Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Froog Bar Awards - 2009

The end of the year rolls around, and so it is time for my third annual review of the best and worst of Beijing's bar scene.

There might be a few new categories here and there this year. Then again, much of it will be just the same as in previous years - because I like my comfortable ruts, you know.

I aim to provoke (and sometimes, godammit, yes, to offend) as well as to enlighten, so please feel free to pitch in in the comments if you disagree with any of these opinions.

Best Live Music Venue

Winner: 2 Kolegas

Runner-up: Jianghu

There's really not a lot of competition in this category. Just about all of the best gigs I've seen this year have been at Kolegas. It's nice to see Jianghu bouncing back to winning ways, after a spell in the doldrums last year. There's been a packed and varied programme of live music there this year, and the Tuesday night jazz jams are usually great fun. MAO Live House drops out of favour this year because, although it is still the best (only) mid-sized venue for rock music, it is let down by its tendency to get uncomfortably overcrowded, and by its erratic programming and poor advertising (and they haven't had a really worthwhile gig there in about 6 months; they're just not booking the big names very often, or attracting foreign bands). I probably ought to give an 'honourable mention' to Club 13 as well - a fine venue, but it's way out in the wilds of Wudaokou, and doesn't seem to have anything much but heavy metal these days.

Worst Live Music Venue

Winner: Yugong Yishan

Runner-up: D-22

No doubt it will be taken as a sign of my perversity that I nominate the two most laowai-friendly - and successful - music bars in the city as its two worst. I regard it as evidence of the perversity of everybody else. It's quite simple, people: for a music venue, it's all about the space and the acoustics - the sound is SHIT at these two places. (I really only used to have this category so that I could diss New Get Lucky every year - but the place got chai'd with the reconstruction of Nurenjie this summer. Its loss is utterly unlamented.)

Best Gig of the Year

Winner: Well, I'm sure it might well have been Tommy Emmanuel's appearance at the Peking University Concert Hall in October - but since I didn't get to see that, I can't very well give it the award.

Amongst the shows I saw, I think the top accolade would have to go to eclectic Danish funk-rockers Ibrahim Electric, who played an awesome show at Kolegas at the start of October.

Runner-up: The Dirty Deeds reunion gig in September (at Yugong Yishan!)

Lots of other strong contenders here: the Kolegas 4th Anniversary Show was as rockin' as its three predecessors, although this year its Halloween Party may perhaps have been even better (Dizzy and the Hellcats on particularly barnstorming form that night; and the surprise bonus of a snowball fight!). I also really enjoyed visiting Brit band Long Knives at MAO, and a great new Chinese band called Erguang who played a couple of fantastic gigs at Jiangjinjiu early in the year (but seem to have disappeared again since?!). And there were many great Thursday night gigs from Panjir at Jiangjinjiu this year, the pick of which was probably that at the very end of June, shortly before I flew off for my summer break.

Worst Gig of the Year

Well, I didn't really see anything that sucked arse this year (largely because I didn't go to many gigs at Yugong Yishan), but bland French North African folkster Fethi Tabet was pretty severely disappointing in April (at Yugong Yishan!); a fairly horrific experience, in fact, since lax ticketing had led to an unpleasantly packed crowd.

Best Bar Food

Winner: Luga's

Runner-up: The Den

It's hard to argue with the filling, tasty, and reasonably priced burritos and quesadillas at Luga's (and they do a pretty decent burger too). Alas, the little man's larger establishment around the corner seems to have taken a bit of a dive in its food this year; I always did prefer the fare at the smaller, original outlet, but these days there's no comparison. The Den has, I think, improved its act in some ways this year; and its range of hearty and quite reasonably priced food is really the only proper bar menu in the city: it's not all wonderful, but some things - like the bangers & mash - pretty consistently hit the spot. (I continue to be resolutely unimpressed by The Tree's pizzas!!)

Best Place To Drink While Eating

Oh, anywhere Russian!

My former favourites are both lost to me - Kebab Republic (the old sit-down place on Sanlitun) and BiteAPitta (chai'd in the summer, but said to be about to be reborn somewhere around Nali). But any of the Russian places are good. Of those within walking distance of me, I've been veering towards Traktirr Pushkin of late (I had some bad experiences there in its early days, with crappy buffets at big corporate parties, and being terrorised by their Ukrainian mariachis downstairs - but it seems to have got a lot better: excellent plate of pickles, and very keen deals on vodka by the bottle!), while White Nights has been losing brownie points with its surly service and absurdly niggardly servings of mashed potato. New Mexican place Amigo doesn't quite cut it, I'm afraid, because although it is a pretty good place to drink (especially on its all-night 'happy hour' - now shifted from Friday to Saturday), the food - apart from the nachos and the jalapeno poppers - is mostly shite.

Best Place To Go For A Cocktail

Now, here is a category that suddenly got interesting, competitive even. New openings Fubar and Apothecary are both staking strong claims to establishing themselves as proper cocktail bars (as opposed to pretentious and overpriced Japanese 'whisky bars', naff hotel lounge bars, or Q.... which is more of a nightclub these days), but it's still a little early to make the call as to which, if either, of them might deserve this accolade. (I do not like 2nd Floor.)

And, in general, I still hold to my view that you'll get a better - or at least more keenly priced - drink and perhaps a more fun experience at a quiet little neighbourhood bar, like Reef or 12 Square Metres (where they'll often let you mix your own drink how you like it.... and sometimes even let you behind the bar!).

Best Place For Sitting Outside

No award this year.

It continues to be difficult for your favourite hole-in-the-wall restaurant to put tables and chairs out on the sidewalk, even a year and more on from the dratted Olympics - so a key element of the Beijing open-air experience is denied us. Fish Nation used to be my favourite rooftop spot on Nanluoguxiang, but the service and the food have been so consistently abysmal there that I've finally decided to boycott it in perpetuity. The Stone Boat is always a strong contender, of course, but.... well, I didn't experience much of the Beijing summer this year, taking a long break in England and the States instead; hence, I'm not well-placed to assess the city's bar terraces.

Worst New Bar

Winner: Danger Doyle's

Runner-up: No, I think Doyle's is way out there on its own....

Most Pointless New Bar

Winner: Lucky Man

Again, no runners-up in this one. You see, you haven't even heard of this place, have you? I've mentioned it once or twice on here as The Secret Bar, and I was mildly well-disposed to it initially because I first discovered it when out with my Crush of the Year, The Bombshell. It's a Japanese whisky bar type of place. Except that it's Taiwanese. Nice bar snacks, but the booze is stupidly expensive (and there's no list, so you have to ask about every bottle individually), and it has absolutely zero atmosphere (it's almost invariably deserted, because it does nothing to advertise). It's a quaint oddity to have in the neighbourhood, but has nothing about it to entice you there more than once-in-a-blue-moon. And I can't see it surviving for very long.

Most Surprising Survival

Winner: Drei Kronen

Runner-up: Log-In Pub

DK makes it into its second customerless year - the owners must have money to burn. Mind you, Log-In (semi-renamed Jiggly Wiggly's!!) has now been the least populous bar on Nanluoguxiang for three (or is it four?) straight years. How do these places manage to keep going? And WHY do they bother?

