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Salud! Cheers! Na Zdrowie! : Times Writers' Concise Correspondents Course in Cosmopolitan Conviviality

March 16, 1986|Rone Tempest

NEW DELHI — The Indian capital is not a good bar town. Other Indian cities, particularly Bombay, Bangalore and Calcutta, have better bars. In Calcutta, it is even possible to go on a pretty spicy pub crawl. Some of the bars there have swinging doors, like Old West saloons. The intensely intellectual Bengalis in Calcutta love to drink and talk.

Delhi is a different story. The colorful drinking places that do exist are not particularly safe. For example, the dozen or so saloons in the main Tibetan refugee settlement (where they sell pitchers of chaang, a bitter barley beer) pose a serious threat to one's internal organs.

If you are looking for Indiana Jones, you might find him here. Just ask any three-wheel-scooter taxi driver for Chaangistan or Chaangipuri. He will know the place; many of the drivers drink there.

There may not be a great bar or a traditional pub in Delhi, but there is at least one very good place to drink. At the center of New Delhi, the Imperial Hotel is in a fine location. Once the queen of the Raj hotels in the capital, it was built in 1933, with the encouragement of the British viceroy, by a wealthy Sikh named Sardar Bahudar Ranjit Singh.

Before India became independent in 1947, the Imperial was a favorite watering hole for the British sahibs. But when freedom came, at midnight on Aug. 15, 1947, the tavern at the Imperial was crowded with Indian freedom fighters.

The Imperial is no longer grand. As a hotel it is outranked by the big new ones. The old tavern is a dank and unwelcoming place now, though there is another reasonably pleasant place in the hotel lounge called the Garden Party Bar.

Still, the best place to drink in the old hotel, particularly during the season, from October through March, is on the magnificent lawn outside the hotel, where the very attentive staff has been kind enough to place umbrella tables and wicker chairs. The hotel has 33 acres and 15 gardeners, who pay personal attention to every blade of grass and every bougainvillea, chrysanthemum and cornflower. Street noise is muffled by a stand of palm and pipal trees and a thick stone wall.

Imperial regulars are an eclectic sort, mostly Europeans and heavy on what might be called moneyed bohemia. Before it priced itself out of the competition, the Imperial used to be a regular stop on the hashish trail. Now it is a haven for artists, writers and those who do a good imitation. Two regulars are a Russian sculptor and his beautiful Indian wife, a famous movie actress.

Mixed in with the regulars are elderly British tourists waiting for money to arrive at the hotel's Thomas Cook office. People-watching is a sport here. So is reading. The hotel is the only place in town where you can find Le Monde or Der Spiegel.

The biggest problem facing any drinker in India is not where to drink but what to drink. Imported spirits are available but almost prohibitively expensive ($8 a shot). India makes lousy Scotch ("a headache in every glass"), terrible wine and only passable gin and vodka. But the dark rum from Madras, Old Monk, is among the best in the world. And the top-line beers (Guru, Black Label, Kingfisher) are good. The Imperial's prices: about $5 for mixed drinks, $3 for beer.

Imperial Hotel, Janpath and Tolstoy Marg, New Delhi.

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