Pete on the Beat: Shanghai News for Bar Hounds

Back in days of yore, a scribe named Winopete kept Taipei’s bar-goers up-to-date with a terse, witty newsletter – pretty much the opposite of what I write. He recently relocated to Shanghai where he’s doing the same for those unfortunate to live in a city without rock ‘n roll (low blow!). Here are snippets from his most recent newsletter. To join his mailing list, send a message to winopetechina@yahoo.com with, “I Love Wine Spritzers” in the subject line. He’ll be giving every second person to sign up a bottle of his favorite wine – Eaglehawk – and a kiss on both cheeks (offer yet to be confirmed).

“CASTLE OCTOBER
“The looming monolith that has appeared right on the doorstep of O’Malleys is a German beer house by the sombre name of Castle October (39 Taojiang Road). It was originally a government building and took more than 6 months of renovations and building to become Castle ‘O’. Financed by rich Koreans and managed by Kim (a Norwegian, ex-head chef at Sashas), this place looks like Harry Potter’s Hogwarts or something out of ‘Black Adder’. There’s a beautiful, sprawling garden behind the main structure, with the brewery located at the back. The ground floor is rather small with a tiny bar and a few tables and rooms, but upstairs are restaurant rooms and a great balcony on the 2nd level, with huge drinking halls and high ceilings on the 3rd level. There’s so much wood around, it’s an absolute beaver’s delight. Walls are adorned with a wide mix of art- Salvador Dali and Picasso prints put in an appearance, yet there’s also a display of German scripophily and more mundane ‘beer deco’ to please the testologists. Winopete’s keen eye even spied a nice piece in the kitchen, but we won’t dwell on that now, other than thinking that she should have been serving the suds, not peeling the spuds…

“O’MALLEYS MAKES ANNUAL COMEBACK
“This Irish nag may be long in the tooth, but she’s certainly not ready for the glue factory just yet. O’Malleys blitzed the competition in the St Patrick’s Day business stakes, with a stunning 35% increase in revenue compared to ‘green beer day’ last year. On the afternoon of the 17th, Themepub Group generalissimo ‘TA’ told this sozzled scribe that they had ordered 120 kegs of Guinness and were expecting 2000 people through the doors that night. Apparently, they had to order even more Guinness mid-evening. Total RMB into the till on St Paddy’s day this year was a whopping RMBxxx,xxx (no, that was one figure they did not divulge), but various sources estimate that it was close to 400K. Not too shabby! O’Malleys has always been the most popular place in Shanghai for shamrock revelers on St Patrick’s Day, with the Blarney Stone also doing very well on 17/3, as is to be expected. On ya’, lads!

“FREE SOUL BAR
“Free Soul (1221 Change Le Rd, about 100m west of Wulumuqi Rd) appeared on the Shanghai pub scene a year ago in Fahuazhen Rd, then 2 months ago re-located to Chang Le Rd, a much more user-friendly location for those of us who frequent the Hengshan/Dongping bar zone. On first appearance, Free Soul seems better suited to a Julu Rd or Maoming Rd location, but in fact, although this is a no-frills, el cheapo bar, it is thankfully clear of bar girl ‘buy me drink’ pressure, which means I decided it warranted further investigation. Being a dive bar, decore was minimal, with a rust-bucket red coat of paint, dribs and drabs of forgettable wall decorations, a bowl of seven fish on the bar and a small neon display of yellow tequila glasses and pink margarita glasses. The two friendly lasses behind the bar go by the names of Camilla and Sky. At the bar, there’s space for about 8 stools, with a few tables and a foosball table in the front room and a pool table and more seating out the back. To use the ablutions facility, one must go through the shower; perhaps handy for certain circumstances…

One of those days… Charlie’s

Tuesday was one of those days when emails swamp your in-box faster than you can bail them out, when you show up for an appointment that doesn’t work out, when you’ve got someone angry on hold, someone incomprehensible on the line and someone who is annoying calling your cell phone, when the mayo in the salad dressing at lunch was a wee bit off. It was one of those days when you end up full of coffee, out of breath, with a sweaty and dirty collar at 7:41 near the Friendship Store.

In other words, it’s a perfect time to realize, “Hey, I’ve been writing about Beijing’s nightlife scene for more than a year and I’ve never, ever had a drink at the oldest surviving bar – Charlie’s – just up the street in the Jianguo Hotel.”

You walk to the hotel and are mildly surprised because you expected a decrepit third-class venue. Instead, a re-modeling has the modest lobby glowing with warmth and coziness. Just to the left is the restaurant Justine’s and down the hall is the new Charlie’s, open less than a month. It still needs to acquire character, but has some of that lobby’s warmth, with plenty of earthy tones, wood, brick and marble, along with a touch of cool color.

The long bar has enough stools for 12 and faces shelves of bottles with an ice-blue backdrop. Behind it are two dozen small round wooden tables, each with seating for two or three people. Behind them is a glass wall that gives full play to a narrow garden of rocks, trees, water fountains and a stream.

