Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Froog Bar Awards - 2009

The end of the year rolls around, and so it is time for my third annual review of the best and worst of Beijing's bar scene.

There might be a few new categories here and there this year. Then again, much of it will be just the same as in previous years - because I like my comfortable ruts, you know.

I aim to provoke (and sometimes, godammit, yes, to offend) as well as to enlighten, so please feel free to pitch in in the comments if you disagree with any of these opinions.

Best Live Music Venue

Winner: 2 Kolegas

Runner-up: Jianghu

There's really not a lot of competition in this category. Just about all of the best gigs I've seen this year have been at Kolegas. It's nice to see Jianghu bouncing back to winning ways, after a spell in the doldrums last year. There's been a packed and varied programme of live music there this year, and the Tuesday night jazz jams are usually great fun. MAO Live House drops out of favour this year because, although it is still the best (only) mid-sized venue for rock music, it is let down by its tendency to get uncomfortably overcrowded, and by its erratic programming and poor advertising (and they haven't had a really worthwhile gig there in about 6 months; they're just not booking the big names very often, or attracting foreign bands). I probably ought to give an 'honourable mention' to Club 13 as well - a fine venue, but it's way out in the wilds of Wudaokou, and doesn't seem to have anything much but heavy metal these days.

Worst Live Music Venue

Winner: Yugong Yishan

Runner-up: D-22

No doubt it will be taken as a sign of my perversity that I nominate the two most laowai-friendly - and successful - music bars in the city as its two worst. I regard it as evidence of the perversity of everybody else. It's quite simple, people: for a music venue, it's all about the space and the acoustics - the sound is SHIT at these two places. (I really only used to have this category so that I could diss New Get Lucky every year - but the place got chai'd with the reconstruction of Nurenjie this summer. Its loss is utterly unlamented.)

Best Gig of the Year

Winner: Well, I'm sure it might well have been Tommy Emmanuel's appearance at the Peking University Concert Hall in October - but since I didn't get to see that, I can't very well give it the award.

Amongst the shows I saw, I think the top accolade would have to go to eclectic Danish funk-rockers Ibrahim Electric, who played an awesome show at Kolegas at the start of October.

Runner-up: The Dirty Deeds reunion gig in September (at Yugong Yishan!)

Lots of other strong contenders here: the Kolegas 4th Anniversary Show was as rockin' as its three predecessors, although this year its Halloween Party may perhaps have been even better (Dizzy and the Hellcats on particularly barnstorming form that night; and the surprise bonus of a snowball fight!). I also really enjoyed visiting Brit band Long Knives at MAO, and a great new Chinese band called Erguang who played a couple of fantastic gigs at Jiangjinjiu early in the year (but seem to have disappeared again since?!). And there were many great Thursday night gigs from Panjir at Jiangjinjiu this year, the pick of which was probably that at the very end of June, shortly before I flew off for my summer break.

Worst Gig of the Year

Well, I didn't really see anything that sucked arse this year (largely because I didn't go to many gigs at Yugong Yishan), but bland French North African folkster Fethi Tabet was pretty severely disappointing in April (at Yugong Yishan!); a fairly horrific experience, in fact, since lax ticketing had led to an unpleasantly packed crowd.

Best Bar Food

Winner: Luga's

Runner-up: The Den

It's hard to argue with the filling, tasty, and reasonably priced burritos and quesadillas at Luga's (and they do a pretty decent burger too). Alas, the little man's larger establishment around the corner seems to have taken a bit of a dive in its food this year; I always did prefer the fare at the smaller, original outlet, but these days there's no comparison. The Den has, I think, improved its act in some ways this year; and its range of hearty and quite reasonably priced food is really the only proper bar menu in the city: it's not all wonderful, but some things - like the bangers & mash - pretty consistently hit the spot. (I continue to be resolutely unimpressed by The Tree's pizzas!!)

Best Place To Drink While Eating

Oh, anywhere Russian!

