It’s Alive! First Cafe Flashback

Most readers are probably sick of me writing about First Cafe, but that place, when I arrived in Beijing in 2004, reminded me of all that was good in a bar – excellent cocktails, a fun clientele and great ambience. First Cafe has been chai’d, but its memory lives on in its former bartenders, George and Echo, who now run the very successful Q Bar, in its owner, Keiko, who is running the recently opened Opener? [no typo], and in this video I stumbled across when cleaning up files on my computer. It doesn’t really capture the mood of First Cafe, given that it was the one time I was in the bar during an afternoon, but that’s life. Click the pic below for the video or go here.
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Pub Patrol: On the Go with Eddie O

Stay home on Saturday night after a full day of staff training and before a Sunday in the office, or answer an SMS from Eddie O and go out for “just one drink.” I recklessly chose the latter and was soon riding shotgun on a high-speed Sanlitun pub-crawl. Here are the highlights.

The Tree: With good portions of metro-sexuals (designer leather jackets mandatory), sporty types (“dress” sweatshirts mandatory), twenty-something women (heavy makeup mandatory) and groups celebrating who knows what (mugs of Qingdao mandatory), and with a dash of old-timers thrown in, The Tree is an anomaly in this student-heavy section of Sanlitun. The Tree has a nice Whiskey collection, with more than a half-dozen varieties of Bowmore and Macallan, as well as Talisker, Glenfiddich and others. (Note: It’s impossible to read the Whisky price list glued to the wall behind the bar, so a few copies for the customers would be nice.) Twelve-year-old Macallan is 50 kuai, 15-year-old Balvenie is 70 kuai and, on the cheaper end, shots of Jim Beam and Jack Daniels are 25 kuai. Fun times trying to match up Whiskey – or Belgian beer – with The Tree’s tasty pizzas.

Shooters: This place is fast becoming my favorite quick stop. Eddie O and I ordered two Qingdao at 9:30 PM and received a bill for a jaw-dropping 10 kuai. This caused him to spurt out “that’s almost grocery store prices!” He then grinned, clapped his hands three times, and pumped his arms up and down as if they were pistons. (This latter act was entirely appropriate given that he works in the car industry.) Previous visits to Shooters gave me chaperone-like symptoms, but this night saw patrons of all ages and reminded me of the early days at Browns. The music was eclectic, covering The Bee-Gees, Run DMC, Clint Black (?), ABBA and some mid-90s rock. The staff was friendly and efficient, with a “we’ve seen everything” attitude. The shooters came fast and furious as the place was bustling. Fun times again. (Note: How long before that giant pitchfork mounted on the wall is a prop in a tiff involving a drunk and/or jilted lover? Should it happen, how long after that before this place creates a commemorative shooter in honor of the victim? Just asking…)

Taniwha: We looked in, spotted only two patrons (playing pool), and headed across the hall to Cheers. Last issue I called this place Taniwhy, but now I’m leaning toward Taniwhatswrong or Taniwhawful. It is early days yet for this bar, but one hopes the management makes some changes so that we can soon call the place Taiwhanderful.

Cheers: They have Wild Turkey. They have a good happy hour. They have live Xinjiang music. One problem: when there aren’t 100 bodies in the place to absorb the sound of the drums, it is LOUD. Twenty minutes of brain-piercing snare was driving me near migraine territory, so we fled and headed to…The Dark Side…otherwise known as…

Mystique: I made my umpteenth prayer that bartenders at these kinds of places spend less time tossing bottles behind their backs, to each other, and off disco balls and into cocktail shakers, and more properly mixing the liquids within into a palatable drink. The martinis (40 kuai each) were watery, and the olives had pits, as Eddie O and I (painfully) discovered. Fortunately, the olive pick came with a sparkly bit of ribbon that distracted me from my abused molars. Other “highlights” of the visit included the subtitled karaoke-type videos playing on TVs near the bar and the high percentage of women dancing to their reflections in a shiny wall fronting the dance floor (really, who could resist an extremely long version of an Eminem song mixed to background noise from Space Invaders).

By the way, no one on staff could understand “Where’s the toilet?” in English, forcing me to act out my needs, after which the staff bent over backwards to direct me to the loo. I can see the manager leading that training session:

“Listen up, staff, when directing people to the bathroom, make them seem as though they are kings or queens heading to the throne, and what awaits them is a royal flush. As they approach, make a small circular motion with your arm as though you are winding it up, and then smoothly thrust it forth, hand extended, palm up, toward the toilet, leaning every so slightly forward as you smile widely to underscore your eagerness to serve. Okay, let’s practice that a few times and then get back to tossing bottles behind our backs…”

Shooters: We needed some mouthwash after those “martinis” and headed back to Shooters for a Qingdao. The place was still bustling… the pitchfork was still on the wall… The Knack was playing… “Come a little closer, huh, a-will ya, huh? Close enough to look in my eyes, Sharona”…

Side by Side: As Eddie O and I headed down the main strip of Sanlitun South, maneuvering around “lady bar” touts, beggars and fake CD sellers, a place called Side by Side caught my eye. Actually, the band inside caught my ear because it was playing Joan Jett‘s “I Hate Myself for Loving You.” *This* looked promising. As they say, looks are deceiving and we lasted one over-priced Qingdao (35 kuai!).

Browns: This place was comfortably packed and the Wild Turkey generously poured. We regained our breath, I made some notes and, given that I had a date with the office the next day and that Eddie O teaches free English classes on Sundays to his neighborhood peeps, we did a final gumbai and headed home.

