Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Froog Bar Awards - 2008

Time again for my year-end roundup of the best and worst that Beijing has to offer in the bar & music scene.

I find, in fact, that in many categories my thoughts are quite unchanged from last year. There have been scores of new bars opening in Beijing this year, but I haven't tried most of them, and am unlikely to do so. Most of those that I have tried suck most mightily. Perhaps I am a person of rather fixed habits (although I'd prefer to think of it as a case of my being a person of clear judgment and robust loyalty: once I've found a place I like, I stick to it.)

Anyway, to mix things up a bit this year, I've added some new or modified categories - highlighted in red.

Best Live Music Venue

Winner: 2 Kolegas

Runners-up: MAO Live House and Jiangjinjiu

(Last year I had a separate category for the smaller music bars, but that seemed a bit of an extravagant and superfluous distinction, so I've dropped it this year. Amongst the other contenders, Room 101, alas, did not survive the year, Salud and the Stone Boat were banned from having music for a number of months [bloody Olympics!], and - while I'm delighted to learn that it's still soldiering on - I haven't actually been to the tiny and obscure What Bar in 2 or 3 years. Jianghu, alas, is not what it once was. And Yugong Yishan, as I have bewailed often, is just shite. Club 13 is too far away to be on my radar very often. MAO is still far-and-away the best venue for rock'n'roll - great ambience, great sound system - but gets dropped from the top spot this year because of its overpriced beer and its infuriatingly haphazard scheduling.)

Worst Music Bar

Winner: New Get Lucky

Runners-up: D-22, Guitar Bar

(No changes here!!)

Best Gig Of The Year

Winner: Blues harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite and the Alex Wilson Band at Cheers in January.

(His Sunday afternoon spot at Jianghu was quite magical, but really more of an intimate fireside chat than a show. Cheers is an ideal space for the blues - small, dark, smoky - and the performance that night just rocked. I saw all their performances here in Beijing, and that was way the best.)

(Very close) Runner-up: The stonking 2 Kolegas 3rd Anniversary Show at the beginning of June (after which I lost the hearing in my right ear for a couple of days!).

Worst Gig Of The Year

Winner: A toss-up between the dire White show at D-22 at the start of this month and the Elevator Music Hell that was last week's Ruins/Zhou Yunshan gig at Yugong Yishan.

Best Bar Food

Winner: Luga's

(Last year's winner Saddle now re-branded, but almost identical; in fact, improved in many ways - the burritos are fantastic value and the burger is one of the best in town).

Runner-up: Luga's Villa

(I've found the food a bit spotty in Luga's new - much grander - place around the corner, and the 'authentic Mexican' dishes are mostly rather a disappointment. The portions, however, are HUGE: the burger and the fajitas are popular choices. I was reluctantly prepared to include The Den as a runner-up last year, but the place is in a nosedive, in my opinion: I never liked it much, but the booze, the food, the service, and the decor have all taken a turn for the worse this year.)

Most Overrated Bar Food

Winner: The Tree

Runner-up: There are no runners-up in this category. The Tree is the only place I can think of that has built up such a ridiculously overblown, undeserved reputation for its food. (Once again, no change this year.)

Best Place To Drink While Eating

Winner: White Nights

(Best of the cheap Russian joints these days, I think [though how I miss the old Traktirr!]: the food is hearty; they have an accepting attitude towards people who want to drink more than eat; the draft beer is usually pretty good and not too expensive; the bottled Baltika beer is exellent; and then there's the vodka....)

(Very close) Runner-up: BiteAPitta

(No changes from last year here. Kro's Nest makes the best pizzas in town, but the place lacks charm as a bar. The service is all over the place at the best of times, and on their "cheap beer Tuesdays" they get completely overwhelmed: you can wait an hour to get your food or a drink. I hear very good things about Pyro Pizza - but it's way out in Haidian, so I'm afraid it's highly unlikely that I'll ever go there.)

Best Place To Go For A Cocktail

Winner: Reef

(Especially if one of my friends has been allowed behind the bar to mix the drinks.)

Runner-up: 12 Square Metres

(I'm not really that much of a 'cocktail person'. Most of the places in this town that fancy themselves as 'cocktail bars' are outrageously overpriced, and don't in fact make very good cocktails. Q is the one honourable exception [on the latter point, at least], but it's still ridiculously f***ing expensive, and I don't like the clientele. If you want a decent cocktail that won't cost you an arm and a leg, you should stick to one of these cosy neighbourhood bars on Nanluoguxiang, I say.)