My former favourites are both lost to me - Kebab Republic (the old sit-down place on Sanlitun) and BiteAPitta (chai'd in the summer, but said to be about to be reborn somewhere around Nali). But any of the Russian places are good. Of those within walking distance of me, I've been veering towards Traktirr Pushkin of late (I had some bad experiences there in its early days, with crappy buffets at big corporate parties, and being terrorised by their Ukrainian mariachis downstairs - but it seems to have got a lot better: excellent plate of pickles, and very keen deals on vodka by the bottle!), while White Nights has been losing brownie points with its surly service and absurdly niggardly servings of mashed potato. New Mexican place Amigo doesn't quite cut it, I'm afraid, because although it is a pretty good place to drink (especially on its all-night 'happy hour' - now shifted from Friday to Saturday), the food - apart from the nachos and the jalapeno poppers - is mostly shite.

Best Place To Go For A Cocktail

Now, here is a category that suddenly got interesting, competitive even. New openings Fubar and Apothecary are both staking strong claims to establishing themselves as proper cocktail bars (as opposed to pretentious and overpriced Japanese 'whisky bars', naff hotel lounge bars, or Q.... which is more of a nightclub these days), but it's still a little early to make the call as to which, if either, of them might deserve this accolade. (I do not like 2nd Floor.)

And, in general, I still hold to my view that you'll get a better - or at least more keenly priced - drink and perhaps a more fun experience at a quiet little neighbourhood bar, like Reef or 12 Square Metres (where they'll often let you mix your own drink how you like it.... and sometimes even let you behind the bar!).

Best Place For Sitting Outside

No award this year.

It continues to be difficult for your favourite hole-in-the-wall restaurant to put tables and chairs out on the sidewalk, even a year and more on from the dratted Olympics - so a key element of the Beijing open-air experience is denied us. Fish Nation used to be my favourite rooftop spot on Nanluoguxiang, but the service and the food have been so consistently abysmal there that I've finally decided to boycott it in perpetuity. The Stone Boat is always a strong contender, of course, but.... well, I didn't experience much of the Beijing summer this year, taking a long break in England and the States instead; hence, I'm not well-placed to assess the city's bar terraces.

Worst New Bar

Winner: Danger Doyle's

Runner-up: No, I think Doyle's is way out there on its own....

Most Pointless New Bar

Winner: Lucky Man

Again, no runners-up in this one. You see, you haven't even heard of this place, have you? I've mentioned it once or twice on here as The Secret Bar, and I was mildly well-disposed to it initially because I first discovered it when out with my Crush of the Year, The Bombshell. It's a Japanese whisky bar type of place. Except that it's Taiwanese. Nice bar snacks, but the booze is stupidly expensive (and there's no list, so you have to ask about every bottle individually), and it has absolutely zero atmosphere (it's almost invariably deserted, because it does nothing to advertise). It's a quaint oddity to have in the neighbourhood, but has nothing about it to entice you there more than once-in-a-blue-moon. And I can't see it surviving for very long.

Most Surprising Survival

Winner: Drei Kronen

Runner-up: Log-In Pub

DK makes it into its second customerless year - the owners must have money to burn. Mind you, Log-In (semi-renamed Jiggly Wiggly's!!) has now been the least populous bar on Nanluoguxiang for three (or is it four?) straight years. How do these places manage to keep going? And WHY do they bother?

Bar Which Has Deteriorated Most This Year

Winner: Tun

If I were going to have a runner-up, I'd probably say Rickshaw - except that a) I don't think I've been in all year, and b) it had deteriorated so much last year that it probably had nowhere to go but back up a little. Tun doesn't really have any competition here. For a while at the end of last year and early this, under Chad Lager's stewardship, the place had become one of the hottest party spots in town. I imagine it still does pretty well on Fridays and Saturdays, but you go there any other day of the week and you just hear tumbleweed blowing through.

Worst Bar

Winner: Paddy O'Shea's

Runners-up: All-Star, Flames

O'Shea's continues to be quite indescribably awful in every way imaginable, and seems to appeal only to IELTS examiners who are too lazy to walk any farther from the British Council offices. All-Star isn't really a bar at all, but a diner (apparently a pretty good one; but too expensive for the likes of me) - and an annexe of ludicrously up-its-arse nightclub Bling (which seems to appeal only to visiting NBA stars eager to hook up with Chinese girls, and Chinese girls eager to hook up with visiting NBA stars). I wouldn't have thought it possible, but Flames - the bar in the new Wangfujing Hilton - is possibly even worse than Centro; indeed, it may just be the worst hotel bar in the world. However, it doesn't merit the vilification that I regularly heap upon Centro, because no-one goes there.

