A small board at the entrance of Cifa Bar invites people to have a ‘megical day and night’. Inside, the narrow room is done up in green, with an altar, and signs announce the availability of masala caju (feni) and fresh urrak. Served in recycled Honeybee bottles, these traditional tipples come with a helping of dried prawns or boiled chana. The only anomaly is Camila Cabello playing on the speakers, and even that is oddly fitting.
This is a classic example of the Goan tavern, a quintessential, local watering hole where drinks are served with a side of conversation. Once an important pillar of Goan social life, tavernas traditionally distinguished themselves from each other in myriad ways: from the clientele they served (some stayed open all night, catering to night shift workers) and the types of feni or snacks on offer, to the variety of ways to pass the time in the bar, be they games of carrom, cards, or the now-illegal matka. Even their distinct locations played a role in their appeal, for they were an assortment of riverside haunts, hole-in-the-walls tucked in the lanes of the capital, and village institutions. Yet they were all places regulars could stop by for a cop (a shot) and catch up on news or village gossip, before heading home or to work.
Though the legacy of these taverns still lives on—according to 2018 census data, Goa’s Excise Department lists 113 taverns who have renewed their liquor licences—their numbers have been steadily declining due to a generational loss of clientele, largely anchored in a change of drinking patterns and customers moving to hipper, modern bars.
Today, some of these neighbourhood bars have re-emerged in trendy, new avatars. They’re now fully fledged bars, taken over by a younger generation keen on keeping their welcoming essence alive while giving them tasteful, modern upgrades. These taverna-inspired bars draw in clientele through live music and bar takeovers; there’s typically a focus on locally-made liquor beyond feni and urrak, the food is bar-friendly and Goan, and the vibe is peppered with carrom boards, peppy music, and the occasional screening of sports matches—one even boasts a mini skate park.
It started with Joseph Bar. The eight-square-metre space, tucked along a quiet lane in Panjim, was a regular with many in the neighbourhood. One of these was Atish António Fernandes. In 2016, while studying hospitality in Mumbai, he was offered the space. “It was serendipity,” says Fernandes, who was convinced that Panjim had much to offer and it wasn’t necessary to drive to the Calangute-Vagator-Baga stretch for a good drink and meal. He convinced the adjacent small businesses to lease to him so he could expand the seating area, sourced snacks from neighbourhood ‘aunties’, and spent 15 days tweaking the decor and lighting before opening in January 2017.
Old photos and porcelain plates line the walls, a mirror promotes humanity over religion, and a shelf of old clocks confirm that, here, time has stood relatively still. At night customers spill out onto the street, drinks in hand, the chatter swirling in the night breeze. There are impromptu jam sessions, and they welcome pets. “I wanted to open a casual place with a good vibe that didn’t require an AC or dress code, where everyone was welcome, and which offered good Goan hospitality,” he says.
Joseph Bar’s popularity, with tourists and locals alike, felt like a clear indication that people wanted a new drinking space. A no-frills place with good food and affordable drinks, nice music, some activities such as board games and carrom, and a relaxed vibe. A place where everybody knows your name.
A short walk from Joseph Bar lies the blue walls and bright signage of Miski Bar. Another renovated tavern, Fernandes launched the place in December 2021 with his childhood friend and chef, Vasquito Alvares. They wanted to pay tribute to the ‘Goan classics’ they grew up eating at restaurants. Think stuffed papad, Goan beef steak with chips, and salted tongue. Fernandes made sure both bars retained their original names as ‘an homage’ to the people who founded them. “These people ran these taverns for decades. It wasn’t a lucrative business, but they persevered. There’s some sort of respect one has to give them,” he says.
It was a similar desire to retain a piece of Goa’s history that compelled friends Anant Shirodkar and Terence De Mello to start Esco Bar in Assagao, in 2018. “People are destroying old structures and putting up cement and concrete edifices that take away the history and charm of a place,” says Shirodkar. They built Esco Bar on the premise of keeping the essence of the original tavern while creating a space that would draw more foot traffic.
Everything within is repurposed and sourced from their homes or scrap yards. Initially, it was their mothers who did the cooking, serving their household specialities such as mutton xacuti, kalvam xacuti, and beef croquettes; they now have a chef trained to replicate said home cooking. Esco Bar serves craft alcohol and infused feni, hosts bar takeovers, and organises regular events. “We want to give people a better drinking experience, showcase local stuff, and keep things affordable. It’s how we have made friends loyal to the bar,” says Shirodkar. “It’s not about how fancy your place is, but about its character.”
