Welcome to Readers’ Writes week, starring the collective wisdom of 17 fellow bar-goers who answered my survey about their favorite Beijing drinking holes and the city’s general nightlife scene. They include men and women, span five decades in age, hail from four continents, and provide some appreciated insights. (Note: This first appeared in last week’s newsletter. To get the newsletter, send an email with “Eat, Drink and Be Merry” in the subject line to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Without further ado…
NATASHA, Australian, writer, 4 years
Q Bar: If you manage to get to the bar without dehydrating, Q is pretty funky and unpretentious. Plus the balcony is a great place to while away a balmy summer evening.
Face: Love the decor, and love the fact that there are so many different nooks and crannies to hide in.
Hatsune: Some of the best cocktails around.
Bed: See Face (above) re: nooks and crannies to hide in. One of the few places in town where you can actually have a conversation without it being drowned out by music, which is always nice. Good tapas, and a great courtyard come summer.
Candy Floss: I’ve never actually found Candy Floss on the first go – it usually takes me at least 20 minutes of running about the hutong to locate the small hidden bar. Stepping inside is a bit like falling down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland: it’s another world in there.
Drum and Bell: The amazing views, cheap drinks and free crunchy peanuts get me every time. I always take visitors here to wow them.
The Tree: There are just times when the sticky-floors and bustling pace of The Tree appeal.
Stone Boat: One of the best places for a bevy in summer (apart from all the mosquitoes)
Actually, I find the bar scene in BJ a bit disappointing, and have to admit that I’ve never really found a regular place that I just love hanging out at and would go to every night of the week. Service at most places around town is pretty hit and miss, which is probably why regular “hit” service tends to promote bartenders into celebrities. And we all know about fake alcohol and just how much Beijing bars love the stuff: the situation is so bad in some parts of town that I just flat out to refuse to drink anything that isn’t beer – you just don’t know what you’re getting (and it’s not just small hole in the walls either). I know I sound like a bit of a whinger, but it’s not all bad. Depending on what you’re in the mood for then there’s usually something to suit your tastes.
CAMPBELL THOMPSON, Australian, 9 years
Q Bar for cocktails, especially the lychee Daiquiris
The original Durty Nellies in South Sanlitun – the first (?) place in town with a pub atmosphere and Guinness on tap, plus good live music. Back in 1999, this was the best place in town!
Recently I have been going to the Black Sun bar (Chaoyang Park) more frequently because it is a laid-back bar that does not come with the sleaze often found in other places like Kai, Nanjie, etc. The drinks are fairly cheap and the atmosphere still feels cleaner than the latter bars. Additionally, pool, darts and foosball are available for patrons’ amusement and these games are a great way to meet people. Being a regular there, it is almost like a second living room; the service is consistent, you can plug in your iPod (i did that!), etc. Depending on which day of the week, it can be quiet for conversation but also can get filled on the weekends when there is a DJ playing. A surprisingly wide variety of people stop by during a night.
Cheers is unpretentious, not expensive, has a great location (close to other bars but I can never leave once I am there) and has a great band playing music perfect for a weekend night out. It is good to meet for drinks or go alone if you love the music – you always meet other music fans there. There is a lot of dancing yet it is not intimidating like a latin bar where people are checking each others’ salsa moves.
To owners: bars and restaurants in Beijing are a cutthroat business, this we can all understand, but the most important thing is a customers’ experience. If customers are complaining about something, take it into consideration. To customers: if a bar owner doesn’t listen to your advice, don’t take it personally. They ‘gotta do what they gotta do’. Just have fun.
AUSTIN KRAMER, American, writer / bartender / educator / cultural researcher / consultant, 6 years
Q Bar (or my apartment) for cocktails and when I need to feel cool.
Tim’s Texas BBQ for the worlds greatest frozen Margarita-cum-slurpee
Yugong Yishan brings the rock! and avant garde, and once just some blind guy with an erhu.
Lush for drinking before lunch or after 2 am, and good pub grub
The Bookworm for wine and single malt scotch
Alameda for a nice long drunken Sunday brunch
Beer Mania for Belgian Beer, and the best four-hour “happy hour” ever.