Bar Which Has Deteriorated Most This Year

Winner: Tun

If I were going to have a runner-up, I'd probably say Rickshaw - except that a) I don't think I've been in all year, and b) it had deteriorated so much last year that it probably had nowhere to go but back up a little. Tun doesn't really have any competition here. For a while at the end of last year and early this, under Chad Lager's stewardship, the place had become one of the hottest party spots in town. I imagine it still does pretty well on Fridays and Saturdays, but you go there any other day of the week and you just hear tumbleweed blowing through.

Worst Bar

Winner: Paddy O'Shea's

Runners-up: All-Star, Flames

O'Shea's continues to be quite indescribably awful in every way imaginable, and seems to appeal only to IELTS examiners who are too lazy to walk any farther from the British Council offices. All-Star isn't really a bar at all, but a diner (apparently a pretty good one; but too expensive for the likes of me) - and an annexe of ludicrously up-its-arse nightclub Bling (which seems to appeal only to visiting NBA stars eager to hook up with Chinese girls, and Chinese girls eager to hook up with visiting NBA stars). I wouldn't have thought it possible, but Flames - the bar in the new Wangfujing Hilton - is possibly even worse than Centro; indeed, it may just be the worst hotel bar in the world. However, it doesn't merit the vilification that I regularly heap upon Centro, because no-one goes there.

Award in Perpetuity for Consistent Vileness


Just to open up the Worst Bar category for other contenders! I find Centro's inadequacies, year after year, across the board, in every aspect of its operation (bad layout, bad decor, bad acoustics, bad service, weak drinks, exorbitant prices) to be just flabbergasting. I don't understand how a place can be so bad for so long - and still have any customers. I assume it only attracts businessmen staying at the Kerry Hotel of which it is part, newbies who don't know any better, and well-to-do idiots who are so wedded to familiar home comforts that they want to spend all their time in a Western hotel bar even though it's a very poor Western hotel bar.

Most Overrated Bar

Winner: Saddle Cantina

Runner-up: Mesh

I don't get the deal with the Cantina at all. I find it overpriced, hellishly noisy, and utterly charmless - but it packs the young people in. I don't get the deal with Mesh at all. Apparently, lots of folks - Chinese yuppies especially - adore it for an after-work drink. I gave up on it because it was impossible to read the menu.

Biggest Disappointment of the Year

Winner: Luga's Villa

It's doing alright for itself, but it still seems to be suffering a crisis of identity: it dabbles at being a restaurant-bar, a sports bar, a live music venue and a party venue, without making any clear commitment to any of these initiatives. I'd had great hopes that it might become the one decent bar - maybe not the one decent sports bar, but at least a decent bar - in Sanlitun, but it hasn't quite made it.... and I don't think it's now going to.

If there were going to be a runner-up in this category, I'd probably say Ginkgo - but, frankly, I never really had any expectations of that place to be disappointed.

Most Sadly Missed Departure of the Year

Winner: Bo Wen, the ultra-cool barman from Salud (I never quite got to the bottom of whether he'd chosen the unusual English name 'Bowen', or whether that was his unusual Chinese name). The absurdly generous pours of whisky he used to give me were doing great things for my wallet (sometimes he didn't even charge me for them!) but terrible things to my liver.

Runner-up: The 'Pie of 5 Yuan' stall at the top of Nanluoguxiang - it was around for less than 6 months, but it had rapidly become a central feature of my life. 5 kuai is actually pretty steep, at least twice as much as any other street snack, but these babies were worth it. A plump baozi-shaped meat pie with a generous, spicy filling. Rather as with Weetabix, one was surprisingly filling, two was virtually a meal, and three.... well, you would have had to have been some kind of superman to eat three of them.

Party of the Year

Winner: The Choirboy's birthday bash, in his very cosy little courtyard pad just south of Chang'an (it was supposed to be just a few drinks late afternoon on a Sunday, but it rolled on until well after midnight, as we slowly, lovingly polished off a litre of Johnnie Walker Green).

Runner-up: The 'Late Australia Day' bash at 12 Square Metres
JK the boss had been away in Oz on the day itself, so we celebrated a month later, at the end of February. Got to love that half-price Cooper's Sparkling Ale! I don't remember too much else about it, but I do remember loving the Cooper's.

Self-Destructive Binge Challenge Of The Year

Winner: The Great Nanluoguxiang Bar Crawl in April

Runner-up: The 12 Hours of Continuous Drinking at 12 Square Metres in May

Find of the Year

Winner: No. 8 Beer Garden

Runner-up: Treehouse

I was thinking of calling this new category 'Hidden Gems', but I find that a rather tired and overused phrase, and most of the time not very accurate. Neither of these places is really 'hidden' - just quite easy to overlook. And I wouldn't call either of them exactly 'a gem'. The No. 8 Beer Garden is a great place for starting your night in Sanlitun (or spending your whole night in Sanlitun) with some cheap, open-air drinking; but it's not a very enticing prospect during the bitter cold of winter (or during the scouring winds of spring and autumn). I'm not sure how it can survive on only 6 months' custom a year; maybe it does really well out of the late-night Gongti clubbing crowd. Treehouse doesn't have much to recommend it as a bar - other than the warmth of its welcome and the extreme cheapness of its drinks; but that's something, and it's good to cultivate an occasional alternative haunt in the Nanluoguxiang area.

Most Promising New Bar

Winner: Fubar

I'll be glad if we can put it in another category next year, to avoid that unfortunate rhyme.

Barperson of the Year

Winner: Lixian, of Amilal

Runners-up would be the eminently dudely Clément at Salud, and perhaps his new Chinese colleague Justin - but really, no-one can come close to Lixian: she was pretty much the perfect barmaid.

Bar Owner of the Year

Winner: Alus, at Amilal

The guy is just so cool, so charming - he makes me wish I could speak Mongolian! And he has impeccable taste in whisky, in music: we bond through our shared love of Tom Waits.

Bar of the Year

Winner: Amilal

There are other bars I go to more, and perhaps have more affection for. This place doesn't really feel like a bar - more like the boss's living room. However, it has unquestionably been the phenomenon of the year - one of those places that everyone has heard of, even if they haven't been to it; and most people (or, at any rate, an awful lot of the people that I know) have been to it at least once. (I guess Amilal wins the Best New Bar prize as well, since it only opened for business around Spring Festival time this year.) For such a small and hard-to-find bar (note, Weeble, that I am not doing anything to advertise its whereabouts) it's done a remarkable job of attracting strong and diverse crowds of punters. It has the most tasteful decor, the best top shelf single malt collection (at the most affordable - commercially non-viable! - prices), the most beautiful kittens, and the best music selection in the world. Not so much a bar as a spa for the soul.

So, there we go. Any comments, queries, abuse??

New Year's Eve options

There's a poncey new, would-be "French" nightclub - Le Zazou - just opened in Sanlitun (god knows where - tried to find it on Sunday, but came up blank), which apparently has a vodka bar sponsored by Absolut. And during its first two weeks of opening, select vodka cocktails (not all; you have to be careful to check which ones) are FREE between 8pm and midnight. I can see that appealing to a lot of people - rather too many people - tomorrow night. But I'm not confident that the involvement of Absolut will necessarily ensure that the product is kosher. And I am confident the place will be a bit of a shitbox. And it will be a complete scrum on New Year's Eve. We still have 8 or 9 days of that freebie promotion to run, so I think I'll wait for a quiet mid-week evening to scope it out.

