As noted before, Burger, Burger Monday at Blue Frog has become a ritual over the past three months. But last Monday marked a series of firsts. The first time James “Wizard of WordPress” Flanagan tried a burger here.
The first time “The Mysterious CV” tried a Samuel Adams.
(That’s the look of a satisfied man.)
And the first time I tried a Zone Burger. What’s behind the lettuce?
A patty topped with cheese. What’s behind the patty?
Bacon, onion, tomato, pickle, and more.
Finally, it was the first thousandth time I witnessed Steven “Sino Scuba” Schwankert play air bass. I guess you can’t win them all.
By the way, there is a sweet potato fries option at Blue Frog.
Note: I realize I have written a lot about Burger Burger, so I’ll spend more time trying the menu and less time writing about it for a while. (But it is a good deal.)
A special report by regular contributor The Village Grouch, who not only went on a Saturday night pub crawl, but also – in the spirit of wrestler The Rock, NBA star Karl Malone, and actor Kurt Russell as Jack Burton* in Big Trouble in Little China – refers to himself in the third person.
“The Village Grouch was out Saturday night in the company of intrepid combat photographer Slim, who just recently returned from the front.
“First stop was Apothecary (map) to see if the Boyce taste was still intact, and indeed it is. Apothecary is a class act – clean floor, good lighting, and bartenders that are snipers rather than machine gunners. Even in cold November, the mint julep was refreshing, striking a fine balance between taste and punch. TVG then ordered a house special, the Sazerac, which was a fine drink that sipped and sipped and sipped. Drinks aren’t cheap and pours aren’t generous, but TVG didn’t go to Apothecary for that and is looking forward to his next visit.
“A quick stop at Luga’s (map) found the place about half full, the beerscold and reasonably priced, and the nachosserviceable.
“Walking across the vast Sanlitun plateau through the Village and across to the stadium, we found Fubar (map) was wall-to-wall, with a pleasantly higher proportion of female patrons than in its earlier days. Chad kindly bought TVG and Slim their first round — a Hendrick’s Gin and tonic, served the way the maker wants it, with cucumber, not lime or lemon. TVG, a staunch Tanqueray 10 fan, became an immediate convert. Away, wretched lime!
“Two of those later, the place was still full, but our duo moved on to Beijing’s only venue regularly referred to as a bar, church and embassy — Maggie’s (map). Reports of a return to the old days of larger crowds proved true upon our 1:30 AM arrival — the place was heaving, even without hearing Lady Gaga on the sound system. A good mix of people, fast, efficient bar service, and lots to look at maintain the venue’s status as a top after-hours place.
“On an F&B note — the improvement in service at Union Bar & Grille (map) since the recent arrival of Everton-supporting manager Andy is pronounced. Aside from being an all-around nice guy, he is clearly applying the constant pressure and support the wait staff has needed but was sorely lacking prior. The Zack-Andy kitchen-front of house combo is a solid one and TVG hopes both will remain in place for some time to come.
* An example of Jack Burton in third-person action:
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, looks you crooked in the eye and asks you if you paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like that: “Have you paid your dues, Jack? Yessir, the check is in the mail.”
Frank’s Place marked twenty years on Saturday with a tribute to the man, the myth, the legend – founder Frank Siegel (note: he sold his interest in the place in the nineties and now runs the Sequoia Cafe chain). The ceremony included the unfurling, from the “rafters”, of a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey embossed with Siegel’s name (he hails from Pennsylania and is also a Steelers fan). The Frank also led a group dance as Deuces Wild played JohnnyFrankie Be Good. And, after tasting a signature drink from the original Frank’s, the Devil Dog – ingredients include tomato juice, tequila, and black pepper – he jumped behind the bar to show the staff how to “make it right“. I enjoyed talking to a half-dozen patrons who had been at the opening of the original Frank’s. Some photos from the night…
Notes from the Sanlitin-Gongti-Ritan Park zone (more coming soon)…
Apothecary (map): With a half-dozen visits under my belt, I consider this to be among the more intriguing new openings of the year. It doesn’t have the feel of a “local” – it is a bit sanitary, in terms of atmosphere, a bit technical, in terms of drink-making, and a bit formal, in terms of the staff. But I enjoy going in, perusing the cocktail menu - which provides background on the drinks, many of which date to Prohibition or even the U.S. Civil War - and trying a new concoction on each visit. And I appreciate the DIY emphasis – from the ginger syrup to the bitters to the brined olives.