The Summer Palace or Fragrant Hills (bring your own baijiu and a bunch of friends, hike in, lose the night watch security in these endless parks, and drink to the moon on the mid-Autumn festival!)
The original What Bar (2001) for claustrophobic punk rock riots. Drink Beijing Beer (formaldehyde > alcohol content) and listen to bands with names like Dirty Mum, Kill Tomorrow, One Shot Skull Menz, and La Shi. It’s also the only chance you’ll ever get to mosh in a cafe furnished like a Starbucks on skid row.
No Name Bar (2001) in Houhai. These people deserve a medal from UNESCO. If every bar shared their ethos, Beijing would be hands down the coolest city in the world for drinking. Back when I first got to Beijing I was doing research around Houhai, before there were any bars there, and I saw a house by the lake. It had unusually large windows and there were a bunch of people drinking and having a good time inside. So, I’m the kind of guy who, when he stumbles upon a scene like that, I walk in and act like I was invited. To my surprise, it was a bar. “This is a bar? I didn’t see the sign…” “We don’t have a sign.” “So what’s this place’s name?” “We don’t have a name either, but people call us ‘that bar with no name’” Then the Roshi hit Austin with his Zen stick, and Austin achieved enlightenment on the spot!
The Suburban (2002) for shitty hip hop, shitty atmosphere, shitty food, shitty bartenders and *Halleluja!* (and I swear I shit you not!) FREE ALCOHOL FRIDAYS. That’s right. F r e e A l c o h o l F r i d a y s! Every Friday night, anything you wanted to drink, no charge. Hands down, this was the cheapest bar I’ve been to, ever. This is kind of what I’m talking about when I say that the Chinese don’t totally understand the concept of free-market competition. Myself and every Mongolian in town descended every Friday night, and drank until dawn for the roughly three months before they promptly went bankrupt.
Orange / Lava Lounge (2002): This place I thought was really cool. It provided the perfect balance for someone like me, who doesn’t mind dance clubs and music, but prefers to drink. It had a cool atmosphere, fun scene, and fell perfectly between the big warehouse discos like NASA or Banana and the Teflon-coated nouveau riche see-and-be-seen lounges, a la Henry Li.
The First Cafe (2004): Alas, this place was too smooth to last.
The Tree: Even if it isn’t hidden any more, it’s still damn good, and it’s a bar in Beijing that’s been around long enough to be nostalgic about, so that’s something special in and of itself. I just wish it was easier to find a seat these days. I also miss the old location.
The World of Suzie Wong: Good place to pick up chicks without feeling dirty. (Yes, that’s me taking a shot at Maggies). It is also the king of the cool opium-den style lounges. It’s a fun scene, although a few too many frat boys these days. Also, in a freak occurrence which has yet to be repeated, I somehow got the best Mojito ever there. I have witnesses!
Bed: Now this is what a hutong bar should be. There’s enough of the courtyard home left so you can notice the original architecture. It’s not cluttered with vaguely Tibetan hippie crap. Cool music, good drinks. Good balance between Chinese antiques and modernist concrete minimalism. This also extends to Cafe Sambal.
Alfa: I was trying to find a short cut through some alleys when I found this place. Great food and an awesome scene, even if my generation has to wait a few years before they give us 90s night. The summer of 2005 had the all-time greatest outdoor patio ever, honestly in league with some of the best places in Barcelona. I guess the management decided that they didn’t want too much of a good thing, but I still hold a grudge for taking it away from us!
Actually, I think the bar scene is moving up. The devastation of Houhai and the proliferation of score upon score of generic pre-fab low-class semi-Western bars was definitely a low point. The party scene elbowed in, and there are still too many discos for my tastes, and then you have to deal with the obnoxious jet set at some of the swankier places, but for developing a good, well-rounded bar scene, the progress is obvious. I think there are enough establishments here now to put us on the map – we just need to work on quality control! (Isn’t that the story with everything in China?)