Best Place For Sitting Outside
(Category suspended - because of the bloody Olympics. Sitting outside on the street was banned almost everywhere in Beijing during the summer months, and that ban seems to have become permanent on Nanluoguxiang [probably a good and necessary thing, since the street is so busy these days]; Chen at Reef has got rid of his outdoor furniture, alas. Roof terraces were also supposed to have been banned, but that wasn't actually put into effect - or, if it was, it wasn't enforced. However, thanks to the over-zealous weather management by the authorities here, we had an absolutely dreadful summer in the lead-up to the Olympics anyway: there was not much sitting outside to be done this year.)

Most Pointless New Bar
(rather than Worst New Bar or Most Disappointing New Bar, as we had last year; so many of these new places are somewhere beyond merely bad, and have never raised any hopes to disappoint)

Winner: Lugar's

(A would-be 'upmarket', very expensive Taiwanese whisky/cocktail/wine bar - hidden away in an oscure, unfashionable hutong. There's dumb, there's unfathomably dumb, and then there's this. [Not to be confused with Luga's, of course!])

Runners-up: Nearby The Tree and Drei Kronen and Tsingtao Beer Palace

(Nearby The Tree tries to trade on the popularity of its parent bar The Tree, but is completely dissimilar - and conspicuously fails to draw any customers at all. Drei Kronen is a cavernous and charmless German brewhouse which conspicuously fails to draw any customers. And a Tsingtao theme bar?? What kind of monstrous, idiotic hubris is that??)

'Sign of Desperation' Of The Year

Winner: Nearby The Tree giving away FREE BEER for a month, and still not attracting very many customers.

Runner-up: Drei Kronen giving away scads of free beer vouchers, and still not attracting very many customers.

Foot-Shooting Of The Year

Winner: The steadily degenerating Rickshaw's batty decision to impose a (secret) 15% surcharge on everything during the Olympic month of August - a policy which resulted in it being almost entirely deserted that month.

Runner-Up: Any one of a number of daft and custom-harming ideas that contributed to Room 101's demise, though the leading contender would surely have to be the decision to scrap the enormously popular midnight-1am 'happy hour'.

Redemption Of The Year

Winner: Room 101, which made a pretty dismal start 15 months ago, but was a really great little bar for the first half of this year.

Runner-up: D-22 - which, despite still sucking rather as a music venue, has managed to transform itself into a pretty darned good bar (it's the staff that make all the difference).

Bar Which Has Deteriorated Most This Year

Winner: The Den

Runner-Up: Rickshaw

Worst Bar

Winner: Centro

Runner-up: Paddy O'Shea's

(D-22 and The Tree are so much improved this year that they drop out of contention in this category, allowing the foul Centro to reclaim its rightful - almost unchallengeable - place at the top. Paddy's is also somewhat improved, I found on a recent visit; but it's still appalling.)

Most Overrated Bar

Winner: Ichikura

(Yes, they have a very nice selection of whiskies. Yes, the head barman is very knowledgeable and helpful. But it's way too expensive. They serve the whisky in sherry schooners - what the fuck? And that business with sculpting your ice into a golf ball is just tedious. I've had at least half a dozen people recommend this place to me this year - but I just do not get the point.)

Runners-up: Centro, Q

(As ever....)

Most Sadly Missed Departures

Winner: Room 101

(My most regular - at times, almost daily - haunt for the first 9 months of this year.)

Runner-up: The Sunset Grill - better known as Sammy's, a true dive bar!

Party Of The Year

Winner: The Jack Daniel's Night at Room 101 in April

Runner-Up: My birthday party at Salud in October (only modesty prevents me from putting this first; we certainly had better music at this one!); also, the Olympic Opening Ceremony in Room 101

Best Barperson/Bar Owner

Winner: Li Mei, of 12 Square Metres

(A charming lady, who works with remarkable thoroughness and efficiency behind that cramped bar - and she mixes some pretty nice drinks too.)

Runner-up: That new guy at Salud

(I never get around to asking his name, but he's friendly and fast - and he always gives me the most ridiculously generous free pours of whisky. [Later, much later, I gathered that his name was Bo Wen - or "Bowen"?? - but, sadly, he quit the place half-way through 2009.)

Most Promising New Bar
(rather than Best New Bar, as we had last year; the jury is still out on these places...)