There's a free rock concert on in Sanlitun mall development The Village. It was, however, ticketed, and I imagine the tickets have all gone long since. I console myself with the thought that it's (I assume) outdoors, and thus likely to be arse-freezing cold. Also, I doubt if there'll be a bar - or not a very good one, anyway (none of the publicity seems to have said anything about a bar). And of the three bands slated, one I like (SUBS, but I've seen them so many times before), one I have mixed feelings about (New Pants - quite fun, but too poppy for my taste), and one I hate (pretentious miserabilists RETROS - in certain circumstances I can stand them, even begin to enjoy them; but they are guaranteed to bring down the mood at a party with their depressive navel-gazing). So, no, on balance, not too sad to be missing that.

I see there's a big party on at Luga's Villa - which sounds like it's going to be a major alcohol fest. Tickets 100 rmb on the door from 8pm, but a free glass of sparkling at midnight, and big reductions on all drinks all night (I think the local draught is only 5 kuai, and most other things are around half off). Also - gin and vodka available to buy by the bottle for under 100 kuai, and Jack Daniel's for 200 (well, I think in fact it's going to be 198rmb - that 'lucky' 8 thing again) - although I'm not sure I'd trust it to be the genuine article. However, if you really hate your liver, this sounds like the place to be.

My Sanlitun source tells me that Fubar, while not doing anything special for the evening, will be running its ongoing 'Headhunter Happy Hour' promotion - which apparently means that the (very agreeable) 'Happy Hour' prices will be extended all night if there are 60 people in there before 9pm. That sounds eminently doable. I wouldn't want to see too many more than 60 people there, though: I don't like crowds.

My own best beloved 12 Square Metres bar - after protracted and angstful negotiations with two sets of landlords - has finally moved ahead with renting the adjacent house behind, and is going to knock through the connecting wall and start refurbishing on January 1st (at least trebling the effective space.... although we hope it will retain the same cosy ambience), so Thursday could be the farewell for the old bar as we have known it. Then again, JK was hinting that he has other plans for New Year's Eve, so perhaps tonight will be the send-off for "Beijing's smallest bar". Also in my 'hood, newly opened pizza joint Mao Mao Chong (just relocated from the Wudaoying Hutong to the Banchang Hutong, mid-way between Jiaodaokou Nandajie and Nanluoguxiang) will be offering free bar snacks from early evening.... "until they run out". That could be a tempting way to start the evening. [Update: It seems the remodelling is likely to take rather longer than JK had originally hoped, and since New Year's Eve and the subsequent 'holiday weekend' (the 1st - and 2nd?? - is these days a holiday in China, for some strange reason) are likely to be a time of strong business for him, he's deferred the knockthrough until the beginning of next week. Looks like Sunday should be the tearful farewell.]

I guess if Thursday is going to be the last night of 12 Square Metres being 12 square metres, then I'll feel obliged to go there. Otherwise.... well, I don't imagine I'll stray far beyond my usual range. I hate crowds. I hate the traffic jams and taxi shortages we suffer on big party nights. In fact, I hate big party nights: as I think I've said on here
before, I even hate Friday nights - and New Year's Eve is just a Friday night times a thousand. The trouble with these mass events is that, as one friend of mine puts it, they are 'Amateur Nights': the occasions when everyone comes out, all the people that don't drink that much and so don't know how to hold it, and all the people that do drink fairly regularly but still don't know how to hold it or are going to overindulge stupidly on this night - all the people I spend most of my life trying to avoid. Almost every bar will be rammed, and the streets will be teeming with unlovely pissheads.

I feel a big curmudge coming on. Unless there's some chance of there being a relatively quiet and normal night to be had at 12 Square, or the Pool Bar, or Amilal.... I think I'd rather stay at home with a few cans of beer and my DVD collection.

Lowest of the low

Has there been a note of depression coming through in my posts recently? It could be so. Sorry. December is not a good month for me.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Top Five Christmases

A seasonal selection for the second entry in my new Top Fives series...

My Top Five Christmases (in Beijing)

5) Christmas in 'The Legit'
My first Christmas in Beijing wasn't well-starred: I was virtually penniless, and reeling from the recent death of my mother. But I suppose this made me all the more grateful for whatever consolations and distractions I could find. This was one of those Christmases where it really was the human (and animal) warmth rather than the material circumstances that made it: a relaxing, familiar environment, and affection shared between friends and acquaintances. I played Santa for some Chinese friends in the morning, had a Christmas lunch at the old John Bull Pub with my two best buddies, and then spent the whole evening hanging out at my favourite little neighbourhood restaurant drinking 2kuai beers.

4) The heartbroken Christmas
I had an arguably even shittier time 3 years later when great love of my life The Poet dumped me just before Christmas (and, as it happened, on the very anniversary of my mother's death). I was beside myself with grief, obsessed, crazed, depressed - I was virtually unable to sleep for 12 days. Then Christmas Eve rolled around, and I went out to get drunk at Huxley's - the "Haiku Bar" - my favourite hang-out of the time. It was a small but lively crowd (just right for such a tiny bar), with a number of familiar faces and recently-made friends (including a couple of young climatologists on a sabbatical from a university in Norway - you always used to meet unusual, fascinating people like that in Huxley's back in the good old days when my friend Jackson Bai was running it). And then - I forget quite how this came about - I took the climatologists (and maybe one or two other people) to a house party at the sumptuous penthouse apartment The Film Guy was sharing at that time (I really don't recall how I'd come to be invited, since I knew him only very slightly at the time, as a friend of a friend)..... so the excessive drinking (and the not thinking about her at all, for the first time in months) continued until 3am or 4am. I then went home and slept like a baby for 15 hours; when I awoke, I was starting to feel sane and happy again. No Christmas dinner for me that year - but lots of cathartic drinking!

3) The self-catering Christmas
Last year, for the first and only time in my life, I helped to cook Christmas dinner for a group of friends. Well, the hostess - my friend Dishy Debs - did just about all of the actual cooking, but I pitched in with a lot of the shopping and prep work (I would be delighted never to have to trim another Brussels sprout in my life!). That was the only time since I've come to China that I spent most of the day just hanging out in a family environment - being reminded how crazy young children get about their presents! It was a hectic but strangely revivifying day.

2) The bar crawl Christmas
Christmas two years ago was the first time in quite a while that I'd been able to spend a lot of time with my oldest friend in Beijing, Tony 'The Chairman'. We drank a lot of White Russians that week, to soothe the nasty tickly cough that usually sets in during the Beijing winter; and we enjoyed probably the most delightful - improvised - Christmas Eve I have ever known, lurching from one bar to another around the Nanluoguxiang area.

And the bestest one of all.....

1) The family Christmas
Aside from last year's Christmas dinner at Debbie's (which evolved more as a quixotic joint venture to try to tackle the challenge of cooking for 10 people, rather than being an invitation as such), the only time I've been invited to a friend's house for Christmas was four years ago. Just about everything about the occasion was delightful: the location (a gorgeous penthouse apartment to the south of Chaoyang Park), the food (all of us pitching in to help cook in an overcrowded but mostly good-natured kitchen), the company (two of my oldest friends in Beijing, their lovely baby daughter, the wife's cranky but entertaining mum, a couple of other friends.... and my girlfriend [yes, that was also the only Christmas here that I've got to share with a girlfriend: exchanging Christmas presents in bed with a very cute American girl I'd only just started dating was a fine start to the day]), the weather (the only proper White Christmas I've seen here).... yes, it was all just about perfect. Apart from the fact that my belly was about fit to rupture at the seams after unwisely eating a large Christmas lunch earlier in the day!

