The Shanghai edition: Friday

D-Rock and I ate lunch at Malone’s so I could try the burger, which like Blue Frog’s, made it to the semifinals of a recent contest by SH magazine (which is quite good, by the way, but lags behind that’s Beijing). Malone’s menu has 18 kinds of burgers, from a “Fajita,” with cheddar, sour cream, salsa, onion and peppers, to a “Cowboy,” with jack cheese, bacon, and fried mushrooms and onions (all of them are 48 kuai, with fries and salad). The place has a cafeteria feel about it: the free refills of watery iced tea, the ketchup and Thousand Island dressing that looked institutional, and the fries that seemed as though cooked in a fifty-pound lot. The saving grace: the burger was good.

D-Rock was dispassionate about his burrito: “It’s mediocre and there’s lot of it.” Perhaps that’s the point: Malones is a place for groups of businesspeople to get together, chat, have a big if not spectacular meal, and then go back to the office completely carbed up, all for a fairly low price. Certainly, there is a need for such spots. Given the long bar and the posters advertising live music, I have a feeling I would like Malone’s a lot more at night, and will visit again when I return to Shanghai.

(Note: Rendez-vous Cafe is considered by many to have the best burgers in town. While the cafe’s decor is nothing to write home about – the centerpiece is an oversized Heineken bottle on a wall unit – the burger is indeed tasty, if a bit pliable. Blue Frog’s burger, however, gets my vote for taste, with Rendez-vous holding its own if you figure in value – 30 kuai, including fries and drink.)

While getting my free wireless fix at Big Bamboo, lo and behold, there appeared on a stool a few meters away an icon of the Taipei bar scene – Winopete. His happy hour newsletter a few years back had a cult following, the legend being made when, due to unwavering diligence, he discovered a hole-in-the-wall bar where three large bottles of Taiwan draft for three dollars. All hail the master! This fateful meeting could only mean one thing: it was time for the British pubs.

We started at British Bulldog, a standard two-floor pub, though be forewarned: avoid the seat near the door, since the dip in the ceiling blocks half of the big-screen TV and the nearby heater blows right on your face. Ever the handy man and realizing that the nearby owner and waitresses were not about to do anything, I adjusted the heater vents. Pete had gotten us there just in time (no surprise) for happy hour (6 to 8 PM), which meant two-for-one. Except for our friendly, funny, bubbly waitress, the Bulldogs were pretty mellow, with people prone and evidently letting a week’s worth of stress evaporate. Note: British Bulldog has two Tiger beers plus free flow curry for 100 kuai on Mondays, a trivia night, and British comedy and films on weekends.

O’Malley’s is set off the street, behind a wall, and has nice outdoor seating. Inside, the main floor has plenty of nooks and crannies, one of which contained two friends from Taiwan, De Usher and K-Gin. After hugs and kisses, we headed for floor two, which was rustic and airy, especially with those high rafters. O’Malley’s has been around since 1996, says Pete, but – and this is a major black mark in his book – has no happy hour. He also criticized having Frontera as a house wine (“They could do better. Even Eaglehawk is better than this”) and the high prices (“It’s hard to find a more expensive bar like this than O’Malley’s.”). A pint of Guinness: 65 kuai. The Bloody Mary was okay, the staff was friendly, and I thought it was worth the stop.

Third up was the nearby Blarney Stone, where we met D-Rock and Kraft-D. Fairly empty when we arrived, the place was soon bustling. Service was okay, though D-Rock though the staff a bit lethargic. Carlsberg: 40 kuai a pint; I think Guinness was 65 kuai. Blarney Stone seemed quite cliquish, with a lot of couples and small groups. On the other hand, friends have told me it’s a great place to strike up conversations with strangers. Kraft-D described it as “not overly commercial” and I can only say more research is required. (Note: This is not a good place to practice your Irish imitations, even if they are in good fun.)

With three British pubs under our belts, we headed to Hongmei Street, which is pretty much in the middle of… nowhere. This area is expected to be booming in a few years, but, unfortunately, my trip was measured in a few days. Our first stop was Be Bop, which has an identity crisis. On the speakers: reggae. On the tube: NBA basketball. On the walls: too much neon, alongside art that ranged from traditional prints to cheesy nudes. On the tables: dice games. On the chairs: bar staff willing to lend an ear to a lonely fellow. This place seemed to be a combination of Taipei’s Combat Zone and Beijing’s Sanlitun North strip. If you’re male and looking for someone to talk to (note: you’ll be buying drinks for two), Be Bop might be for you.

A few doors down the empty street was Baby Bamboo, Big Bamboo’s second outlet, and one of only three places with more than a handful of customers. (Witness our visit to the Blue Frog branch nearby, where the chairs were already stacked for the night.) The pole dancer gave the place a slightly sleazy feeling that, as D-Rock noted, isn’t exactly going to bring in female clients, the absence of which is not exactly going to bring in male clients. The bar had the standard two-floor layout – a bar downstairs, a pool table upstairs. “It’s like Big Bamboo, but smaller,” said Kraft-D, thereby affirming that putting “baby” in the name was a good call. “It’s the right size for this street. It might one day outgrow the space, but right now it works.” Tiger Beer: 35 kuai.

Our last Hongmei stop was 3D, which we couldn’t pass up after spotting the window display of beer. This was a cozy place and had the only genuine bar ambience on the street. I had two wishes: one, that I hadn’t been too tired to keep more notes, and two, that this had been our first stop on Hongmei.

With Kraft-D heading home, D-Rock and I decided to hit one more place – Park 97. This is a high-end bar chock full of “the beautiful people” – except for the sick guy in the bathroom who sounded like he was trying to eject his lungs through his nostrils. Drinking lesson number one: know thy limit. Park 97 is comfortable but pricey (Heineken: 55 kuai), and offers good music and plenty of people-watching opportunities. Going there is like going to Tokyo: if you have the money, you will have the funny.

(From Beijing Boyce XII, first emailed on March 12, 2006)