People frequently ask me to recommend bars for their visitors to Beijing. Whether it is an incoming friend, client, parent, fellow Scientologist, long lost uncle, mail order bride or paroled pen pal in question, I would dearly love to answer such requests by spouting out a perfect itinerary. (Actually, paroled pen pals are easy: take them to The Bookworm, since its fully-loaded shelves will appeal to their literary side and the clusters of MBA students can help an ex-con who is long on ideas but in short supply of professionally written business plans. Class project!)
But I have a hard time figuring out where to take my own guests, let alone those of other people. I generally skim through bar listings, ask co-workers, call my friends, throw oracle bones and endure cold sweats as I create a decent plan. That plan, once in action, invariably runs into the great wall of harsh reality, built from the bricks of snap decisions and the mortar of compromise. An experience some time ago reminded me of this wall and re-taught me some basic principles for getting over it.
The situation: A group of six middle-aged business types visit Beijing. I know two very well, two fairly well, and two not at all. The mission: take them out for dinner and drinks on two consecutive nights.
Night one: I take the two I know very well and one of the strangers to dinner at Xihe Yaju. Beijing duck is a safe bet that becomes a guaranteed winner when you have beautiful weather, a table out back and an excellent bottle of wine — as we did. Next stop: The Pavillion. Two more people joined us, and we shared another bottle of wine while enjoying the spacious patio and the serenity amid the trees. Nice. Most of the group then headed to the hotel, while two survivors and I hit one last spot, Suzie Wong (thanks to Agent Red Wolf for the idea). With its interesting decor, cozy deck and top-notch people-watching opportunities, this is a good stop for almost any visitor to Beijing, even on a slow Sunday night. The end result was a night that included some classic Beijing food, a cozy patio, and a landmark bar.
Night two: I began this one as a guest, rather than a host, as we had some Xinjiang food and then took a stroll down Sanlitun North on our way for a drink at Apertivo. Our host then headed home and the onus for picking the next spot fell on me. Our group included four people: two that I knew well, considered my main guests, and thought would best like a good drink; and two that I didn’t know well and who were a bit restless. My gut feeling was to take the first pair to a reliable spot such as Browns or Q Bar, but the second pair seemed lukewarm with that, so we instead headed to another spot that turns up in guidebooks, Maggie’s. As it turns out, Maggie’s was sparsely populated, the music didn’t match our mood, it wasn’t really this group’s style, and the evening was as anticlimactic as it gets. And it happened because I ignored a few simple rules from the “common sense” category.
1. Take control. Choose the itinerary or surrender responsibility to your guests, but don’t be a wishy-washy Charlie Brown. If everyone has read in their guidebooks about Suzie Wong and wants to go there, then the decision is made for you. But if they’re new to town and forget their books at the hotel, take charge, and when doing so…
2. Stick to the tried and true. Even better, stick to the tried and true that offer the most acceptable worst-case scenarios. For Browns, a reasonable worst case would be that the place is empty, but still comfortable and with a good beer selection. For Q Bar, it might be that rain has closed the deck, but patrons can still sit at the pleasant bar and drink some excellent cocktails. In both cases, the worst isn’t so bad. This helps to..
3. Avoid the great unknowns. I have had fun times at Maggie’s, usually with Agent Red Wolf or O-Zone at 3 AM on a Saturday night when the place is full, we’ve already had a few cocktails, and hearing Welcome to the Jungle sounds like a good idea. But in this case, it was a Monday at 10:30 PM, and I even qualified the visit beforehand by saying it wasn’t likely to be good. As a former boss used to be fond of saying, “when in doubt, leave it out.” Instead, I left Maggie’s in, and by doing so, forgot another key rule…
4. Focus on the core group. By sidestepping Browns and Q Bar, I gave up what was likely to be a good experience for the two people that I knew best, and possibly for all four, in exchange for a gamble on behalf of the two people I knew least. That’s like hitting on 17 in blackjack.
In hindsight, this all seems pretty simple. (Then again, so does making a decent martini, though how many people can do it?) But if you’re handling a group that is impatiently waiting near some taxis, or trying to get people in different parts of the city to one spot, or dealing with people from different age, cultural or other groups, it can get pretty tricky. So maybe falling back on a few basic rules can keep your night out going forward. In any case, I’m going to start contacting numerous party animals and bar and restaurant experts that I know, and in future newsletters will list some possible itineraries for a fun night in Beijing.
(From Beijing Boyce XXIII, first emailed on August 31, 2006)