Nearby are two other renovated taverns, both a realisation of childhood dreams. In Anjuna lies Makim’s Kitchen & Bar (formerly Palm Groove), which opened last September, serving Hindu-style food cooked by the proprietor’s mother, urrak and feni sourced from farms across Goa, and Indian-made foreign liquor. “It has the feel of the tavern but is an upgraded version of it,” says owner Manoj Naik. Ò Barco (formerly Nelson’s Bar) was taken over by friends Lloyd Fernandes, Basil Braganza, and their spouses; they have plans to turn it into a sports bar.
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In the latter part of the 20th century, a small, one-room tavern in Ucassaim had one standout feature: it was run by women. Peter D’souza opened Peter Tavern in 1967. A few years later, he went abroad to work, taking along his only son. His wife, Conceicao, and daughter, Angela took over and successfully ran the place for three decades. They shut it in 1995, when the granddaughter, Ninoshka, was born, and it seems fitting that she was the one to relaunch it in August, 2021. The new bar has indoor and outdoor seating, a carrom table, a small menu offering fish and beef dishes, and alcohol including feni and urrak. The affable, next-gen D’souza is a fixture here, pouring drinks, taking orders, and chatting with every table. “People want a place where they can feel like they are part of a family, where they can make new friends and create bonds,” she says.
Another bar that remained in the family is Cajy Bar in Arpora. A board at the entrance proudly proclaims it has been around since 1970. Started by Caitano Domingos Fernandes, it is now run by his grandchildren, Eligio and Evelyn; their mother, Philomena, is the hand behind the bar’s popular ardmaas, tongue roast, cutlets, and croquettes. “It initially had just three tables because we thought only friends, family, or few tourists would visit. But it slowly grew into a chill out spot for people who wanted a proper Goan bar,” says Eligio (Eli). The bar doesn’t typically do cocktails, but request Eli, and he will obligingly mix you one. On days when it gets really busy, you can find customers helping to serve drinks and food.
Given that Goa is a small community at heart, it is no surprise that the owners of these bars know each other and frequent each other’s establishments. And there isn’t much competition as each place offers something unique, just like the taverns of yore, from Peter Tavern’s special parties and Cajy Bar’s live music nights, to Esco Bar’s skatepark and Makim’s Latin dance nights.
These days Goa’s existing taverns may be fewer in number, yet there are concerted and burgeoning efforts to showcase their history and culture before they too succumb to the slapstick modernisation and gentrification being witnessed elsewhere in the state. On Instagram, a group of enthusiasts run Bars of Goa, an account dedicated to highlighting existing taverns. Offbeat tourism ventures such as Soul Travelling and Make it Happen do tavern trails. Soul Travelling’s Food & Tavern Trail, in Panjim, takes people to local taverns and some of the renovated ones. The old taverns are small, one room places with names such as Flamingo, Cifa, and Santa Rita Bar—they offer fresh urrak, feni and the barest of food options: chana, cheeselings, boiled egg or omelettes. You may not know anyone at the bar, but sit at a table and the conversation soon flows easily.
“It’s difficult to run a tavern as it was earlier, so either you close down or change,” says Varun Hegde of Soul Travelling. “If done the right way, this trend could be beneficial for taverns, as long as people retain their originality and ensure the story and culture is connected.”
Hansel Vaz of Cazulo Feni, who once conducted tavern trails in Cansaulim, is more cautious about this new bar culture. “A taverna was a place of simplicity, a local watering hole where people felt at home. It was about simplicity, about serving good feni. Today, these places have become a destination.” Having seen some taverns turning into fast food joints in the South, Vaz is concerned about their future, particularly in a time of rising costs and limited profits.
On the whole, there are many positives to be gained from Goans taking up the running of taverns and bars. It brings focus to this little-known bit of Goan history and culture, it showcases local food and alcohol and there is an element of pride in seeing Goans become entrepreneurs.
“We are grateful for the opportunity to run an old Goan family tavern and strive to keep it going for future generations to look upon, while ensuring the bar and its culture are intact,” says Eli. When Peter Tavern was getting ready to launch, people would walk in and pepper D’souza with questions about rent and whether she was from Delhi or Mumbai. “People didn’t think it could be a Goan running the place. They were surprised.” She believes that places such as Peter Tavern and the others could serve as a good example to “show other young Goans that they can be entrepreneurs too, and do something on their own. They can excel in hospitality. It will be a bright future”.
Fernandes concurs. “This is a great movement. It’s good to see locals taking up a family business. They are stepping up to the plate and owning their own heritage.”
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This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India July-August, 2022.
Joanna Lobo is a freelance writer and journalist. A silent feminist (they do exist!), food snob, and Potterhead, she prefers canine company to that of humans. She actively seeks out cheap eating haunts, and weird and wondrous places, when travelling.