Party like Chennai

Shonali Muthalaly pub hops her way through the city’s thriving nightlife.

Updated - November 14, 2014 09:04 pm IST

Published - November 14, 2014 09:03 pm IST

DJ Sid Rao

DJ Sid Rao

There’s a story – possibly apocryphal – of Chennai’s first real nightclub. The founders apparently joked about launching a discotheque in this famously conservative city. “When can we do it?” asked one. “When hell freezes over,” grimaced the other. The club finally did open in 1999. And it was named – of course – Hell Freezes Over, rapidly shortened to HFO by the city’s spirited party set.

It sounds melodramatic. But remember this story was set in the Chennai of the 1990s. When the city’s party junction was ‘Sindoori,’ an earnest space filled with kitsch disco lights and entangled college students. When Chennai was home to a rash of embarrassingly twee ‘afternoon discos’, targeted at party-goers who presumably needed to be safely back at their amma s’ dining tables by suppertime.

HFO’s raging success proved that potential club owners underestimated the city. Today’s complex party scene demonstrates that Chennai’s clubbers are as demanding as they are enthusiastic.

Standing on the dance floor at Park Hyatt’s Flying Elephant, now one of the country’s hottest venues, it’s evident that the city takes partying seriously. It is 3 a.m. on a wet, stormy Saturday night, yet the massive space is packed. Seriously packed. Think: local train at rush hour, except we’re swathed in an expensive cocktail of Chanel No 5 and scotch instead of sweat and polyester.

No more the province of rich hipsters, Chennai’s party set now includes people from all ages, though the largest swathe is in 20s and 30s. They go out all through the week – not just on Saturday nights. They party with friends and family on weekends, as well as with colleagues post-work through the week. With bar deadlines extended, pub hopping has become the norm, and an average clubber hits about three venues on a typical Saturday night. Higher disposable incomes mean they also spend anything from Rs. 5,000 – Rs. 25,000 a night, including dinner, drinks and entry charges. With an increasing number of options, the scene is more varied than ever before, with a range of DJs, music styles, settings and prices.

“But Chennai hasn’t really changed,” says DJ Siddharth Rao, after his jam-packed set at Blend, Taj Mount Road.

That’s difficult to believe, judging by the sophisticated crowd of 20-somethings gathered at Blend, packed together and bouncing with energy even though it’s well past 2 a.m. They face the DJ reverentially, humming along with his esoteric brand of EDM (Electronic Dance Music) — the genre du jour. “Chennai has always partied late. When I was resident DJ at HFO we used to play till 6 a.m.,” Siddharth says. This was in the 2000s, when there were just two places to be: HFO or EC41, a dramatic venue set on the beach. “Those were the closest we got to having Super Clubs in Chennai, with people queuing in massive lines, waiting to get in.”

The trend now is lounges and bars, where people can also dance, though dance floors are not central to the design. “The music has changed. Till mid-2000s clubs mixed it up: hip hop, Bollywood and a lot of commercial House. Now specific venues play specific music,” says Siddharth. At Blend, for instance, the young crowd expects edgy new music. Resident DJ Vijay Chawla, who has a loyal following in the city, says he plays deep house, which moves into “bouncy, tech house”, and then EDM towards morning.

For people who want something more “accessible” (think Guetta meets Honey Singh) there’s Flying Elephant, a 9,000 sq.ft., seven-level restaurant that turns into a club as it nears midnight. Despite the relatively stiff Rs. 3,000 cover charge, by 1 a.m. it is packed with people dancing to a blend of Bollywood and commercial House. I spot a vaguely familiar face across the crowded floor. “Where have you been all year?” I mouth. “Right here. Every single Saturday night,” he grins, arms akimbo. That’s the other thing about the new scene — despite the variety of offerings; all the top venues have loyal, regular clients.

This triumvirate of Chennai’s most popular spaces is completed with Q Bar, a happy compromise between Blend’s unwaveringly edgy music and the Flying Elephant’s pop playlist. Set on the roof of the Hilton, it draws an eclectic crowd that schleps faithfully though traffic-chocked Ekkaduthangal to soak in the twinkling lights of the city from the bar’s breezy cabanas. Drinking their tall signature Long Island iced teas, I watch a leggy African woman in a hot, red dress break into the salsa with her blond boyfriend, while besides me, a gaggle of girls in excruciatingly high heels dance to Tiesto’s remix of that John Legend earworm ‘All of me…’ If Blend is young, and Flying Elephant is glamorous, the Q Bar’s cosmopolitan. All three realise the basic rule of a popular club: a good crowd. For as any savvy bouncer knows: crowds draw crowds.

Thirty-three-year-old Shankar Raman, who parties here every weekend, says he began his night at Chipstead, at Taj Coromandel, “Its customers are older, but it’s filtered. So I like going there,” he states. Sometimes he mixes it up by heading to The Park’s Leather bar for his pre-party drinks. “Most of the other bars are just too loud.” He adds, “And my party always finishes at Q Bar. Always.”

The city also has a clutch of smaller venues that appeal to a niche, but dedicated audience. Arasu, manager of Small World, says they cater to a mixed crowd of regulars. “Friends. Colleagues. Even people coming in with their parents.” He adds, “We’re a resto-bar, so we call ourselves a ‘pre-party’ space. Instead of ‘Car-o-bar,’ where people used to drink in the car, they now come to neighbourhood bars like us to have dinner and start the night.” He adds, “Pub-hopping has become mandatory, now that everything is open longer. After all, you can’t be at just one place from 9 p.m. till morning!”

For people looking for an alternative to the disco-lights, there’s Moon and Sixpence, an ‘Irish Pub’ at Hablis Hotel, popular for it’s cleverly curated live music nights, which feature everything from Bangalore-based Allegro Fudge to Mumbai-based Whirling Kalapas. Popular Chennai band Skrat recently released their new album Queen here. Twenty-something Vikram Vivekanand, guitarist for Grey Shack, who is a regular, says he avoids the “Saturday night clubbing scene like the plague”. Instead, he prefers relatively laid-back Moon and Sixpence, where he says he inevitably bumps into friends, even if he goes in alone, “because the gig scene is so small”. Their range of reasonably priced beers, which include British Empire, Royal Dutch and a “pretty good draught”, is a plus.

If it’s post-work drinks, a pre-party warm up or even a post-party schmooze, the more grown-up ‘It’ crowd heads to Hyatt Regency. The bar, 365 AS, is better known by its moniker “happy-hour bar” thanks to the ‘double happy hour’ offer: ‘buy one get one free’ from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., and then again from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. But that’s not the only reason it’s popular. Hisham Osman, a loyalist, says it works because it fulfils the requisites of a contemporary party space. “People today want good music, good service and great bartenders. Customers spend 20 to 25 grand a night so they have high expectations. They’re picky about alcohol, the crowd and the ambience.” He adds, “This is the new Chennai. People work hard, spend hard and party hard.”

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