When The Rauch Potato and I went on pair of pub crawls / farewell tours a mere six weeks ago, it represented a last few chances for me to drink beer and talk basketball with the author of China Sports Today until, well, May. Yeah, we have a pool, and I picked that as the month she gets bored of New York and moves back here. In the meantime, here are her top five Beijing bar picks. (You can see the full list of “top fives” here.)
Wain Wain: On its own, the view of the CBD from the 35th floor of Xiandai SOHO would warrant a trip to this Japanese bar. But there is so much more to recommend Wain Wain. The service is attentive without being obtrusive — you can usually dispense with yelling “fuwuyuan,” and simply get the servers’ attention with a nod. The food (I usually opt for udon noodles) and drinks (always sake and Asahi for me) are good enough, and not too expensive. The wifi works and the atmosphere is great. The layout gives every patron a nice view of the floor-to-ceiling windows, and despite the small space it’s easy to have a private conversation. They look after the practical details, too — the bathrooms are impeccable, and they will hang your coat in a bag when you arrive to keep it from picking up any smoke or other bar/restaurant aromas.
Jin Fan (Golden Sail) Water Sports Club: Houhai has so much potential — pretty much all wasted. An urban lake surrounded by willow trees and stone fences, with views of some historic buildings and gardens, should be a pleasant place to have a drink, even if the water looks and smells like a biohazard. Instead, it’s lined with obnoxious, tacky, unimaginative bars with so little to distinguish them from one another that touts have to stand outside and beg you to come in. In more than two years living just north of Houhai, there was only one place I ever went to deliberately— Jin Fan Water Sports Club. It’s the boathouse all the way at the north end of the lake, where Beijing’s dragon boat racers train and where you can rent kayaks by the hour. No neon lights, no touts – just a small selection of beers, and tables close enough to the water you could reach out and touch it (if you’re brave). Sitting on their homely little turf carpet-covered dock, you can barely see the lights of the bars at the south end of the lake, and it’s easy to feel like you are sitting on the dock at a friend’s lake house.
El Nido: Lots of imported beers for cheap, some pretty good homemade infused liquors, and a friendly Chinese proprietor get this place off to a great start. The fact that you can sit outside and watch a Beijing hutong just being a Beijing hutong, as opposed to a tourist attraction (I’m looking at you, Nanluoguxiang), makes it an even more special. That and the fact that you might find a jam session going on at 4 a.m.
Mao Mao Chong: Cocktails have come a long way in Beijing since I moved there long, long ago in early 2008. There are now lots of places to get a good one in the capital city. I like Mao Mao Chong’s creative, China-inspired mixes, the bartenders’ willingness to invent something new that fits your personal taste, and Stephanie’s scary ability to remember what you drank last time you were there. The fact that you can order one of the city’s best pizzas here makes it easy to forget the time and stay longer than you should.
Heaven Supermarket: It’s a liquor store. With seats. And glasses you can pour your drinks into. And a bathroom. Who would have thought that garish fluorescent lighting could be so charming? I’m sure it has a doppelganger somewhere in the world, so I don’t want to say “only in Beijing,” but this joint is refreshingly freewheeling, unpretentious, straightforward, and a great bargain to boot.
What, no sports bar on the list? That’s right. I can’t think of a single Beijing sports bar that deserves a “must try” endorsement. Time zones and satellite TV hijinks mean that you can rarely count on a place to be showing the game you want to see, unless they have aggressively advertised it ahead of time. And when you do get to the right bar to see the game you want, there’s a good chance you will be one of less than a dozen people watching. It doesn’t help that sports bar “culture” has not taken hold in China. All of my most lively game-watching experiences have been soccer games at Paddy O’Sheas, but I can hardly say the place is a must-visit.