This year's was pretty good too - but it's hard to judge its long-term memorability so soon after the event. I think it probably won't have the resonance of these five.

I'm not finished with that yet

Anywhere you go in China, there are going to be wrinkles with the service.

The lasses (and lads) at Fubar, for example, charming though they are and trained to a much better standard than usual, are still prone to occasional lapses into unwelcome Chinese foibles - the girls stroking each other's hair, for example (not great for hygiene). And last week (on a day when neither of the bosses was around) it took me about 5 minutes to get anyone's attention to order another drink because they were all lollygagging down at the far end of the bar, taking each other's photos in Christmas hats, and such.

And the thing that really bugs me..... they have an irksome tendency to remove the drinks menu from you as soon as you've ordered. (And surreptitiously, without asking you!)

It's quite a long menu, with a number of unusual or unique drinks. Making choices there is not easy. It takes time and deliberation. Moreover, I am a quick drinker. Look, people, I'm going to be ordering something else in 15 or 20 minutes, and I'm quite likely to spend a good portion of that time reading the menu - please leave it.

I could understand it if they only had a few copies of it and they were busy. But they have plenty of copies, and the place is seldom that busy when I look in. What is this obsession with sneaking the menu away every time?

Danger Doyle's, of course, manages to go one worse (yes, I ventured back there the other day - just to reaffirm my dire first impressions of the place). They appear to only have one copy of their drinks list, and they really don't like to give it out to people - they look shocked and surprised if you ask to see it. Now, they have a very long list of drinks, especially the list of rare, imported bottled beers (ridiculously long, unwieldy); and the prices aren't on display anywhere else (I don't see the problem with having a board displaying prices [of the most common drinks, at least] and/or tags on the taps and the bottles - but nowhere in Beijing does it; and it's a pain-in-the-arse having to ask the price of everything serially!): Doyle's should really be keeping umpteen copies of that drinks list - and handing one to punters as soon as they come in.

(One brownie point for them, though. I went in there to watch a football game over the weekend, and found the place nearly deserted [no surprise - it's a shitbox, in a mall]; but they did at least accede to my request to turn on the commentary for the game.... and to turn the annoying music down, though not off. That gives them a huge edge over most other Beijing bars - particularly The Den, where any request to change anything about the music or the TVs is treated as an act of lèse-majesté against Paul.)

There's a similar reluctance to let you hang on to the (full of diverting reading matter) menu at The Drugstore. Is this becoming a universal vice? Presumably they're worried about running short if there's a sudden rush. Odd that this should be particularly a problem in places that rarely have much of a rush!

Two simple tips, guys:

1) Print more menus.

2) If you must have your staff restore menus to the stack on the bar as regularly and swiftly as possible.... at least get them to ask customers if it's OK to remove them, rather than just whisking them out from under your nose.

It's not rocket science.

Monday, December 28, 2009

And later....

The final text message of a strange night:

"In Amilal. Alone. Listening to Nick Cave. Ah, melancholy!"

More txt msg wistfulness

My friend Leather Britches, only just returned from Europe, still on his way in from the airport, deflected my entreaty to join me for a drink tonight with the words....

"Afraid I can't tonight. Have to meet girlfriend."

My reply:

"Me too. Any idea where I can find one?"

Dark days

Dr Manhattan and I swung by The Drugstore (as we like to call Apothecary) last Monday, and found it CLOSED.

This seems an odd policy, especially when the place is new, fighting to establish itself. And it has been drawing reasonable numbers on almost every night of the week, from what I've seen. The Dr and I were not the only ones in a grump about finding the place dark on a Monday. (I suppose this is one of the drawbacks of only having one barman at the moment. The great advantage of the George & Echo double-act in their early days, at Midnight and so on, was that they could swap shifts around or take alternate days off in the slow first half of the week.)

Last Wednesday, the Bar Uno hotdog stall half-way down Nanluoguxiang - a rather too regular refuelling stop for me over the past couple of months! - was also inexplicably inoperative.

Shortly afterwards, I discovered that Salud had decided to discontinue its Wednesday live music nights until after the holidays. (Why??? They're still drawing in pretty fair crowds, despite the holiday absentees. Maybe it's that all the bands have gone away....)

Things get shit in this town around Christmas.


I've been meaning to write about Fubar for a while, but somehow keep on failing to get around to it. (And I've been meaning to ask the owners for my royalties, but somehow keep on failing to get around to it.)

There are a lot of things about it that don't quite work for me (not the least of which is that it's in the Sanlitun area, and I hardly ever go there), but it is the best of the year's new bar openings, and is enticing me in whenever I am over in that part of town (an ideal pre- or post-Bookworm drop-in).

Its USP, of course, is that it's a "speakeasy" - concealed entrance, no publicity, strictly a word-of-mouth kind of deal. Now, in general, I find the speakeasy craze which has overrun America in the past few years to be pretentious and irritating (you may remember my diatribe this summer against the would-be super-trendy PX cocktail lounge in Alexandria, VA): usually the pretence of 'exclusivity' is just being used to jack up the prices to stupid levels. Here in Beijing, though, I am willing to indulge the concept, to welcome the novelty - even a certain quaintness - of it. And Fubar's prices are not unreasonable.

The considerable pluses include the drinks list (all genuine booze, and a range of different brands for the standard spirits; a small but good selection of single malts; a short but good list of classic cocktails, with a few surprisingly effective inventions of their own [that one where the unlikely combination of Tsingtao and orange juice ends up tasting like grapefruit is very more-ish!]), the prices (much keener than their chief competition, Apothecary and Q, even at the regular tariff; decidedly alluring on 'happy hour'), the music (played at an appropriate volume, and [mostly - there have been aberrations] classic jazz and blues), the friendly welcome of the owners Chad and Kevin, and (yes - sexism alert) cute female bar staff in neat black uniforms.

Ah yes, the Happy Hour. It's not completely happy - variable and non-standard price reductions, considerably less than 50% off - but still, the discounts are large enough to make it the most economical place to drink in the neighbourhood early evening. Their standard Happy Hour runs until 9pm, but they've recently introduced an ingenious 'Headhunter' promotion (for the slow first half of the week) where they'll extend it by an extra half-hour for every ten people in the bar at the end of the regular discount period - a good excuse to phone up your mates and get them to join you. Chad has been very generous in his headcounts, and the last couple of times I was in on a Tuesday night, the Happy Hour went to 10pm or later, even though there were really only a handful of people in. Also, I hear they've recently started opening in the afternoon (at 2pm or 3pm?), with Happy Hour prices all the way through till 9pm (they used to only open from 6pm, and there was never anybody there before 7pm).

