This beautiful hill station is an unlikely candidate for a foodie’s paradise, but tucked amid the lush, pine-covered Himalayas and overlooking the meandering Beas River are upscale restaurants and cafes where the fare is as delightful as the scenic setting. In fact, Manali’s gourmet cuisine, be it pizzas or baked trout, is in a class all its own, thanks partly to some of the backpacker crowd that made this hill their home.
Casa Bella Vista: Set next to thick pine woods in Old Manali, you might almost miss this Spanish restaurant (vegetarian ), famous for its pizzas. Sit in the beautiful garden on tables hewn out of tree trunks and watch your thin crust pizza being rolled out and baked in a wood-fired oven as the smoke spews out into the clear blue sky. Cast away urban worries about pollution, don’t all hill people use wood to stay warm? If the cafe runs out of cheese you may have to wait for a couple of hours as they source it only from one local place. But it’s worth it – it’s as fresh and crisp as the mountain air. You might have passing thoughts of becoming vegan as you taste the succulent veggies. Wrap up your meal with delicious super-thick coffee shake.
Log Huts Road
Johnson’s Cafe: Trout is to Manali what butter chicken is to Delhi – this fish (introduced by the British in Himalayan rivers more than a century ago), is staple fare in many restaurants. And without doubt, Johnson’s Cafe is one of the best places to get your bellyful of trout. We recommend the wood oven baked trout with roasted almond sauce. The tender fish, done just right, simply melts in the mouth while the sauce makes for a delicate accompaniment that never overwhelms the dish. The pan-fried trout with lemon and garlic is also good. Both come with seasonal vegetables and really soft, creamy mashed potatoes. Order some white wine and fried fish as starters to set the right tone for the meal. The outdoor seating in the beautifully laid out garden where you have your meal is a bonus.
Circuit House Road
Fat Plate Cafe: A meal in this cafe is all about ambiance. You’ll be tucking into delicious trout sitting in a garden surrounded by tons of colourful flowers and soaring the mountains. And the food is as delightful as the setting. Whether you try the bacon wrapped chicken with plum sauce or the trout, chances are that you won’t be disappointed. The mustard chilli trout that I tried is particularly good. Unfortunately it does not serve alcohol. We missed the beer and wine.
Shuru, Naggar Road
Drifters’ Cafe: A great place to start the day when the cool mountain air and uphill climb puts you in a mood for a hearty breakfast. The menu starts with a poem relating the story of how the place began and it will stir a chord in you. Sit on the terrace and soak up the sun as you bite into breakfast staples. The sausages and fried egg were scrumptious as were the pancakes and waffles which came with a generous serving of maple syrup. They also serve Indian, Continental and Italian through the day. Play board games, read a book from their library and just watch the world go by as you lazily sip your coffee here.
Manu Temple Road, Old Manali
The best part of these places is that they never hurry you, especially if you are visiting in the off season. Carry your book or borrow one from their shelves, and sit over your meal as long as you want to.