Where would you go if you wanted a late night partying across town in your car? Well, here are some of the most popular destinations of yesteryears which are the stuff of legend. We have all grown up with stories about great party places in Calcutta in the years gone by. The city boasted of the finest outlets serving some of the best cuisine in Asia, with great music thrown into the mix. So much so that they are immortalized in the biographies of royalty and writings by international travellers.
The oldest of Calcutta’s hotels was possibly Spence’s Hotel diagonally across the Viceroy’s residence (today, Raj Bhavan). Set up as far back as 1830, Spence’s served excellent meals. It had plush rooms for both short term stays as well as for long term residents. A brand to reckon with till the 1960s, it had an open terrace for a night cap. Spence’s is mentioned in Jules Verne’s book, ‘The Steam House’ and its characters stay there when they visit, as it was “one of the best in Calcutta which I had made my residence ever since my arrival”. It was here too, in 1861, that the ousted King of Punjab, Duleep Singh, met his mother Jindan Kaur after twelve years. The British Government often chose Spence’s as a place which appeared neutral but could be monitored by the security forces.
If you wanted a light snack and drink to start off your evening, your destination had to be the restaurant cum café Peliti. “By appointment to Her Majesty the Queen Empress”, the café had been set up by Federico Peliti in Calcutta around the 1870s. He brought to the city new techniques in confectionery and savouries, selling items like cakes and chocolates. The Italian Peliti claimed his ticket to India as the cook of Viceroy Lord Mayo and then stayed back. His café changed hands in the 1930s and shut down around the 1940s. Being located opposite Raj Bhavan, it was favoured by the high and mighty—and those that sought to impress them.
For those aspiring for more colour, there was Firpo’s. Set up by another Italian, Angelo Firpo from Genoa, it attracted the attention of powerful and affluent Europeans as well as Indian aspirants seeking to rub shoulders with them. Located on Chowringhee, Firpo’s restaurant was officially a tea room that served proper meals at specified hours. Indian zamindars and princes met businessmen of all types there. The pastry shop was backed by a catering service. It shut down after Independence.
The Bristol Hotel at No. 1 Chowringhee was popular with those who made money – or lost it – at the Calcutta Turf Club! This joke apart, it was popular with the sporting type as it stood at the junction where the older north Calcutta culture met the ‘sahib para’. Courtesans from Chitpur and merchant princes from Park Street eyed each other across the terrace dining area with a fine view of a lake to the gates of Raj Bhavan till very late. Cars were easily parked, and when the lake was filled up to create the tram depot, the view did not suffer. The building of Central Avenue enhanced its reputation as one of the finest bars and light dining outlets. It survives with a few rooms and a separate bar.
The Continental was located at the Bertram Street-Chowringhee crossing and offered a fine supper. While some scoffed at it being the poor brother of the Grand Hotel next door, the reality was that the Grand went through multiple shutdowns while the Continental had a steady run. Later demolished to make way for a towering construction, the Continental was for those who liked a more low-key and affordable option without compromising quality.
The grand-daddy of all outlets was the Great Eastern, described repeatedly as the finest hotel in the East. Besides a large number of rooms and a prime location across the Viceroy’s House, it had the best bars and restaurants in town. Its chefs were not only international celebrities but several who were at par with a Peliti or a Firpo. Despite being close to the seat of power, it offered late night entertainment. One drawback, it can be argued, was that too many officials stayed there and its famous late night parties were often regulated if they became too loud. In later years, its dancers became so bold and daring that the police shut down performances. The hotel fought back in the law courts to have hired dancers back on its floors. Outlets like Maxim’s and Scheherezade made it a legendary source of entertainment and partying.
Where are they now?
Spence’s today is a drab office block with a bank on the ground floor at the renamed Red Cross Place. Peliti must be turning in his grave at his outlet being reduced to an office block with a small social club. Firpo’s is a market while the Bristol building today is mostly shops with a liquor outlet and some rooms retained under the banner of ‘Chowringhee Hotel’. Only the Continental and Great Eastern have survived as hotels. Even so, both have lost their grand entrances on main avenues. And the late night entertainment zones have moved too.