Beijing Boyce XI: icehouse, Browns, the bar bubble, and more

  • Opening Shots
  • First Impressions, with icehouse, Schindler’s, Faraway Cafe, Press Club, Fish Nation and South Beauty
  • No Blues for Browns
  • Beijing’s Bar Bubble
  • We Got Mail
  • Closing Shots

OPENING SHOTS

Browns bolted onto the bar scene with an all-night two-for-one party and Beijing may never be the same. What makes this place special and can it and other bars targeting expatriate dollars survive? See below. / China passed the Entertainment Venues Management Regulations. Apparently, bars and Internet cafes are not covered by these rules, but then again, one investor writes: “This is some dire news for Beijing nightlife…. The new rule is that all Beijing KTVs, discos and the like must close at 2 AM. Bars were not expressly mentioned by name, but the inference is that they’re included.” More details to come. / Midnight bartenders George and Echo and I came up with a raspberry, blackberry and cherry martini, with a lemon zing. Not bad. If you’re thirsting for a fruity drink with a solid kick, try their GE (that’s “G” for George and “E” for Echo) – lychee liqueur, grapefruit juice, 151 rum and grenadine. / This Friday, John Bull Pub will hold a free tasting of wines from Taillan, a nine-year-old Sino-French venture just outside Beijing. Taillan’s Alain Leroux will be on hand to guide tasters and handle bottle sales. Call 13301-377-336 or email frank_siegel@hotmail.com for details. / Speaking of which, red wine should not be served near ice cold, so why does it sometimes come that way even at reputable places, such as Centro and Pavillion? / Beers recently spotted at Jenny Lou’s on Sanlitun North: JW Dundee’s Honey Brown Lager ( Rochester , New York ) – 12.6 kuai; Beer Royal ( Italy ) – 13.6 kuai; Green King Indian Pale Ale (UK) – 12.6 kuai; and “beer with vitamins” Los Labos (US) – 10.6 kuai. / Also spotted at Jenny Lou’s: European chamber of commerce head Giorgio Magistrelli: for all you pasta lovers out there, Giorgio hails from Italy and a peek in his cart shows his preferred brand is De Cecco. / Food establishment name of the week: “Beard Papa‘s Pipin’ Hot Cream Puffs” ( Oriental Plaza ). / A look ahead: the next issue will include a rundown on Shanghai bars and a report on six Chinese wines.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