Award in Perpetuity for Consistent Vileness


Just to open up the Worst Bar category for other contenders! I find Centro's inadequacies, year after year, across the board, in every aspect of its operation (bad layout, bad decor, bad acoustics, bad service, weak drinks, exorbitant prices) to be just flabbergasting. I don't understand how a place can be so bad for so long - and still have any customers. I assume it only attracts businessmen staying at the Kerry Hotel of which it is part, newbies who don't know any better, and well-to-do idiots who are so wedded to familiar home comforts that they want to spend all their time in a Western hotel bar even though it's a very poor Western hotel bar.

Most Overrated Bar

Winner: Saddle Cantina

Runner-up: Mesh

I don't get the deal with the Cantina at all. I find it overpriced, hellishly noisy, and utterly charmless - but it packs the young people in. I don't get the deal with Mesh at all. Apparently, lots of folks - Chinese yuppies especially - adore it for an after-work drink. I gave up on it because it was impossible to read the menu.

Biggest Disappointment of the Year

Winner: Luga's Villa

It's doing alright for itself, but it still seems to be suffering a crisis of identity: it dabbles at being a restaurant-bar, a sports bar, a live music venue and a party venue, without making any clear commitment to any of these initiatives. I'd had great hopes that it might become the one decent bar - maybe not the one decent sports bar, but at least a decent bar - in Sanlitun, but it hasn't quite made it.... and I don't think it's now going to.

If there were going to be a runner-up in this category, I'd probably say Ginkgo - but, frankly, I never really had any expectations of that place to be disappointed.

Most Sadly Missed Departure of the Year

Winner: Bo Wen, the ultra-cool barman from Salud (I never quite got to the bottom of whether he'd chosen the unusual English name 'Bowen', or whether that was his unusual Chinese name). The absurdly generous pours of whisky he used to give me were doing great things for my wallet (sometimes he didn't even charge me for them!) but terrible things to my liver.

Runner-up: The 'Pie of 5 Yuan' stall at the top of Nanluoguxiang - it was around for less than 6 months, but it had rapidly become a central feature of my life. 5 kuai is actually pretty steep, at least twice as much as any other street snack, but these babies were worth it. A plump baozi-shaped meat pie with a generous, spicy filling. Rather as with Weetabix, one was surprisingly filling, two was virtually a meal, and three.... well, you would have had to have been some kind of superman to eat three of them.

Party of the Year

Winner: The Choirboy's birthday bash, in his very cosy little courtyard pad just south of Chang'an (it was supposed to be just a few drinks late afternoon on a Sunday, but it rolled on until well after midnight, as we slowly, lovingly polished off a litre of Johnnie Walker Green).

Runner-up: The 'Late Australia Day' bash at 12 Square Metres
JK the boss had been away in Oz on the day itself, so we celebrated a month later, at the end of February. Got to love that half-price Cooper's Sparkling Ale! I don't remember too much else about it, but I do remember loving the Cooper's.

Self-Destructive Binge Challenge Of The Year

Winner: The Great Nanluoguxiang Bar Crawl in April

Runner-up: The 12 Hours of Continuous Drinking at 12 Square Metres in May

Find of the Year

Winner: No. 8 Beer Garden

Runner-up: Treehouse

I was thinking of calling this new category 'Hidden Gems', but I find that a rather tired and overused phrase, and most of the time not very accurate. Neither of these places is really 'hidden' - just quite easy to overlook. And I wouldn't call either of them exactly 'a gem'. The No. 8 Beer Garden is a great place for starting your night in Sanlitun (or spending your whole night in Sanlitun) with some cheap, open-air drinking; but it's not a very enticing prospect during the bitter cold of winter (or during the scouring winds of spring and autumn). I'm not sure how it can survive on only 6 months' custom a year; maybe it does really well out of the late-night Gongti clubbing crowd. Treehouse doesn't have much to recommend it as a bar - other than the warmth of its welcome and the extreme cheapness of its drinks; but that's something, and it's good to cultivate an occasional alternative haunt in the Nanluoguxiang area.

