A surf and soak along Sri Lanka’s coastal hamlets hits the spot like a chilled pint of Lion, but that doesn’t mean the capital is merely a place to catch an outbound bus. Just like popping up the backplate of a crab and peeling open a trove of meat, Colombo has a lot going on beneath the surface, especially for those keen on eating and drinking their island experience.
Visiting gourmands often venture to The Pagoda Tearoom for jaggery-infused coconut custard (watalappam), or dive into a banana leaf’s worth of lamprais—a jumble of curry, plantain, and sambol served over stock-cooked rice—at Cyril’s Green Cabin or The Dutch Burgher Union. For more seasoned travellers, mealtimes are enjoyed amidst steaming plates of post-pub kottu at Hotel De Pilawoos or crispy prawn vadai and egg hoppers from street carts. Colombo is a place where the price of good food is not necessarily judged by what’s in one’s wallet, but rather their willingness to explore.
However, an affordable pint is where the city seems to falter. There are several quality pubs in town, but many charge enough to take the joy out of a sundowner. Yet, just like Colombo’s food scene, curiosity pays dividends, one just has to try a little harder when it comes to hunting down the city’s choice dive bars. The reward? Down-to-earth hangouts filled with laidback locals, ample arrack, and platefuls of devilled pork.
Address: Ex Servicemen’s Institute Rd, Colombo 00100, Sri Lanka
I wasn’t sure I could enter a bar built for Sri Lanka’s veterans, so I thought it best to stop by shortly after it opened, just before noon, to figure out the deal. “All set Dad?” My old man shut his laptop and gave me a nod. I had somehow roped my father into an offbeat tippler’s trail through Colombo. In retrospect, I think the prospect of fresh seafood and cold beer was easy bait, as it should be.
Unable to find the bar’s entrance on the street, we wandered into the Ex-Servicemen’s Institute, unsure if we would be reprimanded by the broad-shouldered soldier manning the front desk. “Where’s the bar, sir?” I asked meekly.
The stoic sentry summoned a young man who, without any fuss, guided us past a billiards room, out to a large verandah covered by a lofty sheet metal roof. Daylight spilled in from high-up windows, and the back of the bar was open-air, letting in a breeze. Several plastic tables were filled with small groups of men—bottles of beer and convivial conversation sharing the table space between them.
Our server set down a couple of chilled mugs of Lion in record time. He had a face full of deep creases that danced when he spoke, inquiring, “This (is) your Papa?” He was pleased to see a father and son sharing a pint, and stood for a while to chat, advising us that the most popular days to swing by were from Monday to Wednesday after 5 p.m. He was an ex-airman, and would often proudly point to the army insignia stitched on his bar uniform.
After we settled up and made our way through the side door of the bar, which let out into a gated parking lot, our server caught up with us and handed me a small piece of torn paper. It had his name and number scribbled on it. He didn’t say anything, just a curt soldierly bob of the head, which I understood as, “Don’t be afraid to call if you need anything.”
Address: 75, Olcott Mawatha, Colombo, Sri Lanka
We found the 80 plus year-old bar on a busy road across from the even busier Fort Railway Station. Swinging saloon doors opened up to a very dim interior: the kind of lighting, or lack thereof, that lets time float by. Small wooden tables hugged the walls, making space for a narrow pathway that snaked deep into the premises. I imagined it was the type of place spies from a John Le Carre novel would visit, swapping secrets in a shadowy corner.
Beedis and Bensons were lit by the striking of wax matches, sudden firefly-like flashes, revealing an amber-hued visage for a moment or two, before the profile seeped back into an ocean of obscurity. The midday heat had got me good, so I turned my lager into a sort of shandy by adding a healthy pour of Elephant Ginger Beer into my mug. Other patrons were ordering this as well, but they poured it into tall glasses of arrack. I’d call this place a classic before a dive, yet the number of prodigious guzzlers that frequented this saloon for lunchtime libations suggested it was a sanctum for those determined for darkness and drink—a true tell of a dive if I ever saw one.
Address: Sea Ave, Colombo, Sri Lanka
The sun had slid across the sky, beginning to dip behind the many hotels lining Galle Face Road. We turned down a lane and stopped at what looked like a Goan bungalow, sitting on a spacious plot in an area otherwise cluttered with structures competing for sea views. My Sri Lankan friend, Mickey, whom I’ve known since school days, joined us for the evening roundup.