Winner: Luga's Villa

Runner-up: Ned's

Bar of the Year
(rather than Best Bar, as we had last year: my personal favourites are unlikely to change much year by year, so I wanted a category title that was a little more in touch with the shifting zeitgeist)

Winner: Salud

(I fear it is now in danger of becoming rather a victim of its own success: it seems to be becoming impossible to have a party anywhere else. And in this year of so many departures, it seems as though scarcely a week, scarcely a day goes by without a leaving party of some sort there.)

Runner-up: Room 101

(It would have claimed the top spot if it had survived: it was a central part of my life for 8 or 9 months.)

So, here we are once again: my picks of the year. Any comments, complaints, additions, suggestions?


Anonymous said...

I had a rather more favorable impression of Ichikura, but that might just have been because I went expecting to have it cost me an arm and a leg, and in the end it only cost me an arm and a couple of toes. I didn't get to see the ice-ball trick -- ice in whisky? -- but any place that stocks Glen Grant is OK with me, and I quite liked the Suntory Old too.

Will have to defer to you on Live Music Venue: I haven't been to 2 Kolegas much, as it's too damned far from everything I like or care about. I suppose the new subway line makes it a bit more accessible, but the memories of the last gig I saw there make it a non-starter in my book. I suppose I should give it another shot, though, since they do seem to be getting some great bands there.
Incidentally, what is up with that? Is Mao losing its grip on the talent, or am I just imagining things? They seem to have been booking almost exclusively shitty little nobody bands, with once-a-month exceptions for acts that people might actually want to see.
I would actually put 'Star Live' in this category too (or rather, into an alternative 'Best Venue' category): it's almost completely charmless, has overpriced and crappy booze (mmm, Bud Ice!), and requires you to walk past a disco and a KTV joint -- but it is possible to have a truly excellent show there, given the right lineup.

I would've awarded "Worst Music Bar" to Guitar Bar, as (a) the New Get Lucky is now all but irrelevant to the music scene, and (b) Guitar Bar fucking sucks. And they have speakers outside, and it messes with me when I'm trying to get work done across the street.

'Pointless New Bar' could describe most of the new places along Nan Luogu Xiang, I think -- I wonder how much money all of those guys lost on their Olympic gamble. The scuttlebutt had been that the 'Zai Xiang' people were paying about RMB 4000 per day for the new place with the deck they rented in anticipation of Olympic riches. Serious butt-hurt. A lot of other people must have lost some serious cash on their new places: some seem to reliably get a few customers a night (like the bizarrely named 16mm Bar on Qian Yuan'en Si Hutong, which is not 16mm2 in area and has no discernible film theme); others are perpetually empty ('Bad Company,' pretty much any place down around the south end of the street). I'd like to think that the impending failure and closure of all of these places would put the cancer that has been killing Nan Luogu Xiang into remission, but realistically the metastasis of Houhai to surrounding areas will probably continue.

Best New Bar: My vote goes for 12m2, though I guess it's probably only new to me. Alc's new place on Gulou Dong Dajie looks promising, but won't really open until next year.

And happy new year! Good fucking riddance to 2008 as far as I'm concerned. What an utterly shite year.

Anonymous said...

I agree with almost all of your choices...I totally agree about both the Den and the Rickshaw despite my generous donations to both establishments over the years, I think they get away with a lot due to the whole after-hours thing.

Great stuff.

Froog said...

I don't dislike Ichikura, as such (although I could get to, if I thought about it much more) - but any place that's got more staff than customers most of the time is going to bring on major wallet-haemorrhage. And I get a bit annoyed by the ponceyness of it all - the six-page drinks list, the underlit bar, the carved ice cubes, the silly fucking glasses. And I get really, really annoyed by all these people who rave about it and tell you you've really got to try it and claim it's their favourite bar. How is that place anyone's favourite bar?? It's got about as much atmosphere as a funeral parlour.

I agree that the plague of "bars" (formula: take a coffee shop, add an obscure and pointless 'theme' and a heap of random junk, play shitty music too loud, do nothing to advertise, and alienate any customers who should happen to wander in with either over-earnest or non-existent service) around in our 'hood is unlovely, Brendan, but I think some of these grander venues achieve a whole other level of pointlessness. Tsingtao Beer Palace, for fuck's sake???

