Thursday, April 26, 2007

Centro - the worst bar in Beijing?

It seems to be a necessary counterbalance to my enthusiasm for my favourite bars - a question of yin and yang, perhaps - that there are also certain bars that get right up my nose, that inspire a loathing even more intense and passionate than the affection I feel for the Haiku Bar or the Yacht Club.

There is one unchallengeable candidate for the doubtful honour of kicking off this new strand of 'most hated bars'. Centro, the bar in the Kerry Centre Hotel. I detest everything about this place.

No, no, that's not quite true. In the interests of balance, let me acknowledge this much: they have had a number of fine American jazz musicians playing residencies there; some of the chairs are very comfy; some of the waitresses are very pretty (and there was one I really used to have a bit of crush on). That's it. Now let's get on with the tirade of invective.

Bad design really gets my goat. And this place is really badly designed. For such an expensively fitted-out place, the decor is instantly forgettable. And the layout is appalling: the bar is where the stage should be, at the very end of the room; the stage is where the bar should be, in the middle of the room, at the side (with the result that it is not the focus of attention, and is indeed not even visible from many parts of the room). The bar itself is a large U-shape, that - amazingly - offers almost no usable bar space! The areas at the sides are so narrow that access is not easy, and the counters there are entirely taken up by bar stools that are usually occupied by visiting businessmen waiting to be propositioned by expensive hookers (naturally enough - it's a hotel bar). The counter at the front is dominated by a huge, ugly, pointless display of wine bottles, leaving only a very narrow zone for the wait staff to collect orders - and no room at all for ordinary punters who may wish to order a drink at the bar (rather than wait for hours, ignored, at one of the tables).

The service is just abysmal. Service tends to be a problem everywhere in China, but you'd think a place as plush and upscale as this would be able to pay a little better than the average dive, and might even, you know, be prepared to invest a little in training. No evidence of it. Few of the staff speak anything more than the most rudimentary English, and it appears that none of them can be trusted not to bring you somebody else's order. Eventually. After half an hour or so. Getting your change back can take even longer. They're so consistently bad on that, you almost wonder if it's a calculated scam. I admit I haven't been inside the place to reconfirm my prejudices in quite some time, so it may have sorted its act out a little - though friends of mine who still frequent it all swap stories about the latest 'long wait for change' record. I think my personal worst is only about 40 minutes (but I only got the change at all because I got pretty pro-active about it). Reports of having to wait upwards of an hour are not uncommon.

The cocktails are decidedly so-so. Some nice mixes, but they're bloody expensive, and suspiciously low on alcohol. In fact, I think they have developed a Bond-villain type machine to extract the alcohol from all their drinks. I have usually only been there for networking parties where the booze was heavily subsidised (effectively free, or at least very cheap) and yet I have almost always walked away stone cold sober (one of those, organised by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, occasionally one of my employers, had offered a free flow of wine and beer for 3 or 4 hours - and no-one got high: something rotten in the state of Denmark...).

Even the music annoys me. People don't go there for the music, so almost nobody really listens. And the acoustics aren't good - so the level of background chatter gets quite booming even when there aren't that many people in. Thus, the music is just an indistinct thump in the background, loud enough to distract you from your conversation but not loud enough to be clearly audible, not loud enough to be listened to and enjoyed (not unless you sit right next to the stage, anyway). And it's mostly pretty anodyne stuff anyway - 'elevator music'.

But I suppose the thing I hate about it most is that it reeks of money. Money, and questionable taste. I never feel particularly comfortable around people with oodles more money than me. I don't like to find myself spending more than I can really afford in a bar. But I am not completely intolerant of high-end bars and high-end clientele. Red Moon and Q are just fine. There is, I feel, something particularly odious about Centro and the type of people who hang out there a lot. It is this, I think. Apart from the semi-incompetent staff, there is nothing 'Chinese' about the place at all: it could be a plushly anonymous hotel bar in any city in the world. And so it has become a favoured hangout for foreigners here who have 'proper jobs' (salaries quoted in Euros or US dollars!) - and, perhaps, a limited enthusiasm for China. Here they can rapidly burn off some of their embarrassing cash surplus and forget where they are for a while.

I can't imagine any other reason why people would go there. I mean, you really wouldn't go there purely for the service or the drinks or the ambience or the music or the company or....

Undeserved reputations really rankle with me. And this place has somehow won itself the reputation of being one of the best bars in Beijing. Best?? It's not even good. It's not even approaching adequate. It's bad, bad, bad, terrible, execrable.