The drinks are pricey, with a shot of Jack Daniels at 55 kuai and cocktails starting at 60 kuai, but it’s two-for-one happy hour, so you order a small Monchshof draft (never seen it before) for 40 kuai and relax. Some jazz plays and a few nearby conversations drift in and out. By the time the band comes on, there are eight people in the crowd – a guy named “Tom” and two friends, a couple, you, and two waiters – and three on stage – a guitarist and two singer / dancers, plus their karaoke machine. The band plays On the Bayou, Have You Ever Seen the Rain, Miss You Much, Take Me to Your Heart, and Don’t Dream It’s Over, and despite the sparse crowd, it’s fun.

You sip your second draft and realize that not only is your collar dry and your stress level lower, but also that you’re having a good Beijing hotel experience. You learned, using your broken Mandarin, that the bar has been around since the 80s. You explained to the bartender, whose English skills don’t extend much past “Happy Hour” and “Cheers,” that “one for one” isn’t really a good deal and he actually means “two for one” or “buy one, get one free.” You saw, on the shelf, a canister that looked like it might contain motor oil or floor polisher and then realized, with a laugh, it was Maotai. You also saw that the drink menu includes selections of Chinese spirits, grape wines and teas, and thought it was a nice counterbalance to all the Western drinks. Then you finished your drink, and left humming Crowded House and thinking, yep, I’ll be back again…

Readers’ Writes V: SO, Will and Jim

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 beijingboyce@yahoo.com.)

Without further ado…

SO, American, journalist

Favorites
Face: I like the subdued ambiance, the pool table is often free, the crowd has a good vibe, and there’s a nice combination of open space and corners to chat. Music is the right volume. Good place for an after work drink or date. The downside – it’s expensive. Also, it appears to be getting more popular now, which is a downside.

All-time
The Jam House, back when there was a real South Sanlitun. The rooftop terrace in the grotty alley was great and there were actual instruments that you could just grab and start jamming on. The No-Name bar, before Houhai became the nightmare it is now. Good vibe, a real wood burning stove, and at the time, a great location

The scene
Generally, buy stuff in bottles. Especially if you can see the staff open the bottle in front of you – it minimizes the risks of being served god knows what. Martini’s should be ordered with extreme discretion. Much of the city still thinks Martini and Rossi vermouth (or anything made by the company) should be the main – and only – ingredient of a Martini.

WILL, American, public relations consultant

Favorite
The Stone Boat, especially during Spring and Autumn, when it’s pleasant to sit outside. It’s often not very crowded, it’s nicely centrally located and it’s not too expensive if you’re just looking for a couple of quick beers. Plus, if, like me, you usually want conversation over your beer, it doesn’t drown out chitchat with deafening music. And I like watching the die-hard anglers trying to pull the cadmium-laced fish out of that muddy pond.

All-time
The Electric Cactus Garden. Or at least, that’s how I think of it. This was a restaurant near my apartment when I first arrived in Beijing to study Chinese. It was just far enough off the main street that not many students bothered with it. It was in the shadow of Line Thirteen and we called it the Electric Cactus Garden because it had three enormous, fiberglass cacti bedecked with Christmas lights out front. It had a bunch of al-fresco tables and served enormous glasses of Beijing Beer for three kuai. The first time we went we closed out the place and the entire staff ended up drinking with us. It wasn’t slick and it wasn’t great for dining, but it was cheap and friendly and appealed to the love of friendly dives.

The scene
There is no doubt that Beijing’s drinking scene has become much more sophisticated over the past few years, but much of this is lost on me. I like cheap, divey places with outdoor tables, and most of my fondest drinking memories revolve around places like the Electric Cactus Garden, the old Wudaokou Worker’s Club (where free entertainment was provided in the form of the nightly fistfight), the vanished-into-redevelopment South Bar Street, and the place at the end of Lotus Lane on Houhai where you can sit right next to the water and watch the tea lights floating on the lake. (But, for the love of god, don’t order any food.) Most of my best drinking nights have been at places like these. Glitzy joints that serve 70-kuai Martinis made with exotic flavors just don’t resonate with me, although I’ve had some fun nights watching the expensive, imported hookers working Asian businessmen at a couple of upscale hotel bars I can think of.

Speaking of martinis, though, increasing sophistication hasn’t ironed out all the rough edges. About a year ago, I ordered a Martini – I can’t remember where – and was given a shot of pure Martini vermouth on the rocks. Yow. Still, the diversity is good, and the most expensive night of drinking in Beijing is still cheaper than the cheapest night of drinking in Singapore, so I guess I can be thankful for that.

JIM BOYCE, Canadian, NGO, in Beijing 2 years, 5 months

Favorites
Q Bar for its cocktails, bartenders, unassuming ambience; Cheers for just being Cheers, a good happy hour, live music; Shooters, for its steady staff, people-watching ops, good DJ. I enjoy Browns on occasion for its spacious layout and good clean fun. Phil’s Pub is my top 10-kuai drink joint, though a recent visit to Black Sun reminded me it’s good, too. Sequoia Cafe (nice wine tastings), Cafe Europa (more wine), Pavillion (big chairs), China Doll (ambience), Maggies (music), The Den (pizza), Cox (wings) and many others have their charms.