I really wanted to like Guitar Bar at first. I thought it was a cute concept. I thought they might have rotating guest performers and jam sessions. I thought we might get a range of styles: jazz, blues, flamenco, even classical. I didn't realise we were going to get the SAME limited repertoire of plodding cover versions blaring out into the street at eardrum-lacerating volume every single bleeding night. If I hear El Condor fucking Pasa one more time, I'm going postal on them.

As long as New Get Lucky exists, it will continue to win this accolade. Those fuckers stole my phone, and I am a dogged bearer of grudges. And the last time I went there, they tried to charge me 80 fucking kuai for a beer!

2 Kolegas is a really cool little bar, and well worth another look. I'd go there just to hang out and drink - if it weren't so far away. But actually, it's not all that far: only a 20-minute cab ride home. And I sometimes walk out there from Dongzhimen - only takes about 40 minutes.

Star Live is a special event venue only, so doesn't really merit consideration. (And, as you say, it SUCKS as a bar.) I agree they can put on a good show sometimes, but I can't remember the last time I went there - maybe not this year.

Good point about MAO. It seems as though Yugong may be kicking their arse when it comes to booking the bigger names. Although they had Brain Failure last night; and Perdel a little while ago (who suddenly seem to have become 'big' - have they had a hit??). Maybe they're just trying to carve their own little niche: they seem to have a lot of punk and metal - like a slightly upmarket Club 13.

I hope you had a good New Year's Eve. See you back here soon.

Ditto to you, MIB. Thanks for stopping by.

Froog said...

12 Square Metres is in an awkward temporal zone. Since it's been open well over a year, I don't think it's quite eligible in the 'New Bar' category - even though it's only become a regular hangout of ours over the past 3 or 4 months.

This year, I was gripped by the (probably quite unfounded) fear that strangers might start reading this blog and going to the bars I write about.... so I am being much more reticent about my real favourites.

The Pool Bar - though many of the regular players I used to hang with have left, and Luke himself has taken another job and now only makes an occasional appearance behind the bar at weekends - is still the cosiest little drinking den in the city, and a comforting "second home" to me.

12 Square Metres is now established as the No 1 alternative - preferred if I'm in the mood for a good whisky, or if I just want to drink rather than shoot pool.

I still like Reef, but it's become too damn popular for its own good (or rather, for mine): on weekend nights, it's now always rammed out with chain-smoking, dice-rattling Chinese. Still a good spot for a quiet (and cheap!) drink, if you can catch it on a slow midweek night or an afternoon.

Salud I mostly just go to for the music on Wednesdays - although the exceptionally generous measures of whisky make it an economical spot for getting juiced up at the start of the evening; and, in winter, those flavoured house rums are highly medicinal for the throat. Jiangjinjiu and Jianghu I also only really go to for the music, and rather more infrequently.

Luga's Villa is looking as though it might fill the niche for a sports bar created by the escalating awfulness of The Rickshaw and The Den, although I prefer the food at his other joint, Luga's. Both places, alas, are rather too brightly lit to encourage an extended drinking session. In Sanlitun, the only other bar I have any time for these days is Smuggler's.

Froog said...

And I just had to migrate all the comments to a re-done post (and delete the original version), because the bloody Blogger compose page is SO F***ING GLITCHY.

I made the mistake of cutting and pasting last year's post to use as a template, but..... well, the HTML got scrambled somehow, and every time - every f***ing time - I tried to edit out a typo or add a hotlink, something somewhere else (usually some formatting) went haywire. The original post took me about 5 hours to write - at least 4 hours of which was wading around in the HTML trying to find and fix the bugs. And then another hour this morning.

Then, I just gave up and did the whole thing again from scratch (well, I did manage to copy over most of the text, but all of the formatting and highlighting had to be re-done): only took about 40 minutes this time. Phew!!

Bloody, bloody, bloody Blogger!!!

Froog said...

The biggest change from last year, I suppose, is the complete omission of Huxley's.

(Well, the complete omission of the Pool Bar was even more striking; but that was deliberate concealment!)

Last year, I was still prepared to give Huxley's a nod, for old times' sake (I think, in fact, it was still my 'runner-up' as Best Bar), even though I'd been a very infrequent visitor since Xiao Bai - The Barman - left there. It was nice to have a down-and-dirty, barebones drinking joint so close to where I live, but..... well, it seems to have got very raucous and noisy these days; the music mostly sucks (and they don't seem to let you make requests or hook up your own music, as they used to); the new guys behind the bar just don't seem very friendly; and the place is positively overrun with dice-rolling Chinese and underage Americans. Not fun.

How are the mighty fallen!