Bar and restaurant owners in Sanlitun North are preparing for what they hope – or perhaps a better word is “expect” – to be a major Olympics payoff this summer.
Among other developments, some of those copycat bars on the main strip have been or are being renovated, a massive China Doll will reportedly open in 3.3 Building, and, next door, the new Nali Studios will see about a dozen F&B spots launch, including Ciro’s, Muse, and Saddle.
The bigger picture sees the opening of more than a dozen buildings designed to upgrade Sanlitun – if you define upgrade as endless retail space and architecture that includes a building studded with what appear to be cargo containers.
I have far greater faith in evolving bar and restaurant scenes than in Frankenstein-like ones, which is what seems to be emerging in Sanlitun. In other words, an area that slowly builds up a presence based on consumer wants as opposed to a complex, street or bar area, often based on a “concept” from London, New York, Hong Kong or Shanghai, suddenly thrust on our – intricately sauced, of course – plates.
Even so, a one-off deal like the Olympics is unprecedented in Beijing and thus makes it difficult to predict what will happen in Sanlitun, or the general bar scene, in terms of who cashes in. Not least of all is the question of what the government will do.
One issue is the size of the customer base. Visitors to Beijing who peruse their city guides in search of a place to drink will find no shortage of references to Sanlitun, but they will also have other nightlife options, such as corporate parties, hotel bars and restaurants, alternative drinking spots (Houhai, the Olympic stadium area, etc), and tourist activities, such as watching Peking opera or acrobats spinning plates on sticks. The degree to which locals patronize Western bars and restaurants is difficult to say, as is the impact of likely traffic restrictions versus the opening of a new subway stop at Gongti North.
It seems safe to say that the number of potential Olympics customers for Sanlitun is substantial. It also seems to me – and I write as a consumer, not as an industry insider – that the size of the payoff depends on numerous “whether or not” scenarios, such as:
- Whether or not bars and clubs in Tongli Studio and its environs, just west of the main Sanlitun strip, remain open. Numerous Tongli bars faced short-term closures this year, with fire safety code violations being the usual reason given. The area in the nearby streets is associated in many people’s minds with seediness. And a few months ago, a heavy-handed police action saw the rounding-up of blacks, including tourists and the son of an ambassador. If the Olympics are Beijing’s “coming out” party, then Sanlitun, or at least parts of it, might be seen as the uncouth cousin who crashes it. (By the way, despite its reputation, Tongli and environs include venues such as Cheers, The Tree and Kokomo, among others, that would offer interesting experiences for visitors.)
- Whether or not the strip of mostly copy-cat bars on the east side of Sanlitun’s main strip will be open. This is where wandering male visitors hear “lady bar, sexy girl”, almost everyone hears “DVD, DVD” (from touts) and “money, money” (from beggars), and the average spot features chairs out front, a live band inside, and what I consider overpriced beer. Even so, this strip has traditionally been popular with tourists, those freelance peddlers can be sent on vacation for a month, and some bars are renovating, thus suggesting they expect to continue business.
- Whether or not new establishments are open and ready to go – many places in the new Nali Studio, beside the 3.3 Building, are behind schedule. This ranges from Ciro’s, which was supposed to open last year, to Project H20, which predicted opening one floor by last week, but is far from doing so. Add in an employment scene that sees a surplus of establishments and a deficit of qualified people, as well as the learning curve in getting things smoothly running, and many challenges lie ahead. I expect that locking down Olympic events or corporate sponsorships is in the minds of many owners.
- Whether or not a makeshift bar area will open. A common comment among those doing business in China is that as soon as you are making money, someone better connected will find a way to get a share. The Olympics is big money. Is it possible that some massive beer tent area could arise in the Sanlitun area and siphon bar-goers? It’s certainly in the realm of possibilities.
- Whether or not the government controls entry to Sanlitun. Does anyone remember if the drinking scene was good in Athens, Sydney or Atlanta? What matters is that the Games themselves are successful. Again, it’s not hard to imagine access being restricted to Sanlitun. After all, streets get closed for visiting officials or major events, car use is restricted during important Beijing gatherings, and bars have been closed down before.
None of these events may come to pass, but that’s the whole thing – while change is a constant in the Beijing scene, there is an additional level of uncertainty this year.
Frankly, bars and restaurants might find their golden opportunities in the months leading up to the Games, as journalists, technicians, sponsors and other people pour into the city.
Note: I focused on Sanlitun because it is in my neighborhood. I would love to hear what other people think, not only about the Sanlitun scenario, but about other areas of town.