Category Archives: (Top Five Bars Series)

Top Five Beijing Bars: Alex Blackie of The Syndicate

The first time I met Alex Blackie involved Dom Perignon, deer petting and a resort on Beijing’s outskirts (see “Surreal Saturday“). While we’ve never been able to recreate that magical atmosphere, we do occasionally run into one another and share memories of the good old days (“Remember that one deer?” “The one with the big ears.” “Yeah.” “Man, those were the good old days.”).

Anyway, I asked Blackie — best known in Beijing for his DJ work with The Syndicate — to list his top five watering holes and, given a rare break in his schedule, he agreed. Here they are along with a photo of him sitting on an (obviously wireless) speaker in the middle of a street. A street, I’m told, with no name.

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dj alex blackie beijing china.jpg

“Having met Mr. Boyce at a booze-soaked, overly lavish media ‘unveiling’ of the late (not that) great Klubb Rouge, Beijing — an event marred by the aforementioned blogger consuming enough alcohol to floor a medium-sized panda (see “Surreal Saturday“) — it was clearly my destiny to write a drink-related post for his fine website one day. Now that that day has arrived, I think the reason I was asked was mainly so that I could give Boyce some hot tips of places around town that play loud music that isn’t by ABBA — a strange obsession of his. From reading previous ‘top five’ posts on the website, I’ve realised that it’s important to make it sound like I have an exciting social life that takes me to an eclectic mix of bars about town and not that I just go to Dada every weekend. So with that in mind, here’s my top five current watering holes in Beijing in no particular order:

Dada: Opened about 18 months ago now, this club is a great example of opening a venue in the right place at the right time. In the heart of the Gulou area — the home of an incredible amount of cool bars — Dada serves a great selection of beers and the best music in town. If you want to see where the cool Chinese kids hangout, this is the place to be. It’s an exciting time for electronic music in China and Dada has become the ‘home’ of the nascent development of Chinese bass music culture. As a result it’s the place to catch a large number of good local and international DJs and producers. And a small number of bearded lunatics.

????  (inside the Drum Tower compound): This is a bar / pool house that is found about 20 metres from Gulou itself. It’s an incredible place, a huge converted hutong house with three large pool tables, loads of places to lounge and an incredibly chilled atmosphere. The funny thing is, you’ve probably walked past it countless times without ever realising it is there as there is no sign, logo or visible entrance. It’s down a little hutong at the north-east corner of the tower — hunt it out, it’ll be worth the exploration.

Yugong Yishan: Now in its third incarnation, this place hosts a staggering amount of local and international bands and DJs every year. When a good band is on the vibe in there is amazing — the owners have put an incredibly amount of heart into Yugong, and it shows. Also, the drinks there get you drunk. Fact.

Amilal: This is probably my favourite sit-down bar in the city. Primarily a whiskey bar, with some fantastic single malts in there that are all reasonably priced. I have been involved in a great many lockins here, staggering out as the sun comes up. On entering the bar it feels as if you’re intruding on someone’s house party, but after a couple of whiskeys and a stroke of the cat (not a euphemism) everyone’s your mate.

Lantern: Yep, another club. Not sure what that says about my social habits but there you are. Beijing’s other fantastic electronic music venue, Lantern, is a place you can regularly catch local legends like Mickey Zhang, Weng Weng and Ou Yang thumping out the city’s best house and techno. The decor has changed so often that part of the fun when you walk in is guessing the current layout. Still though, the commitment to doing things the right way remains. This place opens till the very last person leaves.

Life of Reilly: Beijing Beatle Jorge Arrowsmith on his top five all-time bars

troy reilly of beijing beatles
Deep thoughts by Mr Reilly…

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Troy Reiley, known to many as Jorge Arrowsmith (George Harrison) of The Beijing Beatles and to some as DJ Fat Troy Slim, recently got a ticket to ride to his homeland Australia. With his lengthy stint in Beijing finished, at least for now, I asked him to name his all-time favorite watering holes.

