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The pubs that defied all odds

Proving wrong the theory that Mumbai pubs have a limited lifespan, Toto’s Garage and Ghetto turn 20 this month

india Updated: Dec 25, 2012 17:58 IST
Serena Menon

Proving wrong the theory that Mumbai pubs have a limited lifespan, Toto’s Garage and Ghetto turn 20 this month

‘We will never expand’
Partner-owner Lajju Bhatia tells us why his bar will always remain the same

Getting a table or even entry into Toto’s Garage on a weekend isn’t easy. The bar, which is packed seven days a week, has proved everyone who believes pubs have a limited lifespan wrong. For two decades, in his signature dark shades, partner– owner Lajju Bhatia has been keeping an eye on the revelry, night after night.

Toto"A guy came here recently and told me he had his first-ever beer at Toto’s. He said that night he went back home and got slapped by his dad for drinking. Today, he comes here with his dad," laughs Bhatia. "Twenty years ago, it (the pub business) seemed like a risky proposition. There were no pubs in Bandra. Pali Naka was different."

The grungy garage décor, which was created by film art director Bijon Das Gupta, has stayed the same. “We had sofas near the bar earlier, but then we replaced them with chairs and tables to make more space,” Bhatia recalls. Prices are among the few things that have changed. “A pitcher of beer used to cost Rs 100, now it is Rs 700. Our deadline then was midnight. Last orders were called at 11.30 pm,” Bhatia says.

Ask him the one question that all of Mumbai has been asking and he responds instantly. “We don’t want to expand,” he says. “Yes, Toto’s is a business and brings in money, but I run it because I’m passionate about it. I know the regulars and I like enjoying a drink or two with faces I recognise. Now, imagine Toto’s being twice its size. It just may be half empty on weekends, which won’t make me happy at all.”

Garage tales

Sunil Phatarphekar, 49, a regular since 1998

“I’ve met the most random people and had the most random conversations here. I once made friends with a guy who owned a tourism firm in China. So my friends and I got a customised trip to Shanghai and had a great time. Such things can only happen at Toto’s.”

Amitabh Jha, 51, a regular since 1996

“I miss Austin, the bartender who worked here; he passed away recently. We became friends over the bar counter. This place grows on you. Whether it’s the way they look after their female patrons, or pamper their regulars with reserved tables and the regulars’ counter, Toto’s always shows it cares.”

‘Our concept was constant change’
It’s all about the writing on the wall, says partner-owner Thomas Cherian.

There are probably two types of people in this city — those who have been to Ghetto, and those who haven’t ever heard of it (very few of the second kind of people exist). One of the oldest pubs in town, this one has been keeping ‘townies’ company ever since it first opened 20 years ago. On any day, you’ll spot partner-owner Thomas Cherian enjoying a drink at the bar, having as good a time as he had for the last two decades. Looking back, he says, “We had seen a few bars in Bengaluru, but there were none in Mumbai 20 years ago. Here it was mostly nightclubs that worked, which meant we basically had to dress up, pay entry and listen to music we didn’t like to get a drink.”

That’s when Ghetto came into being. “We (Cherian and three partners) painted the walls ourselves. The graffiti was the concept of constant change, which explains the scribbling on the walls,” says Cherian, adding that they never needed publicity or advertising to pull in the crowds.

“Within the first two days, it was packed. Since then we’ve never closed, except on dry days,” he says. The menu, too, more or less remained the same. “We’ve just added a few things. The menu back then was a laminated printout.” What is different now? “There wasn’t much moral policing back then,” he says, before quickly adding, “And yes, we could smoke inside. That I think is the biggest change.”

Ghetto speak

Niranjan Kaushik, 40, a regular since 1993

“There’s a room in Ghetto that is only reserved for couples. But regulars like me would be admitted inside, even without a date. Once, a single guy standing outside the room asked the waiter why he had let me in without my girlfriend. The waiter replied, “Ghetto hi inki girlfriend hai (Ghetto is his girlfriend).” And that’s how it is. Ghetto has become like a girlfriend or a wife I go back home to after a tiring day at work. Unfortunately, it shuts by 12 am (laughs).”

Mujib Dadarkar, 51, a regular since 1993

“Ghetto has always been home. It’s right next to my place, so it offers the convenience of walking back. I have seen the place change over the years. When I’m there, I feel like I’m amidst family; that’s how loyal they are to their regulars.”