoe did. That’s the thing about Alps, it never hankered for attention or loyalty. It just waited until it earned it.
One of the things that I both like and dislike about living in Bombay is the fact that going out in the city has long ceased to be an activity. It is now a distraction. To make a plan in Bombay is to run away from something, anything, and at times everything. A drinking plan is fashioned out of a stressful work day, the kind that remains an indiscriminate burden; a trip to the theatre is a socialising strategy meant to counter aloneness; checking out a new restaurant is seldom not employed as a cure to varying degrees of sadness or boredom. After a point, only the setting and the company keeps changing. The performance remains the same. A friend succinctly summed it up by referring to going out in Bombay as an act of “mindless scrolling performed in real time”.
It’s partly why I think Bombay is the kind of city where people readily carve a room in their lives for places – rickety single-screen theatres, Irani restaurants, and unadorned watering holes – that ask nothing out of them. Essentially places that, unperturbed by servicing hipster trends, serve as reminders that you don’t need to go out just for going out’s sake. It’s also the reason people here tend to take the shuttering of restaurants, theatres, bars, and the auctioning of music stores that have stood the test of time, as if it is a personal failing. If you’re not from the city, this kind of investment can come across as unnecessary and juvenile. But if you’ve spent even a month here, I don’t need to tell you why we behave this way. Or how rare it is to find places that can act as an escape from the anxieties of life and not as a distraction from it – haunts that don’t go out of their way, budget, or culinary fortitude to shock you into being impressed.
Alps, to me, has always been that place.
Sandwiched between Gokul’s, the dive bar that somehow always feels larger than it was the last time you visited it, and Bademiya, the food equivalent of a Salman Khan starrer in one of the many Colaba bylanes, Alps was a wondrous oddity. It stood around the corner from arguably the busiest lane in town teeming with thousands of tourists and locals at any given point and yet it remained invisible but useful. There was always a table available at Alps even when you entered the bulky wooden door reluctantly. Put off by the compactness of the food and bar menu, someone I knew once joked that Alps was where you went when Gokul, Social, Cafe Mondegar, Leopold Cafe, and having a good night out, was out of your reach.
A quick google search will throw up innumerable city guides that parade around variations of the words “hidden gem” or “best kept secret” to explain Alps. These descriptors invariably imply that the beer bar was either hard to locate or was demanding, which is in itself an erroneous shorthand employed to convince ourselves that we aren’t to be blamed for disregarding its existence. But this can’t be any further from the truth. It’s almost impossible to find anyone who has been to Colaba, walked past the yellow walls, the hanging money plants, the wooden windows, the red and white signs, and not registered it. You acknowledged Alps even when you didn’t pay attention to it. In fact, I’m fairly certain that Alps has found itself as an aesthetic on the feeds of multiple Instagram accounts more frequently than some of its snazzier counterparts.
Bombay is the kind of city where people readily carve a room in their lives for places.
A more accurate way to situate the surprising understated cult of Alps in the age of unwarranted social media hype then, would be that you never had to actively make a plan to visit it like you might have done for Sunlight or Bayview Cafe. It was one of those places where you just ended up, akin to finding your way to the bed on a warm sunny afternoon. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this indifferent approach. As far as affordable dive bars go, Alps was unremarkable in every regard: It only served beer and wine, which made its appeal all the more exclusive. The food was passable and inconsistent, although the portions were generous. The furnishings and decor were least bothered to serve a purpose, and on more than one occasion, the music mistook itself as the only portal to the past. In that sense, developing a fondness for Alps – the kind of irrational soft spot that we reserve against all logic for our favourite joints in the city – revealed more about you than about the place. For instance, you wouldn’t like going to Alps if you liked crowds or getting lost in them.
Alps Restaurant and Beer Bar opened in 1976, two years after its owner Ramesh Sethi, bought the property from a family of Jews. The story behind its name is one of my favourite pieces of trivia: Sethi named the place as a tribute to his favourite restaurant back in Delhi, where he also met the woman who went to become his wife. Essentially, Alps was willed out of Sethi’s desire to have a record of his romance, if not reflect on its stability. In a way, it’s poetic that the only thing Alps wished you would do while you were there chugging beer, is paying attention to yourself (It’s no coincidence that the walls were literally covered with mirrors). It didn’t work overtime to distract you. The low hanging, dim lights and a framed poster of The Beatles were possibly its shinier parts. The only television screen was placed at such an undignified height that it was almost as if the owners were either playing a prank on you or making a case for not zoning out. I never ended up craning my neck to stare at the screen when I was at Alps anyway.
Making a plan in Bombay is to run away from something, anything, and at times everything.
There was nothing better to do at Alps than just getting better at being there. Spending countless afternoons that turned into evenings there, is how I recognised what it meant to commit to having company – of a friend, a lover, or yourself – and what sharing yourself took out of you and how it replenished you. Going out to Alps was an exercise in noticing and being noticed, in memorising the slightest of details, and in admitting that you only get one chance at sharing a moment with someone so you might as well deep-dive without a life-jacket. Being at Alps felt a lot like a reckoning with the self, which is the point of going out anyway.
There was also nothing Alps was better at than just being there. In the larger scheme of things, I understand this is hardly something to write home about. And yet, when it came to Alps, there was so much to derive from just its existence. My friend was right. Alps wasn’t the place where you went if your goal was to have a happening night out. Instead, going to Alps meant agreeing to prioritising yourself instead of an avalanche of blinking lights, jazzy cocktails, Instagrammable walls, and board games. There remain very few places in the city that leave you alone while reminding you that you aren’t entirely on your own – an experience that is at once, personal and communal. Alps was my favourite place in the city whose quietness encouraged that I was alone with my thoughts while simultaneously being together with someone. For the most part, the beer bar felt like it existed so that you didn’t forget how to be with yourself. So even if you don’t recollect what you ate or who you met at Alps on any given day, I am willing to wager that you’d distinctly remember the feeling that the place evoked in you on a visit. I know I do.
Last month when Alps shut down unannounced, it wasn’t entirely unsurprising that no one seemed to instantly notice. There weren’t a litany of social media obituaries heaped in its memory in the same vein as the ones reserved for Cafe Zoe, a hip establishment that bid goodbye around the same time. Instead, chances are that you found out about it, days or weeks later. Perhaps, that is how I will remember Alps: That it never hankered for attention or loyalty. It just waited until it earned it.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.