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“I very rarely drink during the week and consider it more of a means to build up my Dutch courage before climbing on stage in a wig and costume to entertain a crowd. Given my situation as somewhat of a non-discerning drinker I was a little surprised when asked to do my own “top five” list. Normally the venues in Beijing are very generous and allow us musicians to drink unlimited amounts of alcohol on nights during which we perform so I rarely go out of my way to scrutinize a drinking hole prior to a night on the town. Having said that, after any performance it normally takes a little time — no later than until 12 noon the very next day — to wind down from all the excitement so a few late-night venues are normally part of the descent! Here are a few of ‘em!

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The Den

troy reilly last eggs benny at the den“I have spent a fair amount of time at this bar at ridiculous hours of the morning. The place is full of characters and I especially love having a squirt with one of the best Irish singers in town (no names mentioned) as we get stuck into a bottle of Baileys or two under the shade of a wallaby skin. It is normally around this time that all the local legends start to roll up including the infamous “pink lady” and of course the owner of this blog!

“The Bloody Marys are my answer to a healthy start to a brand new day — the healthy content being the tomato juice and celery stick of course — and they help wash down a feed of eggs Benedict with an extra side order of bacon. Seriously though, the Den staff deserve a bloody medal for the rubbish they have to put up with most early mornings of the week. The daily happy hours between 5 PM and 10 PM are also the best in town considering you can get a pint of Guinness for only 30 rmb.

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St. Margaret’s

Maggies 3“After a night of beer-soaked rock ‘n’ roll, it is always important to have one’s sins forgiven. St. Margaret’s, as the bar in question is more affectionately known, is anything but a place of holy worship! Look, the main thing that draws me to this place into the early hours of the morning is of course the hot dogs!

“Adding to this, once upon a time Tsingtao beers were only 20 rmb, but not any more. Come on Maggie’s, go back to the old days! You guys make enough off the ladies’ mixed drink orders that dig deep into the wallets of punters looking to find a new friend to spend the night with them. How about letting the rest of us enjoy a reasonably priced beer or two as we fill out the numbers into the wee hours of the morning?

“Finally, I would like to add that the DJs always put on a good selection of music and having a live band six nights a week playing four sets of music until 3 or 4 in the morning is certainly a bonus. For me, this is the best place for people watching in Beijing. But leave your camera phones at the door or they will be confiscated!

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Temple

1974996_10152291938266318_1684220587_n“This is my favorite billabong in Beijing for sure. Special mention goes out to the sexiest bar manager in Beijing — “Pink”. Test your limits by slamming down 20 shots in less than 20 seconds against Temple’s burger chef who currently holds pole position.

Clement and the gang have also come up with some fun names for their prized shots (not that you will remember them waking up after a great night spent at this place) including the Super Mario, French Fuck and for a complete wipe-out sensation the Armageddon. Opened by four old pals who have proved themselves on the music scene, Temple is Gulou’s Holy Grail for people into live music.

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Fubar

1800345_10151882954300919_105897917_nWhen I feel like making a switch of character from Jorge Arrowsmith of the Beijing Beatles to Fat Troy Slim, one of the legends on the Beijing bar scene — cheeky little Kev, who some of you may remember from his days at Durty Nellie’s, when Sanlitun South bar street was the only place to be — is more than obliged to host one of my themed DJ nights. Fubar often put on some great happy hour deals and offer great novelty drinks, including The Buddha (pay a little extra and take this great souvenir home) and the infamous cock shots.

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Xinjiang Street Food

522265_10151102122366587_1292321188_n“There is nothing I love more than gathering on the side of the road at my local Xinjiang “chuanr” joint off Jinbao street, seated at kindergarten-style plastic tables and chairs with a bunch of mates on a warm balmy night in the middle of summer. For less than the price of two mixed cocktails anywhere else, bottle after bottle of icy cold long-neck Tsingtaos (4 rmb a bottle) are complimented by chuanr, great noodle dishes and Xinjiang-style snacks.

“Also great fun watching the local Chinese in action as they roll up their trouser cuffs and let their Beijing bellies hang loose. Sometimes all hell can break loose, too. It’s best to have your bikes handy for a quick escape when the local fun police turn up to throw everyone off the street in the early hours of the morning due to noise complaints from neighbors.”

Top five bar picks: Maggie Rauch on Wain Wain, Jin Fan, El Nido & more

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.)

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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.

