YAMU’s Guide To Colombo’s Dodgy Bars.

Dodgy Bars. They’re one of our favourite aspects of Colombo living. While the occasional luxurious cocktail at Colombo Courtyard or 7 Degrees is always good, the overspent rupees and rigorous dress codes don’t really constitute the height of appeal to our rather shabby and shoe-averse team of YAMU writers. Having been denied entrance from many a bar due to a reluctance to eschew our beloved black Batas, we’ve often been left wandering the streets of Colombo in search of an establishment more accepting of our attire.

And so began our documentation of dodgy bars – ‘dodgy’ being the term used to denote a rather broad spectrum of the city’s more dubious and less discriminating watering holes. Shorts? No problem. Batas? Of course. Arrack? Aplenty.

These are the places where you sit on a plastic chair and drink in a room that’s peeling at the edges, stocked to the brim with cheap booze and chilli-encrusted fried treats. While women may feel slightly uncomfortable – you will get stared at – these are rarely unsafe or dangerous spots – nowhere near as threatening as mainstream clubs like Kama, where so much as a look in the wrong direction can get you slapped. Really.

While every country has its gleaming bar counters and slim swivel stools, our arrack-sodden halls with cheery men belting out the baila belong only to us. So we’ve sifted the dodgy from the deluxe to make a list of Colombo’s most endearing dog-eared establishments.

Let’s drink.

Vespa Sports Club

Vespa Sports Club is another of those fantasies that sometime materialize out of sticky Colombo nights. Hidden down one of Colpetty’s sultry seaside lanes, this is an extraordinary place. A crumbling old bungalow, with thick cream columns and old wooden fretwork hanging over its stone verandah, it look likes it belongs in the Galle Fort – but unlike buildings in the Fort’s intimate lanes it’s surrounded by a substantial open space – perhaps a quarter of an acre in sea-side Colpetty…

The crowd at Vespa, though it’s hardly a crowd, consists entirely of relaxed, respectable and respectful working men – there are no body guards, no brawls, no attitude and agro and the presence of women is greeted with relaxed ambivalence and perhaps slightly better service.

Read our full review here.

Ex-Servicemen’s Institute Bar

Fort, the heart of Colombo (which thanks to a bypass in the form of the Dutch Hospital is now happening again) also has the cheapest beer in the country. At 190 bucks (20 rupees above retail), the Ex-Serviceman’s Club (open to all) is as cheap as it gets. Minus marks for its all male clientele and grottiness, but beggars can’t be choosers.

The service has its moments and the kadalai and other bites are cheap as well (e.g. 35 rupees for a portion of kadalai with chilies)

New Colonial Hotel

The New Colonial Hotel is at the high end of dodgy bars. Upstairs is a functional hotel (single for Rs. 1000, double for Rs. 1500) with spare but clean rooms. Downstairs is a high-ceilinged bar with bad food but decent drinks and a nice ambiance.

What sets the New Colonial apart is that it’s essentially a dive bar in a surprisingly gentrified space. The bar could be converted to a posh pub or nightclub in a week. It’s clean, airy, well-ventilated and generally nice. There’s nice chairs, the staff speaks English, it’s OK.

Read our full review here.

Dream Land Bar

Dream Land is in Slave Island, a part of and adjacent to Hotel Nippon. It sits quite comfortably at the upper end of Colombo’s dodgy bars. Actually, it’s not even that dodgy. It’s rather a nice place, venuewise on a par with White Horse on Nawam Mawatha.

It’s essentially one big room with a bar at the end and the seating consists of low chairs and tables, arranged in almost coffee shop fashion. The walls have a nice cut cement finish, giving the place a more polished, upmarket look. And the prices are good. You can have a gin (25ml) and tonic for just Rs. 125, with plenty of tonic left over to mix a couple more drinks.

Read our full review here.

The Castle Hotel

The Castle Hotel is the finest of dodgy bars. It is housed in a beautifully ageing on Castle Street, near the Slave Island railway station. The windows have colored glass tiles and everything is a beautiful Matrix green or fading orange. Drinks, also, are cheap and the bites are usually excellent.

We must confess that we’ve been a bit lax and forgotten to get the prices of beer, etc. This is a working-class bar so the prices are low. Our bill for a big bottle of Lion beer and a lot of french fries was Rs. 520. We’re guessing about Rs. 300-325 for the beer, which is not cheap but still affordable. Check out our Lion Index for the price of beer at various places around town.

Read our full review here.

EAP Restaurant

We include the EAP Restaurant in our dodgy bar circuit, but it’s not really that dodgy at all. In fact, EAP is a surprisingly pleasant place to have some arrack and devilled bites in the evening.

You enter the EAP through a hobbit door (a round one). To the left there’s outdoor seating and inside there are A/C and non A/C rooms. It’s actually not a dodgy bar at all. The furniture and fixing are all solid and the staff is attentive and nice. They even have computerized ordering and stuff. Food is excellent and the drinks are cheap.

Read our full review here.

Colombo City Hotel

The Colombo City Hotel is utterly central and its roof-top Panorama bar/restaurant benefits from really outstanding views. You are absolutely in the heart of the city and you can look out over the Colombo skyline, the sea and the Fort’s colonial center.

It’s also very affordable – Rss 115 for for 50ml of DCSL arrack, Rs. 260 for a lion. And while there’s something slightly sleazy about the place it’s still many grades up on your standard dodgy bar so women will feel comfortable (there are decent loos). Cheap booze, great views, reasonable prices what’s not to like?

Read our full review here.

Randoli Sports Club

In the crucial matter of drinking, the Randoli Sports Club is second to none. A shot of arrack (100 ml of course, no other unit is considered) costs Rs 150 while a bottle can be had for Rs. 1200. Our favorites are Old Reserve (Rs. 210 a shot) and VX (Rs. 190). Lion is Rs 190 a bottle and every evening sees a great many bottles consumed. RSC members have a superior understanding of the value of alcohol and their capacity for liquid lubrication puts even the famed drinkers of the Havelocks Sports Club and the SSC to shame.

Read our full review here.

The Juliana Lobby

The Juliana Hotel lobby doesn’t quite offer the typical low-end drinking hall experience, but containing garden furniture indoors and no discernible smoking policy, this is a rather interesting place for an evening drink.

The Lobby is a bizarre wonderland of mismatched kitsch. It’s sheer atrium filled with a stagnant cloud of smoke, and patio furniture with umbrellas constitute your main seating options. It’s quite bizarrely dodgy, bordering on a kind of Bangkok seediness.

Having a cheap drink here is an experience. While you may not want to spend all your weekends here, it’s definitely worth a visit. As is the Korean restaurant next door. It’s like going to Bangkok for a bit.

Read our full review here.

White Horse Inn

White Horse has always been a playground for Colombo’s underage, bright young things. It’s also been a playground for Colombo’s not-so-bright things. Which probably explains why the occasional fight breaks out: the big bundied, arrack drinking men in the corner toss a few lewd comments at the girls whose male counterparts then indignantly intervene for their honour…you know how the rest goes.

We love White, but things seemed to have changed. The same way the older generation laments the evolution of the old White Horse on Chatham Street, we groan at the apparent decline of White Horse now. The crowd is different, the menu’s changed, and it just doesn’t feel quite the same – the place just isn’t as endearingly rough around the edges as it used to be. And it’s not cheap either – a bottle of Lion is Rs. 300 and an arrack and lime is Rs. 350.

Read our full review here.

Note that this isn’t an exhaustive list. There are several more dusty gems hidden amidst the late night shadows of the city. We’ll add more as we find them.

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