ICEHOUSE (Wangfujing) has reopened after a two-month hiatus. The new layout includes tiered seating, with sofas and lounge chairs on the wings, table seating in the middle and an extended bar in back (a foot rail would be nice). This offsets the overly hollow and boxy feel of the original design, though the place feels otherwise unchanged. As for music, Melvin Taylor and the Slack Band play blues “pure and simple” and did a nice BB King cover. The near-capacity crowd last Saturday night was clearly appreciative. As for drinks, I ordered a dry martini and said — no olives — to the wait staff in both English and Mandarin. Of course, it came with olives. The martini was passable, the Cosmopolitan anemic, the Long Island Iced Tea tasty. Drinks are a quite reasonable 45 kuai given there is no cover charge for the band. As for food, the staff wasn’t sure if any was available, but my friend used her natural charm to secure some seafood rice – delicious, but prohibitive at 60 kuai. Overall, the new icehouse is moderately more comfortable and has infinitely more appropriate music than the old. It’s a must for blues fans. (I still think it would be cool if they did something with frozen vodka shots, such as making a mini-bar out of ice, with openings for the bottles. I mean, it’s not too literal given that the owners named a Qing Dynasty icehouse “icehouse.”) Fancy an assault on your heart and liver? Go to SCHINDLER’S (south gate, Ritan Park ) and down a platter of grilled meat and spuds (85 kuai), accompanied by a steady supply of German draft (22-27 per pint). If you’re not a big eater, you’re best off splitting a dish with a friend. Schindler’s offers solid fare and good brew in an atmosphere where being noisy seems mandatory. Lebe das guten Leben. (Another branch will open in the old Riverside Cafe spot.) THE PRESS CLUB (St. Regis): It is in what is supposedly a “six-star” hotel, though the service lags about three stars behind. Decent but over-priced booze in a stuffy atmosphere that makes me want to pretend, in hushed tones, that I have some influence in the universe. (“I tell you Davis, if we can get Chip to think outside the box, we’ll corner the kimchi market.”) M-Dawg and I had dinner at FARAWAY CAFE, just south of the Gongti West club zone, saving a planned kangaroo burger night at Jack‘s for next time. He gave a thumb up to the goat cheese and vegetable salad, but found the chicken rolls a bit skimpy on the meat. Also on the runway model end of plumpness was my half-chicken (55 kuai), the meager meat an insufficient match for the rich sauce on the green peppers, zucchinis and onions. Faraway Cafe has a nice outdoor seating area, which will be pleasant come spring, though the interior is a bit Spartan. The wait staff was quite pleasant. The big screen showing Chinese soap operas is just plain annoying. Final words to M-Dawg: “The presentation [of the food] is relatively professional, but the decor leaves me cold.” Besides being a drinking hole, Browns offers lunch specials. I had the steak sandwich, modest in size but tasty, accompanied by homemade fries, a small salad and tomato soup, the latter feeling like the first healthy thing I’ve had this year (45 kuai). The burgers and pizza are also worth trying. By the way, Browns may be the only place in town with hamburger relish. I finally went to FISH NATION (Sanlitun North), which I have passed dozens of times, but have always avoided given the crowds. Now I understand its popularity. Battered fish (one big and one small), chips (perfectly cooked and salted) and a Qindao: 40 kuai. As I sat at the counter, I’m not sure which was gurgling louder, the deep fryers or my stomach in anticipation of the eats. Fish Nation ain’t fancy and only seats eight, but the staff knows how to use oil. (Note: Fish Nation delivers, Sundays to Thursday.) A foreigner suffering from a week of Beijing culture shock finds himself in an underground mall where disoriented by omnipresent fluorescent light he scuttles past nondescript storefronts, plastic plants and faceless shoppers, his heart fluttering faster and faster until it reaches LEVEL: PANIC ATTACK and he fumbles and then stumbles and then tumbles into a room reminiscent of a Mongolian yurtz with cable-steel curtains and fur-covered walls and a table at which sits a man that he vaguely remembers but, oh, wait, oh yes, the man once had a beard and plain glasses and now he’s clean-shaven and tanned and wearing designer shades and holding a pork pie hat -­ Sound like the opening of some weird dream sequence-laden movie starring Kiefer Sutherland? Actually, it’s only a slightly dramatized account of my efforts to find the Sechuan restaurant SOUTH BEAUTY in Oriental Plaza to meet an acquaintance who has become the hippest looking guy I know. As for South Beauty’s food, I was too traumatized by the events leading up to the meal, including having to remove shoes that got wet earlier in the day and thus presenting the aromatic equivalency of a Chengdu hotpot loaded with stinky tofu. I’ll get back to you with a review of South Beauty right after I finish therapy.