How has it achieved this remarkable deception? Well, apart from having a large ready-made constituency of gullible punters who are willing to drop large sums of money in a place that doesn't remind them they are in China..... it's probably down to location, location, location: it is the only bar of its kind in the heart of the Central Business District; in fact, it is just about the only bar of any description in that area. That, and a huge advertising spend (a few years ago they actually managed to 'buy' the 'Barman of the Year' Award from one of our leading listings magazines: a rather conspicuous piece of vote-rigging, since their head barman is - in my opinion - fairly clearly doing a lousy job; and since absolutely nobody - well, no-one that I know, and I know a lot of people - has ever actually met the guy).

The camel-back-breaking straw;-
The last time I was in Centro, I was having no joy at all in flagging down a waiter, so fought my way to the bar to order a drink directly. It took them about 10 minutes to bring me a beer. They were charging me something like 30 or 35 kuai ($4 or so) for it; that's nearly twice the going rate for a pint of local draft anywhere else. I didn't get a pint: I got a squitty little schooner, containing, I would guess, considerably less than half a pint. Well, at least it was 'happy hour': I should be able to get 2 drinks for the price of 1. The barman was unfamiliar with this concept. He spent a long time trying to persuade me that I actually had to pay twice as much for one drink. When I had finally managed to get him to shut up and go away, I took a sip of my beer. It was lukewarm and tasted like shit. I demanded - and got - my money back; but it took about 10 or 15 minutes of wrangling. I vowed never to go in there again. I don't think I have. That must be two years or so ago.

Anyone have any other bad Centro experiences to share? Anyone able to top that one?


Tulsa said...

No, nothing to top that. You've summed it up well. Really, the only reason people go to Centro is to Network. And I think the category under which it received "Best Bar in Beijing" was the "networking" category.

I've agreed to a social outing to Centro tonight - it'll be my first time going there without work on the mind. But I doubt it will be any better an experience as a social venue then it is as a networking venue. I'm hoping the company will be interesting enough to make up for the venue.

ah, well... if we are both wrong, I shall surely report back...

The Princess said...

The bar was clear and I immediately got my soda shui with lemon with a smile from the barman who told me it was happy hour and drinks were two for one. I mostly lounged in the yurtz-room in the back, so I couldn't even tell I was in Centro (as in, I couldn't see all the Willy Loman-types lounging in the main room with less than pure intentions).

I forgot to wait for my change and a waiter hunted me down and gave it to me - while I had stepped outside to answer a phone call! (that means he tracked me from the bar to the table where I met some friends - the Brit table - to the Yurtz - then, outside, then back to the Yurtz... someone was determined to return my change to me!) The company was pleasing to the eye and mind.

Overall, not much room to complain. But I think it was just me, since I did notice several people having a hard time getting their drinks or change. And the waitresses on the floor had very limited English compared to the barmen behind the counter. And, as already mentioned, the main room was teeming with Willy Lomans - a group which could be fun to chat up for sociological study, but sometimes I need a break from that, too.

Froog said...

They probably 'bought' that award too. 'Best Networking' - on a casual basis rather than organised events - has to be The Bookworm.... or maybe The Goose & Duck. People speak well of The Tree on this front too, but it's too claustrophobic, I think, to admit of mingling. (And The Tree is probably going to be next on my 'hate list'!)

It is astounding that Centro does seem to have quite a large and loyal following. I can only assume that these are people who have no frame of reference, who never GO ANYWHERE ELSE.

Froog said...

Always nice to hear of an untypical 'good' experience.

Of course, you have an advantage being a teetotaller. Boozehounds like me are in constant rage of frustration in a place like that because the combination of bad service, sky-high prices, and absence of any discernible alcohol in the drinks means that we are wallowing in a night-long purgatory of sobriety.

Anonymous said...

It's a little better during mid-week if you're actually staying in the hotel, as you can just sign for your drinks immediately. I only ever ordered Tsingtao though, so can't comment on cocktails. Scotch was way overpriced, I do remember.

When I was there for 8 days, they had a fantastic electro-pop band from Paris whose lead singer was drop-dead gorgeous in that French don't-give-a-damn way and she'd sing sultry songs in French while smoking on-stage. She had everyone's attention!

By Friday though, the place was jammed with people trying to look rich and hookers laughing too loud while their businessmen johns poured another Macallan and coke. Chatted with one dude who was so proud he'd been to 30 countries, then got snooty when I said I'd backpacked through 25 in half-as-many years.

It's worth seeing just to tell the tale but doubt I'd go there if I actually lived in Beijing.

Froog said...

Thanks you for your observations, Anonymous.

How ever did you find us?

I'm sorry I missed that French band. I have a great weakness for sexy chanteuses.