On the downside, though..... there's the unappealing location - hard to find, inside the Worker's Stadium complex, quite a little trek from anywhere else you might be visiting in the neighbourhood (and, of course, it's been subject to numerous hassles and forced closures this year during rehearsals for the October 1st celebrations; I hope the new football season won't be similarly disruptive). The decor - nice muted colours, but very bare: they need some soft furnishings in there, and something on the walls, even if it's just a FU () symbol. The light array over the bar - I think they've toned down the brightness a bit on my last few visits, but it's still a bit overpowering near the bar (you can see the neon strips blazing through the shade); and some people find the design of the lightshade itself (a huge sort of Art Deco stepped pyramid affair) a bit unsettling, looming over you like a sword of Damocles (it doesn't bother me, but I've heard it said). And the bar itself - that, I'm afraid, is my main gripe: it is way too high for standing or sitting comfortably at (it's almost at armpit-height - and I'm a tall guy); it creates too large a barrier between you and the staff, it's impersonalizing (you can hardly see the diminutive barmaids over the top of it); and, worst of all, it creates the problem that you can't see your drinks being made (I think I trust Chad and Kevin and their staff to be using full pours; but even so, in Beijing there isn't usually that trust, and you get used to being allowed to watch what and how much is going into your drink; having the drinks mixed on a low counter behind the bar rather than on the bar itself seems surreptitious, underhanded).

Fubar deserves to succeed - it's a cosy little spot, serving good drinks at sensible prices; and Chad and Kevin are a likeable pair who are really committed to trying to do things right. That bar, though, is for me a big, big problem. I would be inclined to rip it out and replace it with something a good 6" or 8" lower. Either that or (possibly simpler, but apt to create a trip-and-fall hazard) build a platform, a raised cement step on the customer side. (Hmm, that still wouldn't solve the problem of the staff not being able to see over the bar, or mix the drinks on it; you'd need to build up their side of the bar too - probably by at least a foot. No, I think basically that bar has to go.)

They only opened up over the summer (when I - and most of laowai Beijing - was away), and then had a pretty miserable September and October of random closures imposed by the government. You might say they've only been properly open and running smoothly for 8 or 10 weeks. The custom seems to have been growing slowly but steadily during that time, and I'm told they've had a few very big weekends (I wouldn't know; I much prefer having the place almost to myself on a quiet midweek early evening). I wish the guys luck in building on that success in the year ahead. But I hope they change the bar.

A bon mot for the week

"I could bear the memory, but I could not bear the music that made the memory such a killing thing."

Pat Conroy (1945- )

Sometimes a song just ambushes you, doesn't it? Leaps out from behind the door and starts beating you with a baseball bat....

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Little Frank (A Christmas tale)

The recent arrival of a perky little stray pup in my favourite bar has reminded me of my first Christmas here in Beijing (another reminiscence over on Froogville - I'm in nostalgic mood!).

It was a glum time for me: my mother died suddenly, just a fortnight before the holiday, and I hadn't been able to go home for the funeral. I hadn't wanted to share my grief with a bunch of colleagues only a few of whom were friends, and none of whom I'd known much more than three months, so it was all bottled up inside. I was emotionally a bit of a mess.

More than ever, I depended on the reliable haven of the 'Legitimate Businessmen's Club', the grotty but cosy little neighbourhood restaurant that was my almost nightly resort during my first year here. In the run-up to Christmas, I was hanging out there every night - with my two closest buddies 'Big Frank' and 'The Chairman' ('The Three Amigos'), and the familiar gaggle of Chinese regulars.

And during this period there was one notable addition to the usual dramatis personae - an adorably cute little puppy. It appeared that the restaurant's owner had agreed to look after it for a friend, but it didn't receive a lot of affection from him or his staff (we worried at first that the poor little guy was intended for the cooking pot!), nor from any of the other regulars. In fact, he was a nervous little critter, very shy of going near anyone. Frank and Tony made brief efforts to win him over, but he was suspicious and aloof.

But me - I've always had that 'dog thing'. Supposedly unstable and dangerous dogs break into my bedroom..... and lick my face (ring any bells, Mothman?). It was much the same with the pup at The Legit - he warmed to me instantly..... tugging playfully at my trouser-legs, and soon graduating to sitting on my lap (a sign of honour he wouldn't consider bestowing on anyone else). 'Warmed' is probably the key consideration here. It was bitterly cold that winter; the restaurant was draughty; the tiled floor was freezing cold, and I don't think the poor little dog even had a blanket to lie on - he was shivering miserably most of the time.... unless he was sleeping in my lap. I often felt bad about displacing him when I finally had to go home - at 3am or 4am.

He didn't appear to have a name - at least, no-one in the restaurant was using one. So, in honour of my burly bruiser of a drinking chum, whom our Chinese colleagues had dubbed da fa lan ke, we called the adorable little doggy xiao fa lan ke - Little Frank.

Unconditional affection, so simply given and received - it's a wonderful thing. Pets are such a tonic for the emotional and mental health. I really think that little dog saved me from a breakdown.

I was terribly upset when he disappeared again a couple of weeks later. I hope he went back to his owners, and not into the pot.

A lack of Christmas cheer

I have the peanuts and the small sweet oranges
But no tinsel or Christmas tree
I have the bowl of candies
But no holly or mistletoe
I have DVDs of slushy films
But no ‘Christmas Specials’ on TV
I have the self-gifted bottle of whisky
But no other presents
I have the empty spaces
Where my family used to be

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Elements of a fairly good Christmas Day

1) A BIG meal
Not quite as good as this year's Thanksgiving repast (very niggardly with some of the vegetables; and disappointing puds - and no stuffing: what happened to the stuffing??), but a very generous helping of turkey - producing an appropriate holiday bloat.

2) An unexpected piece of 'good luck'
I won a ticket (quite a high-value ticket) to an acrobatics show in a Lucky Draw at the restaurant. I'm not that enthused about the show (and it's a bummer that it's only one ticket - I don't fancy going on my own!), but just being lucky gave a needed lift to my sagging spirits.

3) A friendly welcome (and a cat)
This was the coldest Christmas Day I have known here, and my companions and I were desperate to find somewhere to shelter from the lacerating winds. Unfortunately, most of our regular haunts - like Amilal and the Pool Bar - aren't open during the day. We tried our luck at Treehouse - and Sophie, the owner, was kind enough to invite us in, even though they weren't really 'open'. Fondling her gorgeous cat for half an hour gave a further lift to the spirits (the emotional satisfaction made it worth enduring the slight allergy problems I suffered subsequently - I have, alas, become acutely sensitive to cat hairs over the last 10 years). Unfortunately, Treehouse is not well-heated, and it was absolutely bloody freezing in there yesterday afternoon (and also deafening, since someone was working with a masonry drill on the front of the house directly opposite); thus, regretfully, we soon moved on again.

4) An early start at 12 Square Metres
My 'second home' has just started opening in the afternoons again, so around 5pm we took refuge there. An hour or two later, they started rolling out their Christmas evening buffet. I was still feeling utterly stuffed from lunch, but.... the garlicky chicken legs smelled just too wonderful to resist.

5) And so to the Pool Bar...
Our favourite little bar was soon getting a bit too packed, so around 9.30 the Chairman and I decided to try and get in a game of pool at the Pool Bar. Our timing was good: the bar was fairly empty when we arrived, so we were able to get on the table almost at once; however, the place started filling up almost immediately after that - with the dreaded 'Rock Star' making an appearance (the guy who's so much better than everyone else that he plays one-handed most of the time, to give you a chance), as well as The Chairman's brother, Terrible Tes, and a couple of young Brits who proved to have very strong games. Ah, where did the next 4 hours go?? Always good times in the Pool Bar! (And, oh my god, Luke has recently bought a new table: well, it looks like he kept the old base, the legs, but it's a complete new top - slate, baize, rails, pockets, everything. And damn, it's playing well. It's rather discombobulating, in fact, to play for once on a dead straight table - no quirky drifts into certain pockets, no tricky variations in the speed of the cloth, no irregular bounces off the cushions. It takes some getting used to, but.... ah, pool heaven. And I think I'm getting my mojo back...)