NO BLUES FOR BROWNS

Browns put its money where its mouth is by holding an all-night two-for-one party two weeks ago. The special didn’t suddenly end halfway through the evening when the owner panicked about losing money. It wasn’t limited to those drinks that are dirt cheap to make. And the drinks themselves were not watered down. It all raised the question: Was this really happening in Beijing? I mean, did I really witness from opening to closing – which came some time after I left at 4 AM – Guinness and Kilkenny for a mere 17.5 kuai per pint? Browns move surprised some bar owners, particularly since Guinness costs them around 30 kuai a pint, but to me it made perfect sense. The bar lost money on the draft, made money on the mixed drinks, and on the night ended up just below break-even, a loss that was a fraction of the cost of a magazine ad and that was necessary to show off the place to hundreds of people. It‘s called marketing. I’ve now been to Browns about ten times, either for drinks or food, and it has the potential of becoming the year‘s best bar. (Its impact is already evident from the scores of wine, food, hotel, and bar industry people checking it out). First, the investors (11 in total) have put money not only into hardware, but also into software. The hardware was fairly easy since the bar is a knockoff of Carnegie’s in Taipei, with everything copied from the list of 366 shooters to the general layout, which includes a standing area, tiered seating, and a long bar to hold both drinks and dancers. In terms of software, Browns has hired employees from Beijing, Hong Kong, The Philippines and Ireland, and is putting money into marketing. Second, Browns is unpretentious. The clientele includes expatriates and locals, equal numbers of men and women, and everyone from twenty-something students to sixty-something CEOs. Blue jeans and blue pinstripe suits are equally welcome. Third, the location is good, near the Bookworm, Midnight, Banana Leaf and numerous other places. These establishments are bringing an increasing number of customers to the area and complementing one other. And fourth, it offers something new. Love it or hate it, the people I talked to saw it as distinguished from other bars (except Agent Red Wolf, who, based on the crowd, said it reminded her of “a big Suzie Wong’s“). Given it is a new bar, there are some issues to iron out. Browns does not take credit cards, the menu is full of mistakes (“Long Sex Island Beach”) and some employees have incredible difficulty understanding drink orders (my friend Pony suggests numbering the shooter specials: “number three” is easier for non-English speaking staff to comprehend than “Fisherman’s Wharf” or “Hell on Earth”). Extremely annoying wall monitors are everywhere. And Eddie O, at Browns last Saturday night, says, “You should never ask, ‘How would you like your ribs done?‘ That’s just not a question you ask about ribs.” Worst of all is the inconsistent music. During the two-for-one party, the DJ played plenty of recognizable if somewhat cheesy songs, including hits by eighties artists ranging from Billy Idol to Soft Cell to Michael Jackson. One week later? After hours of soul-draining dance tunes, the DJ suddenly yelled, “My name is Matt and I am your maestro!” (Yawn.) Really, do we need someone to shout things like “Let’s get the party started and, uh, uh, uh… it’s two for one!” It gives the place all the class of a small-town high school dance. (It also feels like Browns is trying a bit too hard to get the dance-on-the-bar-top thing going.) Carnegie’s in Taipei thrives because it is consistent, including with its music. It’s a good model to follow and if Browns is as clever at running the bar as it was in opening it, this place should succeed. (By the way, if someone says “this is the hottest bar in town” at the very moment you are listening to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” having an ordinary gin and tonic and watching two nerdy expatriates try to pick up a pair of local cuties, does that say more about Browns or about the local bar scene?)

BEIJING ‘S BAR BUBBLE

A lot has been made about the growing number of clubs on Gongti West Road, which has risen from zero to about ten in less than a year, and includes Babyface, Cargo, Angel, and numerous copycats. How can these places survive? Perhaps, it’s because they are going after young, moneyed Chinese – the “Chivas and green tea club” – a rapidly growing group. More troubling is the increasing number of players seeking a chunk of the moneyed expatriate market – not exactly the fastest growing demographic – especially those opening multifunction establishments. Just opened: Browns, a British-style pub that will add adjoining sake, tequila and vodka bars; just re-opened: icehouse, a blues bar attached to a high-end Japanese restaurant and a lounge; soon to open: Trio, a three-floor facility that will have a New York-style grill, the new Frank’s Place, and The Cellar. I’ve already indicated to some of the investors in these multipurpose places that I think they are a bit mad. They have assured me that the feeling is mutual – several claim to have proof to back up their assertions. But when you add in other newcomers, such as The Pavillion and The Pomegranate, and older establishments ranging from John Bull Pub to Big Easy to Suzy Wong to Centro, one wonders if there are enough patrons to go around. I actually started breaking down some of these places, including Browns, icehouse, Trio and Pavillion, into pluses, minuses and questions marks in order to get some grip on who’s got the best chance of surviving, but since I’m already running over this issue and I just got to Shanghai and am busy with research (translation: meeting friends and checking restaurants and bars), I’ll pick up on this theme next issue.

WE GOT MAIL

Good gay clubs – I have a friend coming in for three weeks who most definitely is (I most definitely am not) and I wanted to point him in the right direction. Do you have any thoughts?” – G.P.

