Big Bamboo has a good layout and ambience, a friendly staff, and free wireless. This multi-floor wood-happy sports bar was my default Internet spot after nearby Coffee Bean (nice Latte) had troubles with its connection. Big Bamboo sees a trickle of happy hour (2-8 PM) patrons from four o’clock onwards, many of whom are up for a friendly game of pool. “Dr. Mike” is one of them. He takes an inch of Sprite in his beer, says he has delivered babies for quite a few Beijing bar owners (he has been in China for many a year), and sends a cheery hello to everyone.
Big Bamboo Owner Bryce Jenner supports numerous local sports teams, including the ice dogs, and is thinking of buying a bus for them (and the patrons?). He’s also planning to add bigger flat-panel TVs. Tiger beer: 40 kuai (20 kuai during happy hour). Weak points include so-so food (the nachos were particularly sub-par) and a deceptive step just inside the door, on which I saw a dozen people trip. Overall, though, a big thumb up for Big Bamboo, where I enjoyed chatting with friends, playing an expert foosball player (even notched two goals) and watching, with the bar packed to the rafters, the Olympic gold medal hockey game between Sweden and Finland (the place went crazy with that electrifying finish).
Next up was the trendier, pricier, dimmer and more cramped Blue Frog (Tongren branch). I went with D-Rock, Kraft-D and Alpha Veda (AV) and friends for dinner, and tracked down the owner, who shares my family name. This brings us to Conversation 1: What about Bob?
[The first floor of the bar is sparsely populated. A patron is about to make a simple query.]
Me: “Is Bob Boyce here?“
Employee [behind the bar]: “What?”
“Bob Boyce, the owner.”
Employee hands me a pack of Marlboros.
“I don’t want cigarettes. I’m looking for Bob Boyce. The owner. Boss. Laoban.”
The employee confers with a colleague and then makes a vague hand gesture toward the bar’s end. I walk there; see a guy talking on a cell phone; wait until he’s finished.
Me: “Hi, are you Bob Boyce?”
Guy: “Excuse me?”
“Are you Bob Boyce?”
“[Sarcastically] No, but I could pretend to be him for five minutes.”
There you have it folks. My second stop in Shanghai and I already knew where to find quality service AND comedy. I eventually did track Bob down. He owns four Blue Frog outlets and a place called KABB (see below), and is a bit of a legend in the local bar scene, having opened his first bottles almost a decade ago on Maoming (which is apparently on its last legs and faces the same fate as did our Sanlitun South a year ago). Each Blue Frog is geared to its location, so if you either like or dislike one, don’t hold it against the others. The name itself comes from an ancient Greek hallucinatory drink containing blue curacao, ouzo, and secretions from a frog native only to Sparta (the garnish is three olives on a tiny plastic Sword of Damocles). Okay, I made that last part up, because I forgot to ask Bob about the name, but a Yahoo search reveals that “blue frog” jumped into his head one day. Bob’s thinking of making the leap to Beijing to open a bar.
Anyway, I rejoined my friends upstairs just in time for conversations about U.S.-Canada relations, the role of global elites, Mongolian hedge funds: pros and cons, and new perspectives on images of Ganesh in modern Indian poetry. (Okay, I also made up those last two, but these are the kinds of topics that spin off when someone shows up with a serious book like, “Policing Shanghai, 1927-1937.” Nice work, Jay!). By the way, of the four hamburgers I had in Shanghai, Blue Frog’s was the best, and had a perfectly cooked patty (more pickle would have been nice). During Happy Hour, it was 70 kuai and included a large draft. The place itself seems more appropriate for a first date than our restless and ready-for-the-town group, so we headed to…
Manhattan, where on my last visit I saw a fun Filipino band. The place was virtually empty this time around, so we continued on to Senses wine bar (thanks to readers GT and CD for the tip). In theory, I love this spot – an establishment dedicated to wine and with a good selection available by the glass. One drawback is the mish mash of patterns on the wall, the kitschy pink rafter lights et al (for a successful recreation room re-creation, see Plan B). We came at the tail end of a wine-tasting event and tried some of those vintages, along with a passable Grace Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, though Kraft-D didn’t like it – as he mentioned at least eight dozen times. (I’m convinced he would be just as critical if I filled his glass with Chateau Latour and told him it was Chinese wine. Yes, that’s a cheap shot.) The wines range from Frontera Cabernet Sauvigon and Two Oceans Shiraz at 200 kuai to Wolf Blass Gold Label 2002 at 510 kuai to Grand Cru territory. Monday features 25-kuai glasses of wine; Tuesday has 30 percent off bottles; Wednesday and Thursday gets you a one-kuai meal with any bottle bought; and there is a BBQ on the weekend. Kraft-D said that Senses outdoor seating area is “among the most outstanding features of the place.”
Owner Matt Ryan kindly sat down and talked to us about the wine business, noting a Qingdao Riesling and a Xinjiang ice wine (first I’d heard of them). After polishing off our third bottle, he proclaimed, “Hamburger time, fellows.” We headed off, but not before the owner in question went toe-to-toe with six bouncers across the street – all in the Olympic spirit, of course – over the issue of grabbing taxis. A man who can handle a corkscrew and has Jackie Chan moves – ladies, what are you waiting for?
I recall little about the Eager Beaver, except it had high chairs, a neighborhood bar feel, and more chalk graffiti than an art school. Matt kindly manned the bar until someone appeared from the back and we were soon inhaling burgers (barbecued, toasted bun) and fries (RMB35). It was a perfect way to deal with the post-Midnight munchies. (Note: My apologies for yelling at the guy who announced, “Curling is not a sport.” Yes, he is entitled to his opinion and I should have remained placid, but really, until you’ve tried picking up a heavy rock, sliding it along the ice, and aiming, with perfect weight, to an exact spot far, FAR away, you might want to keep an open mind. Even so, my apologies, and should we meet again, the next Beaver burger is on me. P.S. Curling IS a sport.)
(From Beijing Boyce XII, first emailed on March 12, 2006)