The day didn't start out so well, but it just got better and better. Bars, I realise, have become not just my home but my family.

Elements of a dire Christmas Eve

1) Unreliable friends
The Chairman, 'surprised' by the bad traffic, was running an hour-and-a-half late for our scheduled early evening rendezvous. A couple of other people he had said would be there, people I hadn't seen for a while and was keen to catch up with, also failed to appear. I gave up on them and went elsewhere.

2) My 'stalker'
An ex that I prefer to avoid had - yet again - insinuated herself into the party I was supposed to be meeting. I couldn't face her feigned surprise, the tired old "Oh, what a surprise to see you here!" rigmarole. Yeah, right. You know these are my two closest drinking buddies; you know they're the only people I know still left in town; where the hell else would you expect me to be? Another reason to leave...

3) Thin crowds
Not much fun to be had anywhere around Sanlitun, it seemed. Everyone's gone away for the holidays. I checked out Fubar for a while, but it was pretty dead.

4) Chinese revellers
Well, thin crowds of foreigners, that is. Most bars and restaurants were thronged with young Chinese partiers. I knew from bitter experience that it wouldn't be worth trying to get in the door at most of the places I usually like to hang out around Nanluoguxiang, like Reef, or Jianghu, or the Pool Bar.

5) Appalling traffic
The huge enthusiasm of the Chinese for Christmas Eve parties meant that all the roads around the centre of the city were log-jammed for hours, and it took a long wait to get a taxi. I had been planning to go to the Christmas Eve gig at 2 Kolegas, but my enthusiasm for the idea waned as I contemplated the possibility of having to walk all the way there..... and maybe having to walk all the way back too.

6) Appalling weather
The previous 48 hours had been very mild. Unfortunately, low wind, damp air, and a temperature inversion had cranked pollution levels way up; and a long spell with no precipitation has built up huge amounts of sand and dust in the streets. On Christmas Eve, the wind started blowing savagely out of the northwest again, plunging the temperature well below freezing and scouring your eyeballs with sand. I had elected to walk home from Sanlitun - ordinarily a not unpleasant 80 or 90-minute stroll, but on this occasion an exhausting, dispiriting trudge into the teeth of the gale.

7) Luck
I might perhaps have salvaged something from the evening if I'd just gone to 12 Square Metres (comme toujours), but I had decided to surrender myself to the dice life. Not having a die on me, or a coin, I texted a friend the query 'Heads or tails?' (Try this sometime. Very liberating! You have to be disciplined about choosing your options first and sticking to them. And no "Best of three..." get-outs!) Unfortunately, he gave me the wrong answer.

8) More Chinese revellers
So, I went instead to check out my jazzy friends the No Name Trio playing at Trainspotting, a little restaurant/bar in the Fangjia Hutong development just off Andingmen. Alas, it was a thinnish crowd. And entirely Chinese. And entirely under 25. I was not inspired to stick around. I had been drawn to the option largely by the prospect of being able to have a catch-up with Terry, the barman there (an old friend from Obiwan and Room 101) - but he seems to have left.

9) Gathering gloom
I still had plenty of time to head back to 12 Square. Or Amilal. But the evening was going so poorly that I suffered a mounting pessimism that even these reliable standbys might prove to be disappointing on this night. I actually walked right up to the door of Amilal.... and coudn't bring myself to go in.

10) Inaccurate listings
I still had one hope of some entertainment. My last stop on the way home would be Jiangjinjiu. It's a Thursday, after all - Panjir should be playing. They were advertised as playing in all the listings magazines. But regular listings often get disrupted by the holidays; and repeat events tend to get hardwired into the listings, regardless of whether they are still ongoing. No Panjir this night. No band at all. Home it is, then. (Actually, Panjir don't seem to have been playing their Thursday spot there for a few weeks now - must check what's going on with that.)

11) A blast from the past
I'd just got home when Fate taunted me with a text message from one of the great loves of my life, asking if I was out. No, indeed I was not. I think she was seeking a bar recommendation rather than urging me to join her. She'd just been to a gig, so was likely to be playing the groupie with her rock musician friends - I endured enough of that when I was going out with her, thank you. A brief heart-lurch, nonetheless. What is it about Christmas that so distills the devastating sense of loneliness?

12) Pining (1)
The heart-lurch over the ex wasn't as bad as it might have been because I at least have new foci of romantic disappointment in my life these days. I realised the person I would most like to have been with, or at least been in touch with, this Christmas was The Bombshell, the lovely Swedish visitor who stole my heart back in March.

13) Pining (2)
Although I am, on balance, relieved at the news of Madame X's intended departure from China, glad to escape the prison of thwarted infatuation and the confidence-crushing torture of her perpetual spurning.... well, there is also a keen sense of regret. I miss having her here even when she's just gone home for Christmas. How much worse will it be when she's gone for good?

14) Guilt
Probably one of the key underlying reasons for my low mood on this night was the niggling sense of shame at having omitted to send Christmas cards to my young nieces this year. At least getting home by 10.30pm enabled me to arrange e-cards for them (but they're not big computer users, so I'm not sure when or if they'll ever see them).

15) No booze in the house
How could I have no booze in the house? There should always be a bottle of good whisky on hand to console you through these dismal holiday doldrums! A major oversight.

No, Christmas Eve is rarely a good night in China; but this year it was a very, very, very bad one.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Christmas Story (Great Dating Disasters [6])

I met a traveller on the Oxford Tube
Who said, "'The Lights Going On And Off'
At the Tate is somewhat ill-named,
In that the lights are mostly 'off'...
Unless you ask the attendant
To switch them on."

Strange, but true. This is not quite a 'dating disaster', but it fits with the general theme of possible romance thwarted by malevolent Fate. This happened a few days before Christmas in 2001 - the year before I moved to China.

My travelling companion was an improbably pretty – but ridiculously young - art student (an aspiring sculptor, no less) who took the seat opposite me on the bus just before Christmas. I am ordinarily a rather curmudgeonly traveller, taking the traditional English 'reserve' to extremes. But this girl made two or three attempts to get me chatting, and eventually I gave in.... and had a surprisingly good time! Her witty and irreverent take on the controversial 'artwork' then on show at the Tate Modern Gallery utterly won me over. And things just got better from there: it was one of the pleasantest bus journeys I have ever taken.

Alas, she was running late on an urgent errand to deliver a package to a swanky shop in central London (very mysterious - what a splendid MacGuffin!), and when the bus started getting bogged down in late afternoon traffic on the outskirts of the city she had to hop off in haste to try her luck on the Underground. Such haste, indeed, that we didn't get around to telling each other our names, let alone exchanging contact details.

Now, before the storm of nudge-nudge-wink-winks begins, I must make it clear that she was not at all my type physically (far too petite, and far too YOUNG: late teens or early 20s, but looking scarcely fifteen or sixteen…. and, at the time, I was already in my mid-30s. Impractical, indecent, unthinkable!). However, I had very much enjoyed her company, and I thought it was a shame that I didn't even know her name - particularly so if she were going to develop into one of our great artists of the 21st Century. So - uncharacteristically - I determined to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.