Hanky Panky at Frankie’s

My last visit to Frank’s Place – with M-Dawg during the World Cup – was shortly after it opened and a disaster of forgotten orders, improperly cooked food and miscalculated bills. My most recent – with colleagues two Fridays ago – was better. Frank’s opened in June as a reincarnation of Beijing’s first non-hotel bar (b. 1989, fringes of Workers’ Stadium, d. 2005) and is part of TRIO, which includes The Park Grill upstairs and wine-centric The Cellar downstairs.

We got to Frank’s at 8 and, since most of the tables were occupied inside, parked on the deck, which will be covered with a tent and warmed with heaters during the winter, says Nicole Pang, who does marketing for TRIO. We ordered Qingdao and food. The nasi goreng was tasty, the wings okay and the chicken burger (55 kuai) huge, though the thick-cut fries were dead cold. The only annoyance was a considerable gap between when our dishes arrived. Oh, and one other thing: the two nearby patrons who thought it amusing to grab and tickle the female staff. One guy ultimately barreled into the restaurant (and the crowd) as he chased one waitress. Even worse, the staff kept coming back for more, the management apparently content to tolerate this hour-long show. My Chinese colleague asked several times in disbelief, “Is this common behavior in Western restaurants?” I pretended I didn’t hear the question…

Frank’s is a long haul for CBD dwellers, but one attractive feature is the new wine list. The original was ambitiously upscale and saw most bottles priced at 600 kuai or more. The revised one includes expensive vintages – Phelps Insignia 2002, for example – but also plenty of reasonably priced wines. Some 22 reds and 15 whites come in at 500 kuai or less, bottoming out with a Bodega Norton Barrel Select Malbec 2003 at 145 kuai, and there are five reds and four whites available by the glass (ASC is the exclusive wine supplier). I could see popping in with a group of friends and working through three or four bottles (as long as no large drunk men are trying to tickle my neighbors or me).

(From Beijing Boyce XXVI, first emailed on November 5, 2006)

Memory Lane: Keep in Touch Bar

File this in the “just when you think you know a guy” drawer. Jon Tsao, who Ive known since arriving in Beijing two years ago, nonchalantly mentioned a while back that he once co-owned a bar called Keep in Touch. I asked last issue if any readers remembered the place (my bad for stating it opened in 1966, rather than 1996). Here are the replies:

“Everyone has the bar that defined their youth - Keep in Touch bar was mine. One of the first non-Haidian bars to serve cheap drinks, it had a great laidback atmosphere and one of the best looking female bartenders I can remember. That said, it wasn’t around in 1966 as per your email, more like 1996. It would have been a trip had it been there then, however. Pass over 3 mao and a screwdriver ration coupon, and the drink was yours. It was called Keep in Touch because the owner lost his good friend in a motorcycle accident, and the (slightly wrecked) bike was parked in the back of the bar.” MT 

“Keep in Touch: great live music, very laid back, good mix of local music fans and foreigners.” CT

“Wow, I remember Keep in Touch. I used to go there to see live bands back in the late 90s. The all-female rockers Cobra was a blast.” SO

It is a crucial part of Beijing band history, providing one of the first upscale’ choices for alternative music in Beijing certainly and perhaps in all of China! What a heyday it was then, with Get Lucky, Scream, Angel Bar and Kaixin Leyuan holding down the low end, while Keep in Touch and later Lan Yinhe, and still later River Bar (the higher scale descendant of 17), rounded up the mid to upscale choices. Now we’ve got only New Get Lucky, the various What Bars, Stone Boat occasionally, Yugong Yishan, D22 and 13 Club and the new third floor of Tango, and the scene feels more limited, although listing the bars out like this seems to defy that impression!” TS

“Keep in Touch was a legendary live rock bar. It was one of the few true originals and was widely respected as the place to go for live original rock from Beijing and other parts of China. It was down a dingy hutong directly north of the Kempinski and may or may not have been reincarnated in other spots at other points in time.” – MW

Beijing Boyce XXV: Opening Shots

John Bull Pub has officially closed and will reopen as Tim’s Texas BBQ in late October. Sequoia Cafe next door remains open. / The show is over for Icehouse‘s live blues experiment. The Wangfujing bar brought in Chicago musicians but not enough Beijing patrons and will soon split duties as home to the Courtyard Gallery and host of Chopschticks comedy nights, Beijing Cheese Society gatherings, wine tastings and weekend bands. / Speaking of double duty, Phil of Phil’s Pub not only owns a Beijing bar, but also manages Q Bar in Qingdao’s Shangri-La Hotel. Pay him a visit if you travel to our beer-loving sister city to the south. / Last Saturday night, 1:30 AM, Rui Fu: empty. I don’t mean just a few patrons, I mean zero. Last Saturday night, 1:45 AM, Maggie’s: busy. What does it mean? / Pipes (plural), known as a retreat for women who love women, now goes by Pipe (singular). If the new sign is any indication, Coors (singular or plural?) is the sponsor. My only visit to Pipe(s) was with M-Dawg last year and lasted an awkward ten minutes. / I visited The Press Club in the St. Regis Hotel twice this past month and found the staff pleasant and the cocktails above average – they should be at 70 kuai per martini. / Smallville, Shunyi’s newest spot, will open on October 21 with free cinnamon rolls, a silent auction of comic book posters, and the Instant Noodles jazz band (8046-5448; beside Yard Restaurant). This spot also boasts butter tarts, my kryptonite of foods, that substance to which I have no resistance. Midnight drew major cocktail-loving crowds before the management and bartenders fell out earlier this year. The bar is virtually empty these days, but hope springs eternal and a “pure-hearted invitation” posted in the window seeks a foreigner with bar experience and contacts with local social groups. / Over the last few successive issues, I have written about how my all-time favorite Beijing bar First Cafe went from closing to being chai’d to being site of a garden. The latest: The garden is gone and replaced by a pile of dirt fronted by a three-meter high fence. Is nothing sacred?