All-time
First Cafe, hands down. It was a cozy spot with good ambience, music, cocktails and people – show up alone, leave with a half-dozen friends. I first met Agent Red Wolf, O-Zone, The Flash, bartenders George and Echo, and many others there, gave out its name card by the dozen, brought every colleague and client I knew. I literally felt sick when I walked by one day and saw workers dismantling it with hacksaws and crowbars. Still in shock… somebody, get me a martini!

The scene
I’ve seen many Beijing bars fail because the owners were too arrogant or too stubborn to listen to the customer. It’s especially true at high-end places, which are often touted as cutting edge but are really bringing or copying a model from somewhere else. The most creative and interesting bars, and the most energetic and entrepreneurial bar people, arise in, focus on and cater to the Beijing scene, and rarely tend to be on the high end.

Just In: Re-nhu-vation for Lido Establishment

It’s official: nhu will close and renovate. “The first floor will be a full fledged cafe and restaurant and the second floor a lounge. It will be even more high end than before,” said one owner of the spacious Lido-area dining, drinking and event venue.

nhu will hold a “closing for renovation party” on Saturday night, with free drinks from 9 to 10 PM and big discounts afterwards. It’s your last chance to check out the old nhu before it turns into the new nhu.

Readers’ Writes IV: M-Dawg, Alan and Agent Red Wolf

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 beijingboyce@yahoo.com.)

Without further ado…

M-DAWG, Sidekick

Favorites
The fantasy: Suzie Wong’s, because I am rich, young, single, a total chick magnet, and when I break into an impromptu dance with the choicest babe in the bar, people spontaneously form a circle around us.
The reality: Phil’s Pub. Because it’s dark. And the 10-kuai Gin and Tonics.

All-time
The fantasy: Centro, because I meet all my multimillionaire business associates there, the valets always park my Lamborghini with care, I’m given a fresh-pressed, fitted linen shirt each and every time I spill wine on myself, and the waitresses fawn over me because of my habit of gently placing a crisp, folded 100-kuai note into their cleavage each time they deliver me my drink.
The reality: Phil’s Pub. Because it’s dark. And the 10 kuai Gin and Tonics.

The scene
1. Bartenders make the bar.
2. If the alcohol in Beijing seems cheap now, wait until the bill for your liver transplant arrives.
3. Those who don’t know the history of Beijing’s drinking scene are doomed to repeat it.

ALAN UJCIC, Slovenian, 3 years

Favorites
With bars opening daily in this town there is no reason to spend an evening in one place. When out, I try to check at least four or five drinking holes per night. There is always a core group of traditional places in my itinerary mixed with “newcomers.” I reserve Fridays for Sequoia Cafe wine tastings, which is probably the best warm-up for a long night. However, it’s not healthy to be too attached to one place in Beijing – tomorrow it will probably be a new shopping mall.

All-time
There are not many long-standing drinking spots, but I found Centro in the Kerry Centre to be the most reliable when you want to escape from the regular bar/club scene. Great selection of (overpriced) Cuban cigars and definitely the best Mojito in town are the main reasons to hang around in the evening. Not really a hip spot by Beijing standards but when you are planning to spend an evening there you know exactly what to expect (which is sometimes positive because Beijing is trying to shock you every single day). Centro is also a convenient place to meet people during the day with its quiet atmosphere (if you manage to shout out the always-present TV), good service and convenient location. And who says that you can’t sample some Cuban products before noon?

The scene
There is no drinking scene in Beijing – there are only people who want to earn some money and others who are looking to spend it! Everything between is a black hole. Beijing expects only one thing from you: love me, feed me and never leave me!

AGENT RED WOLF, Taiwanese, marketing professional, 8 years

Favorites
It depends on my mood. When I want to dance and be with friends who love to dance, my favorite is Latinos. In addition to dancing salsa, you can sit at the round bar, chat with people, drink Mojitos and Caipirinhas, and listen to the South American band.

When I am or want to stop for a drink on the way home from work, my favorite is Q Bar. It is not only the hospitable owners, Echo, George and Ralph, but also the whole place making me feel comfortable. Sometimes you can meet people and chat even when Q Bar is very crowded. The good cocktails are another advantage. When George and Echo have time, we explore new drinks and I can learn about cocktails.

When I feel wild, my favorite is Browns. It is spacious, with three layers of seating and high ceilings, and you can dance anywhere. You can watch people or be watched by them. I would not use the term “pickup bar” to describe Browns, I rather use “encounter bar.” You would not believe how often I coincidentally meet friends at Browns. When you are feeling wild and meeting friends, you won’t pay much attention to how bad the drinks can be.

All-time
First Cafe, though it no longer exists, was like a good friend for four years in Beijing. Moreover, I made lots of friends there. Some of them are more than personal friends and have become business acquaintances. I had happy, sad, exciting, wild and peaceful moments at First Cafe.