Point him toward On/Off and Destination, with the latter (according to Timeout) expanding by taking over the Thai restaurant next door. It’s all part of the growing alternative bar scene. “The city has seen several gay and lesbian bars and nights open over the past six months – including Seven Colours drag bar, a mixed night at Sanlitun’s Top Bar and lesbian Saturdays – at One Night,” writes the magazine.

CLOSING SHOTS

I ran into Steve Kuhn, the brains behind beijinglives.com, in The Bookworm. The website is going strong with info on events, bars and restaurants, and real estate and business, and gives readers the option of ranking bars and restaurants (those with higher scores get bigger fonts). “It’s interactive. Readers are also going to be writers,” says Steve. He adds that organizations or bars are free to list their events on the site. / Expect plenty of write-ups on Shanghai spots next issues, including Judy’s, New Heights, Big Bamboo, Blue Frog and Bar Rouge, along with the usual stories about Beijing bars. / Finally, it was fun meeting up with some readers of this newsletter during Browns’ two-for-one party. Let’s do it again, and soon. Cheers, BB.

10 Commandments of Booze

A New Year brings new hope and to help upgrade Beijing’s less-than-spectacular drinking scene, tbj humbly offers some resolutions for bar managers, employees and patrons. Of course, there are exceptions to (almost) every rule, but here are a few general habits that might make a night out a bit more enjoyable for all concerned.

For bar managers and employees

  1. I shall not ask customers to pay for my mistakes, such as the difference between the RMB 60 I programmed into the cash register for a pint of Guinness and the RMB 50 I errantly printed on the menu; instead, I shall accept the one-time loss of revenue rather than the permanent loss of the customer.
  2. I shall not remove, nor lay hand upon, a glass with more than a half-mouthful of liquid unless the patron has indicated that it be taken away; nor will I hover above said patron waiting for him/her to finish that mouthful; if I do so because of a shortage of glasses, I will take measures to have more purchased.
  3. I shall not insert my finger(s) into my nose or ears, knead my armpits or nether region, or engage in any other unseemly hand-related conduct before touching food.
  4. I shall not practice my Chinese, English, or other language ad infinitum with patrons, bore them with lengthy stories about a particular alcohol’s history, or make asides on what are obviously their private conversations.
  5. [For managers] I shall not chastise, denigrate or mock my employees in front of customers as it makes me look unprofessional and my customers feel uncomfortable; I will defend those same employees from patrons, drunk or otherwise, who are unreasonable, threatening or obnoxious.

For bar goers

  1. I shall not equate the intelligence of a bar owner or employee with his/her proficiency in my language and will thus refrain from voicing such things as “gin AND tonic,” “ginnnnnnnn and tonnnnnnic” or “gin… and… tonic,” nor shall I become incensed by him/her misunderstanding my pathetic attempts at speaking his/her language.
  2. I shall not assume that because I am in a boisterous mood, everyone else should be, and will thus refrain from hugging, giving high fives to, clinking glasses with at near-breakage speeds or inviting those patrons/strangers who are obviously uninterested to be members of my luge team.
  3. I shall retreat to a secluded area when I expect to be on my cell phone for more than three minutes, thereby sparing fellow patrons stories about last night’s “score,” pleas to an upset spouse, or the details of the soap opera about so-and-so’s co-worker’s boyfriend’s best friend’s sister breaking up with “some guy who totally is, like, soooooo lame.”
  4. I shall not take advantage of my position as a patron to fondle the bar’s owner, manager, bartenders, wait staff, cooks, cleaners, security guards or suppliers, or any of their relatives or pets that may happen to be on the premises.
  5. I shall never reach behind the bar to grab objects, such as knives or corkscrews, nor stand there in an attempt to appear as part of the “in” clientele as I am only being a nuisance to the staff and as interesting as a coat rack to the patrons; should I go behind the bar, I will either wear a disguise or claim to be Da Shan, which would defeat the whole purpose of being back there in the first place, so instead I shall sit on my bar stool, drink my beer and relax.

Beijing Boyce