My only lead was the name of the shop she was delivering the package to, a place where she apparently had a holiday job: it turned out to be a hugely expensive perfumier on the Burlington Arcade, an ultra-ritzy mini-mall just off Piccadilly.

Christmas crowds - and my own packed schedule - almost thwarted my resolve. On the first attempt to drop in there the next day, I was running badly late for another appointment by the time I managed to find the place, and I wasn't able to go in. (Not just cold feet, honestly! Well, maybe just a little bit.) The day after that, I was frustrated by the absence of any shops selling Christmas cards in the vicinity (can't give just any old card to an artist, can you?); I eventually found something suitable, but was then frustrated by the absence of anywhere to sit down to write in it (no pubs in that locale either!); I think I eventually took refuge in a large bookstore, where I could take some time to compose a suitably charming, friendly, low-key, non-stalkerish message. That took quite a while – but I finally made it to the store with my card just before closing time.

I waited patiently amid all the mink-wrapped matrons spending hundreds of pounds on their seasonal toiletries. Then, when I finally got my turn at the counter, I explained my mission as delicately as possible - not wanting to embarrass the artist or myself. And of course, the shop assistant had no idea who I was talking about! I persisted gently, and at last it transpired that there was a sister store in Bicester (just north of Oxford), and that an assistant from that branch had delivered something from there on the day and time in question. The assistant told me the Christian name of the girl, though she didn't sound too confident about it [and I, alas, have now forgotten it], and promised to forward my card to the Bicester shop.

I had no great hopes that my message would reach the girl, and even less expectation that she would bother to respond (although I had, in a rare gesture of optimism, included my e-mail address). But this was more of an effort than I have ever made, before or since, to try to make contact with a girl I’d only fleetingly encountered - a marked divergence from my usual bumbling shyness and hopelessness.

As I was leaving the shop, one of the matrons remarked to me (oh, they must all have eavesdropped on my little saga - it's a tiny, tiny shop), "
Well, that's a lovely story, anyway..."

I replied, "Thank you, but I think at present it's only a good beginning to a story."

The Oxford Tube, for the uninitiated, is an express coach shuttle service between Oxford and London. It was launched during my student days in the mid-1980s, and, since most of my old college friends still live in Oxford (or else in London), and since I have often been working in London (or in Oxford), it is a service I have used many dozens, perhaps hundreds of times over the past twenty-odd years.

'The Lights Going On And Off' by Martin Creed (a Brit of about my own age; oh what strange 'careers' we '60s boys have charted for ourselves!) debuted at the Tate Modern gallery in London that year (and has since been recreated in a number of other leading galleries), one of the more notorious works of contemporary 'art': an empty room in the gallery, bare floor, featureless white walls, and a large overhead neon light that intermittently plunges you into darkness. You'd think that at least the switching on and off would be electronically controlled in some way - perhaps with some subtly signifcant pattern of changing intervals; or with a purely random interval; or maybe in some way interactive, triggered by the entry of a spectator into the room (or how many spectators were in the room, or where they were stood, or their heartrate, or something). Well, I gather it was supposed to be just on a fixed timer, changing every 5 or 10 seconds (rather boring!); but for a while this mechanism had broken, so the lights were on (or off) all the time - unless you had the gumption to ask the attendant what was going on; at which point he could participate in the 'artwork' by turning the lights on (or off, or repeatedly on and off) for you. Maybe it was better that way....

Thrice nay!

I am, I fear, in the grip of mid-winter randiness. My asexualist ideals abandoned, I have been trying to revive my love life. Yes, really - I have been taking an interest in women again. I have, in fact, even gone so far as to try asking them out.

Of course, it's not going well. Perhaps my efforts have been too diffuse: as so often, I find myself distracted in three different directions at once.

But one of them has just flown home for Christmas.

Another probably has (this is the one I didn't get a number for!); international school teachers, they tend to do that.

And another is just oh so busy with friends.... for the next week-and-a-half.

Dag nabbit!!

Two dinners

JK and Limei at 12 Square Metres had been planning to take a break over Christmas, but.... the unhelpful rules of the Chinese state bureaucracy derailed that plan; they've had to defer their trip for a few days. Well, it'll be nice to have them around for the holiday.

And they have - rashly - promised to lay on a cold Christmas buffet tomorrow evening.

This is too kind an offer to spurn, but.... well, The Chairman and I (and Dr Manhattan.... and anyone else who hasn't left town...) will be doing our traditional Christmas pig-out at lunchtime. After that, it is questionable whether we'll be wanting to look at food again for another 48 hours or so.

There's an O. Henry short story about a tramp who gets treated to two Christmas lunches (or is it Thanksgiving??), feels unable to decline the kindness even though the food overload nearly kills him. I did this once before, 4 or 5 years ago - thinking I could do the traditional lunch (with Big Frank, and my girlfriend of the time, The Buddhist) at the old John Bull Pub (much missed), and then have a few hours to "walk it off" before attempting another Christmas meal in the evening with married friends over by Chaoyang Park. Lunch dragged on rather longer than anticipated, and the planned "recovery walk" was scuppered by severely inclement weather and heavy snow on the ground. The day only proved survivable because the evening cooking schedule was running badly behind (all pitching in together in the kitchen: chaotic, but fun - I still recall the Buddhist's anguished complaint of,
"Don't put a vegetarian in charge of the gravy!"), and we didn't start eating again until 9pm or so. Nevertheless, I nearly bust my gut.

I don't want to be causing myself that much pain again. Pacing. Pacing is the key.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Down to the Drugstore

Five or six weeks ago, a new cocktail bar arrived on our scene: the would-be New Orleans-y Apothecary, upstairs in the Nali Patio mall, next to Mosto restaurant.

If you're a Beijinger, you probably already know about it - the word of mouth has been going very well. The first time I went, barely a week after it had first opened its doors, there were five or six other knots of people in, each of which included at least one person I knew - but from very different circles. The place seems to have immediately entered the collective consciousness of the seasoned expat brigade.

There hasn't been any big fanfare for it; no official launch as yet, I don't think; it's still in an extended soft opening phase - but we're quite liking what we see so far. Well, we're liking the drinks. The drinks are well-made, rather outside of the usual run that we find in most such bars in Beijing (it is the home of my new grand amour, the Black Feather), and quite reasonably priced (most cocktails at 50-60rmb) considering you get at least a double measure of spirits in each. They also play a good selection of classic and Latin jazz, with pleasingly regular injections of Nina Simone and Billie Holiday - loud enough to enjoy, but not loud enough to intrude on a conversation. There are so few bars in Beijing - well, none that I can think of - that get that right.

This is looking like becoming, just possibly, the bar that we hoped Q might be in its early days (and the bar that its George & Echo predecessors, the lovely but relatively little known First Café and Midnight briefly were): a quiet, cosy, classy, intimate retreat where you can get a properly-made cocktail for a not-outrageous price. (I've never really written much about Q on here, because I can't stand the place: it's too expensive, it takes too long to get served, it's too goddamned crowded and noisy - a victim of its own success; these days, at least on busy nights in the second half of the week, it's more of a nightclub than a cocktail bar.)