China Doll 3.3 (map): My first visit in a long time. Hard to believe this is the same spot where I met Michael Phelps during the Olympics as he ordered a Jack and Coke and my friend gave him a Cuban cigar. Seems like five years ago. With the color scheme toned down and the space more than halved, China Doll offers a certain appeal with its four-sided bar and lounge seating. But the vibe did not work for me – a less than friendly staff at the door, the guy asking me to provide my mobile number and email address for the coat check tag (So they can courier my jacket to me if I forget it? Doubtful.), the pile of garbage in one corner… it feels like a bar not living up to its potential.
Maggie’s (map): This place seems back in form after a lengthy period of uncertainty last year and earlier this year. I went with two groups of visitors to Beijing last week and found the place busting at the seams both times, even as the clock hit 3 AM on Saturday, an hour that it has traditionally started to empty. I spotted numerous couples – of the non-short term joint venture type – as well as the obligatory guy playing Jenga, which added texture to the typical predator and prey crowds – I am never sure which is which. I also heard the one-two punch of songs that, if vinyl were still around, would have been worn thin on those particular record – Lady Gaga’s Pokerface and Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie. Not everyone’s cup of yak’s milk tea, but for those who are fans, this place is busy.
Chocolate (map): Two visits this month satiated my sweet tooth. The Russian band rocks and the vodka remains the best value, though I didn’t turn down offers of Cognac from a table of patrons there on a particular Saturday night. The crowds seem lighter these days – not surprising given that the place is gimmicky: the midget, the floor show, the over-the-top decor – but it was nevertheless enjoyable since I actually had space to move.
Latte (map): If I were a dozen years younger, a swinging single, sought a place where the crowd pursues playfulness over pretentiousness, and wanted to stay out to the wee hours of the morning, this would be my spot. Like Chocolate, it has an over-the-top decor, but with a friendlier staff and a sense of good clean fun.
The Den (map): I still seem to end up here at least once a week, whether it is for half-price pizza and drinks during the daily 5 PM to 10 PM happy hours, for a late-night bite, or simply to watch a game, gab with friends, and enjoy RMB25 beers of the likes of VB and James Boag’s. The staff is efficient and tolerant given the often eclectic late-night crowd – a Beijing version of the Star Wars bar – and the rowdy and rude patrons the place sometimes attracts. In a city where some sports bars seem in decline – Rickshaw, Pavillion, Goose n’ Duck – The Den still offers a wide gamut of games for fans.
The Rickshaw (map): Despite the new paint job, lights, seat covers, and menu, this place pretty much retains its feel. Shephard’s pie and Philly steak sandwiches feature on the new menu, with the wings among the remaining staples. (Kudos to the manager, Gordon, for keeping the place open far past regular hours on the night of that first snowfall when nary a taxi was to be found.)
Glen (map): Arguably has the best whiskey selection in town, though I found the place a bit sedate on a recent Saturday night. It was also too hot and dry, though the warm hand towel upon arrival is a nice touch. I tried the Hole in One, and found it too bitter, while my acquaintance enjoyed the golf ball-sized ice sphere in his whiskey.
Ichikura (map): Still my favorite “Japanese” joint in the city. I enjoy sliding into a seat at the long bar, perusing the whiskeys on the shelves and the cocktail list, making my pick, and watching the staff in action. And striking up casual conversations with fellow patrons, even if they are Japanese and we can barely speak one other’s language. An excellent hideaway with an atmosphere and alcohol selection to match. The only major drawback is, given the place’s diminutive size, when a group of patrons light up cigars, though The Third Cellar upstairs offers an escape.
The Bookworm (map): An under-rated drinkers haven given the dozens of single malts and the range of wines with only a RMB50 markup. The monthly single malt tastings is drawing upward of 30 patrons – the next one will focus on Japanese whiskey.
Fubar (map): Good mixed drinks – with my favorite being the Sweet Bee: honey vodka and ginger ale – not only due to the solid pours and low prices, but also the ice. Fubar’s investment in its own ice-making machine makes a difference, sort of like that between a good burger between two slices of Wonderbread and in a quality bun. They display an added glow due to that massive Close Encounters of the Third Kind light.
Luga’s Villa (map): I have seen few crowds as carefree as the one here on a recent Friday night, with people of all sizes, shapes, and nationalities dancing to the house band. I consider the drinks a bit pricey, but obviously others disagree, because the place was pretty much packed.
Danger Doyle’s (map): The RMB10 pizza deal is drawing crowds, but expect it to rise to RMB20 in December. Still an excellent deal, particularly if you visit during happy hour. And look for manager Glenn to start manning the decks on Friday and Saturday nights under his new “hip, not hop” theme.
