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.