So, yes, a lot of promise; but, as ever, I have my doubts and reservations. It's not an appealing location (upstairs, in a mall - bad bar-ness!) or an appealing space (too long and narrow; and, although they've added more wooden shelving along the bare white walls and tuned the lighting down several notches since my first visit, it still seems a little stark and antiseptic). The insistence on making their own ingredients strikes me as a dubious and potentially rather irritating affectation, particularly when it doesn't come off - their homemade ginger beer is an unappealing milky colour and has no bite to it at all; their bitters are unremarkable in taste, but a rather too lurid deep red, almost crimson in colour. And the food is threatening to be less temptingly priced than the drinks (the platter of pickled vegetables is indeed a very tasty and unusual selection; but there's hardly anything to it for 40 or 50 kuai!); however, they haven't rolled out their full menu yet, and the (allegedly) homemade andouille sausage gives plenty of hope that the Cajun dishes will be worth trying (hmm, nice bowl of gumbo, just what you need to keep out the winter chill!).

There may be staffing issues too. The long bar could accommodate a lot of drinkers (and it's nice to get your cocktail made right in front of you), and there are quite a few tables as well - but at present, there's only one barman. Since it takes a good minute-and-a-half or two minutes to crank out a cocktail, that means you can be in for a long wait if there's more than about a dozen punters in. You may even be discouraged from taking a group of five or six friends in, knowing that's going to mean a 10-minute wait before you all have your drinks (and if yours was made first, your thirst is going to be going crazy by that time - looking longingly at your lovely drink, politely waiting until your friends have theirs, fretting at all that good alcohol evaporating...). I think, if they aspire to be able to cope with 'crowds' of 20 or 30, or to be able to deal quickly with small groups, they need to get at least one more cocktail barman in. It might also possibly be a good idea to get an assistant to service the mixing station(s) - bring the bottles to and fro, make sure they're re-stocked with plenty of clean shakers and other utensils (a great way to learn the craft). And they certainly need to have some bar staff or waitresses who can fill orders for beer, wine, spirits, or standard mixed drinks themselves. At the moment, it looks as if the poor barman has to take care of everything himself.

I keep my fingers crossed for Apothecary (or 'The Drugstore', as Dr Manhattan and I like to think of it). I admire the owners' enthusiasm, their eagerness to do things right (extensively researched recipes, 'forgotten' classics revived, slices of cocktail history accompanying each item on the menu, promises of seasonal rotation of drinks). And this place provides something we don't really have in Beijing - a straightforward, honest-to-god cocktail bar.

However, my fear is that it won't be able to consistently attract - or deal with - the kind of numbers it needs to be commercially viable (in what is, presumably, quite a premium space), that it will enjoy a brief vogue, and then fizzle. I hope not. We shall see what the New Year brings....

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A glimmer of hope for Gingko?

I have tended to be rather harshly dismissive of Gingko, the successor to Room 101 on Andingmennei, which I find to be a sadly characterless and pointless establishment.

However, in the interests of balance, I should record that a number of people have spoken well of the food there recently. A lady I met at a Christmas party a few weeks back fairly raved about their 'white pizzas'. And I gather they currently have a special promotion on Wednesdays, with their steaks being reduced from an already not unreasonable 60-something RMB to a hard-to-resist 40-something. I haven't tried this yet, but a couple of people have spoken very highly of it. One gentleman - whose judgement I respect - has averred that it was the best, and one of the largest, steaks he has ever had in Beijing.

I remain just a tad sceptical. The paninis - which used to be a big draw at 101 - are said by one of their former biggest fans to have declined badly at Ginkgo. About the only food I've tried there is the burger, which I found severely ordinary (again, if anything, probably not quite as good as it used to be in the 101 days, and it was never more than ordinary then), and was further stigmatized by a really niggardly portion of fries and an almost non-existent salad.

Cheap steak, however - that needs to be checked out....

All the birds have flown...

Yes, it's that time of year again - all my playmates disappear.

The Weeble has flown home, and The Choirboy. Stroppy Tom and family. Even the dratted Madame X.

The Film Guy is taking a rather more exotic break for a couple of weeks in Burma.

The Bengali mentioned something about 'colonic irrigation', at which point I stopped listening to his holiday plans.

The Chairman is still around, but might as well not be, since he is perpetually uncontactable and disappears for weeks or months at a time.

The Poet is (for once) still around, but rendered hors de combat by acute cashflow difficulties.

Dr Manhattan is still around, but dealing poorly with the cold (feeble Floridians!); he claims that he has only one pair of longjohns, and is thus confined to his apartment on wash days.

Ho hum.

It's going to be lonely this Christmas, lonely and cold.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Café Bohème

Not its real name, but to me it seems so appropriate.

Treehouse is one of a number of little bars and cafés (and a tattoo parlour!) that have sprouted up over the past year or so on the pokey little alleyway that is the Xiao Ju'er hutong. It might be worth having a little crawl down there sometime - except that only Treehouse and the tattoo parlour ever seem to be open.

Treehouse was perhaps one of the earliest of these ventures, launching itself during the Olympics last year. I don't think anyone noticed it back then, save, perhaps, for a few of the 'locals' from the adjacent foreigner ghetto in Ju'er Hutong. However, over the past 7 or 8 months, several people have mentioned it to me as a worthwhile place to check out, and I finally got around to doing so last month.

On first view, it lacks any obvious appeal. Like most Chinese bars, it comes across more as a lounge/café, with low chairs and tables, soft furnishings, a clutter of homely bric-a-brac on shelves around the white walls (mostly forgettable junk, but there are a few rather fine books of art photography to browse), and a little too much light. It does have a tree growing through the middle of the room (hence the name), but for me this generates concerns about draughts and possible ant invasions rather than any great charm; rather than being a compelling 'feature' attraction, it is a bizarre irrelevance that is easily overlooked or ignored.

However, this little place clearly has potential as a cosy networking centre - and as a dirt-cheap alternative to our usual bars in the area: a sloppily generous pour of JD is a tempting 25rmb, and stubbies of Harbin beer are a steal at only 10rmb. This is the least expensive place to drink in the neighbourhood (well, the cheapest safe place to drink - unlike the 10 kuai bar, the booze is not all poisonously fake). Moreover, they have a hookah pipe, the only one in the Nanluoguxiang area, I think (Dr Manhattan was sold, right there). At present, they only have one variety of tobacco for it, a rather-too-sweet-for-my-taste cherry flavour; but I imagine one of those pipe shops on NLGX might carry other suitable types.

Chief attraction, though, is not the clean nicotine hit or the wallet-saving prices, but the warmth of the welcome. The owners are a pair of attractive young Chinese ladies who speak excellent English, and they really seem to be concerned with creating a welcoming, artsy neighbourhood salon rather than making money (hence those crazy prices!). Indeed, the place is evolving into a collective - with 5 or 6 other friends and regulars having been entrusted with keys so that they can use the space for their own projects during the daytime... or fill in for the owners in attempting to 'run' the bar when they fancy a night off. One near-permanent resident is a mercurial Tibetan who uses the place as a headquarters for the charity school he's just established nearby (providing free English lessons to fuwuyuan from bars and restaurants in the area; expect to be recruited as a teacher if you become any sort of a regular there!).

Good times in the hutong! But only for those who live in the neighbourhood - no 'tourists', please.