Top Five Watering Holes: Amy Saltzman on Drum & Bell, The Door andmore

The Top Five Watering Holes Series is back and with someone who epitomizes the work hard, play hard ethic. Her 9 to 5 gig — actually, given the profession, I’m sure many days go long past 5 — is at a communications firm that focuses on tech and IT clients. In her spare time, she enjoys dancing, discovering good food and good drinks, and exploring new areas of Beijing. Ladies and gentlemen, the top five Beijing watering holes of Amy Saltzman

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Trust me, you don’t want to challenge her to a game of quarters

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“I would count myself as a person who is possibly more concerned with the social nature of drinking, rather than the content of the drinks themselves, so I was surprised when asked to do my own “top five” list. I’m not hip on the classy joints (although I do love me a well-made dirty martini). I’m drawn more to the atmosphere and social elements that add a fuller color and context to what I drink and where I drink it. All in all, I’d like to think this list offers a good variety, and, at the very least, it definitely contains some of my favorite places to chill with friends and/or occasionally get sauced enough to write reviews on The Beijinger. Enjoy!

1. Drum and Bell. I have spent a fair amount of time at this bar, and it’s always a pleasure. The vibe inside is cheerful and relaxed, and I especially love the raised seating area that’s set amongst pillows, where you have to take your shoes off to sit. The rooftop deck has a decent amount of space and great views as well, making it perfect for sitting and chatting with friends. Also, if you’re looking to make the most of your Sunday Funday, the 50 kuai all-you-can drink afternoon special is well worth it.

2. The Door. As I’ve warned, classy is not my adjective of choice. However, even The Door marks itself as a guilty pleasure on my list. The squashed, dark dance floor area is pretty sketchy, I won’t argue that. However, beyond it is an array of individual couches and tables, which are great when drinking with a group of friends, or when playing a game of “quarters” with 1元 coins is on the agenda for the night. Really cheap beers and mixed drinks (10 kuai to 20 kuai for most), a convenient location, and a good amount of space to have for yourself and your pals make it hard to say no to. Also, considering the amount of rogue coins I’ve lost under those couches, it is likely there’s a small treasure trove hiding under there for some lucky guy or girl to find.

3. El Nido. This would definitely be the place I would imagine overhearing, “I liked (band / artist / fashion trend) before they went mainstream.” It would also be a strong contender if the website “Stuff White People Like” did a post on Beijing. However, I am caught in the trendy cogs of this small but popular joint, and I don’t so much mind it. El Nido offers a huge variety of unique beers for surprisingly affordable prices, and I love the infused brandy and vodka offerings, if only because they smell fantastic. Plus, it’s appealing to me that I can see all the beers through the glass door fridges before selecting one (or two) for myself. The only downside is the seating, which is almost entirely outside and leaves many to question what will happen when winter rolls around (brrr).

4. Hercules. When I feel like dressing up for the night, doing the transformative glasses-to-contact lenses switch, and walking 25 percent slower to avoid tripping in my heels, Hercules is where I head for first round drinks. The layout is open and relaxed, but with an air of sleek sophistication. The drinks are a bit pricey, but very well-made (especially the dirty martinis and peach Long Island iced teas), and it still sports my favorite happy hour deals for making the most of the weekend: buy one get one free in the early evening and then again from around midnight till the wee early morning hours. I also love the variety in seating options. Couch? Bench? Bed? As you wish.

5. The Stumble Inn. I really enjoy the Stumble Inn and its classic bar vibe. There is ample space to sit inside (as I wait and secretly hope the dart board becomes available), but if my patience gives way, the deck also offers spacious seating with really nice views. There’s also the glorious double threat pairing of both a lengthy beer list and pretty tasty food. I always know I can count on getting my favorite Blue Star nice and cold here, and paired with a juicy cheeseburger it’s hard to leave unsatisfied in both alcoholic and gustatory pleasures. Happy hour deals are good as well, and mixed drinks are effective, to say the least. Very effective.

Honorable mentions:

Flamme. This place has the BEST dirty martinis and olives bigger than my eyeballs. I’m in heaven.
Migas (on a weekend day). I’m not a huge fan of the crowds this place amasses at night, but I absolutely love spending a couple hours on a sunny Saturday or Sunday afternoon, lounging on the ample couch space that opens up on Migas’ upstairs deck if you catch it at the right time. I can also attest that lesser crowds equal some of the freshest raspberry mojitos I’ve ever tasted.