We sat on the verandah, surrounded by posters of Bob Marley, Lion Lager, and scantily clad models promoting soda water. A portable radio sat on a stool, blaring baila music so loud the reverberations threatened to knock the rickety thing over. After we placed an order for devilled pork and sardine-sized fried fish, the waiter requested I roll him a cigarette, which I thought was good dive bar form.
The devilled pork, which was spelt about three different ways on the menu, was decent, offering a tangy coating and not much else. The fish, however, was delightful. Of course, shallow-fried fish really can’t disappoint with a side of lager, but these little guys, tossed with curry leaves, had a toothsome, piquant batter that made them an even quicker member of the clean plate club. Our appetite was also encouraged by the elderly chef who watched us complete our entire meal from the next table—unafraid to make eye contact and frequently inquired if we enjoyed his cooking. My companions had no problem scarfing down the tiny fish bones, but I happily broke them down the middle, wondering if the cat the waiter had chased away would ever skulk back for a snack.
To my surprise, the bar remained relatively empty. Two blokes were having a heart-to-heart in a far-off corner, and the three other customers circled a bottle of whiskey at a nearby table, stumbling off shortly after the last drop was poured and palated. Before we left, the chef took us to the front of the bungalow and pointed to Vespa’s establishment date painted on the facade (1963), revealing the same grin he wore when we’d polished off his cooking.
(Author’s Note: Unfortunately, Vespa Sports Club has since closed during the pandemic.)
Address: Fife Rd, Colombo 00500, Sri Lanka
Night crept up on the city as we moved inland from the Colombo 3 district to Colombo 5. We walked down an alleyway entrance, our path lit by red and green disco lights swirling across the ground. I couldn’t help wondering, what made Rangdoli a Sports Club? Didn’t Vespa also stick that title on the end of its name? Not a single patron looked like they played a sport, and nobody was watching sports on TV— unless growing one’s beer belly counted as an athletic activity, the name was rather misleading. Given that the crowded bar, made up of four different drinking sections, was utterly devoid of any women (come to think of it, we saw zero female patrons on all excursions), the title ‘Sports Club’ may have been a convenient way for frequent customers to avoid the wrath of their spouses. “Just heading to the Sports Club, dear,” sounds a lot more guiltless than “I’m off to the pub for the fifth night in a row.”
My companions ordered a plate of fried garlic, and since I had no desire to scare off any vampires that evening I decided to explore the premises. At first glance, the structure didn’t have that divey charm I was looking for. Sure, the rattan-sheltered quarter on the ground floor and the upstairs balcony were both overflowing with tobacco smoke and lager-fuelled laughter, but that certain skeevy randomness of a true dive was missing. Feeling mildly defeated, I went to the loo to return some lager to the facilities. It was there I spotted a characteristic that bumped Rangoli up from drab-ish to dive-ish. In the Men’s Room, two inches from the pot, was a petite, pink bathtub.
Address: 2 /16 Elvitigala Mawatha, Colombo 00500
We pulled up to a rather large parking lot that was completely empty. Determined to go five for five, I hopped out of the car and jogged towards the front door. I was greeted by a dingy room featuring a few men bent over bevvies and a bar behind bars—“Now this is a dive,” I thought; and that was before I had the pleasure of using the banjaxed urinal that was simply begging to be a modern art installation in Manhattan. We were led out to an enormous outdoor area, greeted by a tropical paint job slapped on al fresco booths and a concrete canopy of faux parasols, chipped and cracked with character. The place was pretty packed too, which left the empty parking lot a mystery. If I had to guess, it meant the powers that be would consider the joint dead at closing time, leaving the customers free from scrutiny.
My friend shook his head. “One of my best childhood friends lived just down the road. We had no idea this place existed. Bars aren’t supposed to be around schools, and there are like six in the area.” He slumped back in his plastic chair. “The number of beers we could have had…” His voice trailed off as he pulled out his phone, already typing the sad news to his friend. I felt fuzzy with pride. For years Mickey has made sure I got the best out of my trips to Sri Lanka, and it felt great to return the favour on his home turf, albeit shattering his hopes of a better misspent youth.
At midnight, we sat hunched over colossal mounds of chopped roti, eggs, and vegetables, in my friend’s garden, each with a roast chicken leg pushed into the centre of our plates. As I sweated profusely, hiccupping between bites of the spicy mixture, my friend’s father, who had been observing us unnoticed from his terrace, suddenly bellowed down, “A father and son travelling together! Wow, that’s very nice, Mickey.” My friend smiled as he took the hint, and so did I, simply because his dad was right. I began chugging milk to stop the burn of the kottu, all the while savouring a day well spent with my old man and old friend in the side street saloons of Sri Lanka’s capital.
Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.