During the last half-dozen years, one of my favourite places in Colombo to retire to after a busy day’s work and relax with a couple of beers has been the liquor bar at the Greenlands Hotel, which stands just off a street with the quaint name of Shrubbery Garden. No, the hotel doesn’t have any connection with Greenland (although the interior walls of its liquor bar have been painted a pale, minty-looking shade of green) and there isn’t much sign of a garden, with shrubbery in it, in the immediate neighbourhood.
The bar adjoins a venerable restaurant that sells South Indian vegetarian dishes like dosai and rice and meat-free curry. I’ve heard this restaurant described as a Colombo institution, although I suspect its glory days are behind it and it’s regarded now as something of a museum piece. The Sri Lankan review website YAMU says that it ‘still holds a place in people’s heart for sheer nostalgia’ but adds a little cruelly that ‘the staff of Greenlands seem as old as the establishment itself, sporting hair as white as their crisp white dhoti and shirt’. When the restaurant staff don’t have anything to do inside, which seems often, you’ll see these elderly geezers sitting on its front steps, watching the world pass by – at least, the tiny sliver of the world that passes the hotel gates on Shrubbery Garden.
The main fellow tasked with the running of the liquor bar seems a veritable youngster in comparison with his colleagues in the restaurant, but the clientele are hardly what you’d call spring chickens. (Not that I’m a spring chicken myself, of course.) They appear mainly to be professional and reasonably well-off blokes in their middle age who find pleasure in snatching a quick bottle of Lion beer and / or a quick glass of arrack during that little oasis of evening-time when they don’t have to worry about the responsibilities of their workplaces or the responsibilities of their households. The bar counter and shelves are contained in a narrow room at one end, from which the barman provides a waiter service. The clientele sit in a series of small square rooms extending one after another along the rest of the premises. The rooms are spartan, with their bare minty-green walls and hard burgundy-coloured floors, but look extremely clean despite their basicness.
One pleasant touch was that whenever I appeared there and sat down, the barman would put an English-language Sri Lankan newspaper in front of me before fetching my first drink. As a foreigner living in Sri Lanka it’s easy to get cocooned in your own affairs and not pay attention to the society around you, so those visits to the Greenlands Hotel helped keep me informed with what was happening locally. That was my main reason for going there, obviously.
Early in 2020, I was alarmed when I went into the Greenlands Hotel one evening and was told by a restaurant waiter (while he sat on the steps, of course) that the liquor bar was ‘closed for repairs’. I know from bitter experience that when one of Colombo’s surviving, old-style, spit-and-sawdust pubs gets closed down, it tends to stay closed down – often because the premises are to be demolished to make way for some soulless new development. Then, when Covid-19 forced the government to impose a curfew starting on March 20th, and the pubs went into hibernation for God knows how long, I seriously wondered if I’d ever see the inside of the Greenlands Hotel liquor bar again.
However, come May and the easing of the curfew, I made a point one evening of strolling down Shrubbery Garden and looking into the Greenlands Hotel to see what the situation was. I was delighted to find that both the restaurant and the liquor bar were functioning again – although as usual, most of the restaurant staff were warming the steps with their behinds. In the bar, changes had been made to safeguard the clientele against the new virus. Long tables, surely meeting the recommended 1.5-metre standard for social distancing, had been arranged with a chair at either end. There were two tables in each room, meaning each room accommodated just four drinkers. To be honest, I don’t think the reduction in seating capacity had done anything to damage the bar’s ambience, as even at the busiest of times it seemed a very peaceful little place.
One other safety precaution, to reduce the possible spread of infection by minimising the number of objects that folk touch on the premises, had resulted in a sad loss. On the evening that I returned there, the barman told me apologetically, “I’m sorry. I can’t give you a newspaper anymore.”
No worries. I was just happy to see this unabashedly old-fashioned drinking establishment on the go again.