Top five Beijing bars: Music operations director and cocktail enthusiast Ami Li

Woman cannot live by cocktail alone.

By day a music operations coordinator, by night and weekend a beverage fiend, few people are as keen on exploring Beijing’s scene as Ami Li. I asked her for a top five of her favorite drinking holes. Here it is. (For more top fives, see here.)

“My list is, in two words, utterly predictable. More than that, it is good insight into where “most people who live in the hutongs” drink. As you know, I’m quite… particular about my alcoholic beverages, so each one of my all-time top five in Beijing are locations that warm my heart, and make my liver weep.

In no particular order…

Amilal. The first hutong bar I was introduced to in Beijing, and still my favourite when the weather gets cold. Exquisite selection of single malt and Japanese whiskies, good beer, better music, and the best cats that will never give you the time of day. Aluss is among the friendliest and most artistically talented bar owners in the city. You’ll notice a theme with these recommendations; whether it’s because they love my personality or (more likely) the frequency of my patronage at their establishments, all my “favourites” in Beijing owe a good deal to the friendly, welcoming nature of their proprietors. Drink of choice: either an Islay single malt or Jack, ginger and bitters.

El Nido. For the first six months, whenever I walked into El Nido, Xiao Shuai would ask me, “absinthe?” One of the best hidden gems in the city, and I must say that every award they don’t win gives me hope that the motley crew of regulars there will stay my motley crew of regulars. Every time I’m there, whether it’s two in the morning or two in the afternoon, I could stay until the sun rises or sets and feel like no time has passed at all. The addition of rotating global cuisine there on the weekends is oh so welcome, because honestly, it takes one more step out of the decision-making process. And now, because I feel like giving away an actual (semi-) secret, El Nido also has the cheapest pastis in town. RMB5 has even Cafe de la Poste down the hutong beat. Drink of choice: Harbin (the classic), Erdinger Weiss (the classy), pastis (the Eurotrashy).

Mao Mao Chong. For my cocktail fix when I don’t want to venture down to Flamme (see below), it will always be Mao Mao Chong. I love the creativity and fearlessness that Stephen and Stephanie apply to their cocktails and pizzas. One of the best parts about the place is the fact that they combine all the comforts of home with all the glories of being in China. You get the familiarity of pizza with the innovation of Sichuan peppercorn-infused vodka in your Mala Mule, and it’s absolutely brilliant. Drink of choice: The Bloody Mao. Stepehn, Stephanie, it you’re reading— please please please consider opening for brunch! I know it’s somewhat impossible logistically, but just imagine! Breakfast pizzas and Bloody Mao! I cannot think of a better paradise on a late Sunday morning.

Great Leap Brewery. Beer gets somewhat of a short shrift in my regular imbibing habits, but Great Leap is fast changing those ways. Much like James Fallows, I mourn the dearth of good—nay, acceptable—beer in China. Luckily now, I have El Nido to satisfy my obscure Czech beer cravings and Great Leap to turn to when I want an IPA to grow some hair on my chest. Located deep within the recesses of the hutongs off Di’anmenwai, Great Leap’s a place that somehow epitomizes “destination drinking”. You have to really concentrate to find the place, and I freely admit that I still get lost on the way over every so often. But once you’ve arrived, and open that big metal gate, it’s like you’ve stepped into an industrial Narnia, where empty kegs serve as seating and enormous bags of malt line the walls. Drink of choice: IPA, honey ma blond.

Flamme. Outside of wine spritzers and Cosmopolitans, I will try practically any alcoholic beverage at least once. But cocktails are my first love. And no one knows more or is friendlier than Paul Mathew and the crew he trained over at Flamme. After hearing about the place for a few months after it opened, I finally ventured over there with the promise of Morning Glory Fizzes, an esoteric gin-based restorative Paul had, of all things, tweeted about one afternoon. I’ve not been there recently as much as I’d have liked to, but I know that every time I go, I’ll be able to geek about the latest release of bitters or which vermouth is finally entering the China market, all while sipping a perfectly balanced and absurdly delicious cocktail. Drink of choice: anything brown, bitter, and stirred; a classic Negroni (Gordon’s gin, rocks, orange wedge).

Honorable mentions: George’s, Apothecary, Alba

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You can follow Ami Li on Twitter here.