Most Promising New Bar

Winner: Fubar

I'll be glad if we can put it in another category next year, to avoid that unfortunate rhyme.

Barperson of the Year

Winner: Lixian, of Amilal

Runners-up would be the eminently dudely Clément at Salud, and perhaps his new Chinese colleague Justin - but really, no-one can come close to Lixian: she was pretty much the perfect barmaid.

Bar Owner of the Year

Winner: Alus, at Amilal

The guy is just so cool, so charming - he makes me wish I could speak Mongolian! And he has impeccable taste in whisky, in music: we bond through our shared love of Tom Waits.

Bar of the Year

Winner: Amilal

There are other bars I go to more, and perhaps have more affection for. This place doesn't really feel like a bar - more like the boss's living room. However, it has unquestionably been the phenomenon of the year - one of those places that everyone has heard of, even if they haven't been to it; and most people (or, at any rate, an awful lot of the people that I know) have been to it at least once. (I guess Amilal wins the Best New Bar prize as well, since it only opened for business around Spring Festival time this year.) For such a small and hard-to-find bar (note, Weeble, that I am not doing anything to advertise its whereabouts) it's done a remarkable job of attracting strong and diverse crowds of punters. It has the most tasteful decor, the best top shelf single malt collection (at the most affordable - commercially non-viable! - prices), the most beautiful kittens, and the best music selection in the world. Not so much a bar as a spa for the soul.

So, there we go. Any comments, queries, abuse??


The Weeble said...

No need to single out Log-In as the most mysterious survival of the year: I remain amazed that most of the places on Nan Luogu Xiang are still hanging on, though I suppose the constant influx of tourists, foreign backpackers, and other jackoffs guarantees at least some one-time business. This is the only conceivable reason for the continued prosperity of Passby, which I've always found absolutely charm-free.

Glad that the Secret Bar ("Lucky Man?" No.) is still around. Pointless, perhaps, and ri-donk-ulously overpriced, but if I were rich and inclined to part with my money for no particularly good reason, I'd probably tipple there more often. As-is I haven't been back there since the one time I went with you.

Sitting outside is currently a tall order: I don't know if things will be relaxed come spring, but all the places around Nan Luogu Xiang were ordered to close their roof decks this last summer - in the run-up to National day, I suppose, though the excuse was 'unauthorized construction' even though many were authorized - and the chengguan do not take kindly to tables and chairs placed outside. That said, my vote in this category would be for Amilal, which has a lovely courtyard, tree-climbing kittens, and surprisingly comfortable stone benches, and makes for a lovely vantage point from which to observe the dawn. I hear.

Froog said...

I didn't want your 'office' to clean up in every category, Weebs. And the Amilal courtyard is so small that it often doesn't really feel like 'outside'. I guess I've never been there in the daytime (well, other than just-before-dawn once or twice), so haven't seen it illuminated by natural light... although a few times I have glanced upward and been enthralled by the surprising appearance of stars overhead.

I think Log-In is in a class (or classlessness) of its own. The other places on Nanluoguxiang have at least minimal charm and the occasional customer: Log-In manages to remain completely deserted 90% of the time.

I have fond memories of Pass-By from my early days here (when Chris and Cindy's communal library was still operating there), but round about '03 or '04 they took a decision to expand and move 'upmarket' - backpackers (and, indeed, all manner of foreigners) are now pretty much banished, and the places thrives on Chinese yuppie custom. It's still an OK place for vaguely 'Western' food and cheap-ish draught beer - if you can get a table.

gary said...

Happy New Year, Froog.

Another great list. This Amilal place sounds pretty amazing. I should be passing through next month, so I'll try to check it out. You won't give out any clues where it is?

Froog said...

Same to you, Gary.

Let me know when you're in town; it'll be good to meet you at long last.

I'm afraid The Weeble would kill me if I gave out public directions to his beloved 'hidden' bar, but if you drop me an e-mail, I may be able to help you out. I am the 100th Froog on Yahoo.