The Pavillion (map): Popped in after my visit to Molly Malone’s and found but two patrons in the place, though co-owner Christine says the Pavillion has been drawing some significant traffic from among the newcomers to Beijing. She also says there are plans for a redesign in the New Year.
Swing (map): About the only bar I will visit on that strip on neon-lit, lady bar-fronted joints on Sanlitun North proper. As on previous visits, standing room only – and barely any of that – as the band from the Philippines – there for what, five years? – rocked on with the aid of pre-programmed music.
? (map): We went from Taniwha to Wonder Bar to Tanewha to Golden Club to Kick to… well, it appears that a restaurant is taking over that space and the tattoo parlor that previously stood next door.
Union (map): After forgetting my utensils on something like 6 out of 10 visits, the staff seems to be taking its game up a notch. Not only am I getting my knife, fork, drink, and bread quickly delivered, but the courses are appropriately spaced. (Though the place still has an incomprehensible policy whereby if you dine alone, you get four pieces of toast with breakfast, while if you dine with others, you get two pieces per person. Please, just bring four. It wastes time, resources, and goodwill when people have to keep asking for that extra toast.) The three-sided bar at Union is among the nicer ones in Beijing and hopefully management can make it a better draw.
Blue Frog (map): Monday’s Burger, Burger special has been etched into my schedule the past two months. Good buns, good patties, the option of potato or sweet potato fries, and — if you dine early enough – two-for-one drinks. Hard to beat for value, especially since the service tends to be above average. Of late, I’ve been partial to the Mexican burger (eat the burger first and let that salsa, sour cream, etc drip onto your fries) and the spicy chicken (tender and juicy and on a most-excellent wheat bun). I also like the lunch special. The portions are modest, but the turkey wrap with Caesar salad and drink for RMB50 makes for a tasty light bite. By the way, if anyone ever holds a contest for drink coasters, the one at Union – with ridges to catch glass sweat, a gummy bottom to grip the table, flexible enough to double as a hand grip, and an appealing design – should be considered.
A growing pile of emails, SMSs, and comments from readers who cite trouble getting into D Lounge – or trouble getting reasonable service if they do get in. A reminder of this recently when I visited D, joined a table of acquaintances, and spent the first ten minutes listening as they complained of what they considered shabby service at the door and then on the floor. Although they liked the physical space – and dropped, based on what I saw other tables ordering, the most money in the place – it didn’t sound like they would return.
A few days later, after an enjoyable night at Q Bar with Mr Hao and Ms Hao, we hemmed and hawed as we walked to Sanlitun North and, because it was bloody cold, decided to go to D for a drink. As we entered the hallway, a group of eight people left. We walked down the hall and approached the entrance, where two staff members – a man and a woman – drew a rope across it.
Did we have reservations? No. Did we have friends inside? Maybe, I won’t know until I get in. We were then told the place was full. Ms Hao asked if it was a private party. The woman said no. It looked like we were out of luck. Then I mentioned I did know someone inside: Warren, the manager, who stood, with his back turned, talking to someone a few meters away. The staff changed its attitude. The woman at the door ineptly tried to get his attention as more people left. Finding the situation tiresome and deciding I wanted to spend my night and money somewhere else, we left.
Warren caught up to us in the entry hall and asked what was the matter. I simply said, “I don’t like the door policy.” As we stood outside and decided where to go, Warren emerged. I repeated my remark. He said the place was full, that it could only hold 180 people. I said I found that strange since we had seen many people leaving. I added that readers had told me they were turned away even when the place was near-empty. He replied that people needed to RSVP at D Lounge. I said that I, as well as my friends, had walked in often without doing so. He didn’t have a response.
I added that he runs the risk of attracting a fickle crowd liable to jump to the next “flavor of the season” and that D Lounge is turning off patrons who could help sustain it in the long run. Then we left.
Could we have gotten in? Yes. Would we have been happy? No. I like the layout and decor and the atmosphere on slow nights, with music kept low enough that you can talk. The drinksare decent, though nothing special given the price. But the floor service is below average (I almost always sit at the bar), acquaintances complain that the place has a “musty” aroma, and the door policy – or at least its execution – seems a bit arbitrary. For all the talk of raising standards in Beijing, this place is symbolic of a focus on excellent hardware and faulty software.
By the way, those long-time Beijing residents that lament this kind of thing might find it interesting that the backer of D Lounge is also behind Jazz-Ya, one of the longest-standing and most inclusive spots in Beijing. I wonder if that place will also soon have a door policy?
A Somewhat Steady China Hand on the Local Bar Scene