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
(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
(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)
(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: 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
(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
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
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)
(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?