Friday, December 31, 2010

The Froog Bar Awards - 2010

Ah, the end of the year is upon us once again, and so it's time for my fourth annual review of the best and worst of Beijing's bar scene.

There might be one or two new categories here and there, headlined in RED. For the most part, though, I'll follow the pattern of previous years.

And, as always  -  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:  Jianghu

Runner-up: Er, no runners-up this year, I don't think.  It has overall been a very disappointing year on the music front.

Yugong Yishan continues to disappoint almost every single time I go, with its lousy acoustics and posey, chattersome crowds; MAO Live House has been in the doldrums too, having apparently pretty much given up on trying to run its bar or provide any air-conditioning; upscale newcomers Mako Live and The One have their merits, but they're much too far away - and they're clearly geared towards being special event venues for corporate parties and major one-off shows rather than regular gig places.  And, alas and alack, 2 Kolegas - a regular front-runner in previous years - has disastrously shot itself in the foot by installing towering speaker stacks that completely ruin the view of its tiny stage.  I still like Jiangjinjiu, but it's as lousy as ever at advertising its programme, and without regular residencies from bands like Panjir or The Redbucks this year, it hasn't often attracted me in.  And I think I've managed a completely Wudaokou-less year: not one trip to Club 13 or D-22 - and I don't feel as though I've missed out on anything.  No, with only a handful of exceptions, the best shows I saw this year were ALL at Jianghu.

Most Promising New Live Music Venue

Winner:  VA Bar 

Runner-up:  Hot Cat Club

I don't much like the ambience of VA: it's more naff - and slightly overpriced - Chinese coffee shop than shadowy, smoky music club.  And the staff have this infuriating habit of trying to bump you out of your seats if a larger group comes in (We were here FIRST!).  However, it's got a great sound system, and - ALONE amongst the year's new music bar openings!! - it has rapidly established a full and varied schedule of gigs (and a well attended, rather fun 'open mike' night on Wednesdays).  Hot Cat is more my kind of place - cheap, basic, grungy - but.... the music programme thus far has been intermittent and of very patchy quality (and their 'open mike' on Thursdays just hasn't taken off at all).  I'd really like to see Zui Yuefang, a quaint little hutong joint on the North 2nd Ringroad, make something of itself too; it's a charming space, but again its programme seems to be very erratic and poorly advertised thus far (and they do this bizarre thing of serving their 'draft beer' in kai shui thermoses  - what the fuck is that all about?).  Mako Live and The One are potentially very good venues, but they don't really seem to put on a regular gig programme.  And the most local of my 'locals', Gulou 121, continues to be a great mystery: a potentially GREAT little music bar that never seems to put on any music.

Worst Live Music Venue

Winner:  Yugong Yishan

Runner-up:  MAO Live House

I'll give D-22 a break this year, since I haven't actually visited in person to confirm how horrible it is.  And in fact, the last few times I've been, I found it much improved as a bar... and at least slightly improved as a music venue (the horrendous problems with the sound system which plagued their first year or two of operation appeared to have been solved).  I will probably always remain averse to it because of the preciousness of its owner Michael Pettis, the poor quality of most of its regular acts, and the obnoxiousness of many of its punters (I have found its crowd to be almost exclusively laowai, almost exclusively Mandarin students).... but I think it probably doesn't completely suck balls like it used to any more.  MAO, though, has taken a spectacular nosedive over the last year or two: the prices keep getting higher, but the lineups seldom justify it; the dismally understocked bar has become a complete irrelevance, and the failure (removal??) of the air-conditioning makes it insufferably hot in there, even on a cool night with a small crowd.  It's a great pity, because it has much the best sound system - and the best space, I say - of any of our music clubs; but there are some serious problems it needs to fix if it wants to get off my 'shit list'.  2 Kolegas was very lucky not to make it on to this list this year; it probably only escapes because I'd built up so much affection for the place during its early years that I now give it endless 'second chances' - but THOSE SPEAKER STACKS HAVE GOT TO GO!!!

Best Gig of the Year

Winner:  Well, from what my friends tell me, I'm fairly certain it must have been the Shonen Knife show at MAO back in the early summer (someone had promised to buy me a ticket, but 'forgot', so.... I was clearly fated not to go).  Amongst the big shows I saw myself, I guess The Raveonettes at Yugong Yishan were the pick of the year (although there were the typical problems there with the over-large, exclusively foreigner crowd; and the support was dire; and the main band, though they were very good, barely played for an hour - so, not a mind-blowing show, overall).

Even better - though a very intimate gig - was the one-off show at Jiangjinjiu in October where Jean-Sebastian experimented with playing some of his Zhang Si'an folky material (usually performed with just acoustic guitar and hand drum) with a full rock band lineup: that was a jaw-dropping experience.  I think he's subsequently decided that this treatment doesn't fit what he wants for these songs; so, the sense that it was an only-chance-to-see event has added even further to the magic.

On the festival stages, I think veteran British punks Sham 69 at Midi were the pick of the (fairly thin!) crop.  But the revelation of this year for me was Omnipotent Youth Society (awful name, fabulous band!) - particularly stunning at the Ditan Park Festival in August.

Runner(s)-up: The acoustic set by The Verve at Jianghu on the eve of this year's Midi Festival probably gets the nod, although through the course of the year I've also seen a number of great sets from (China Battle of the Bands champions) The Amazing Insurance Salesmen, fine Hendrix tribute band Purple Smog, and Des McGarry's Irish folk outfit Blackwater.  I also really enjoyed Mongolian folkster Gangzi at Jianghu a month or two back.  And I was particularly fortunate to stumble upon a cosy Redbucks gig (entirely unadvertised?) at Zui Yuefang back in the spring (when it was only fairly recently opened): that was probably the only occasion in the past year or more when the crowd was small enough for you to see and hear this band well enough to enjoy them (The Bucks, alas, had developed far too much of a frat boy following - and every other show I tried to catch of theirs this year was heaved out, usually to the point of the band being almost entirely inaudible).

I finally got around to seeing Aussie finger-picking guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel this year, at Peking University's Centennial Hall - but it was more of a recital than a gig, a sit-down affair in a huge, atmosphereless theatre (and, at the risk of being burned at the stake for heresy, I was just a tad disappointed in the performance: I felt there was on many occasions more empty showmanship than musicianship in it).  And quirky Finnish choir Semmarit put on a superb show at The One last month - but that was more of an all-around entertainment, a slice of vaudeville, rather than a gig.

Worst Gig of the Year

Winner:  The Buzzcocks at Yugong Yishan in October 
(I walked out after less than half an hour; it was just miserably uninspired and repetitive.)

Runner-up:  The 'Generation Six' show at Yugong Yishan in September
(This really does not bode well for the immediate future of Chinese rock music...)

Best Bar Food

Winner:  Sand Pebbles

Runner-up:  Flamme

I've been going off the Luga's burritos (champs for the last few years) lately; I'm not sure that there's necessarily been any dropping off in quality (although they do quite often come out of the kitchen only lukewarm); perhaps it's more a case of familiarity breeding ennui.  Likewise with The Den - which does, in general, have the most reliable and extensive selection of 'pub food' (possibly the only really decent selection of this kind) in the city - I've grown disenchanted of late.... though more because it sucks in every other way (it's not even a decent sports bar any more) than because of any quibbles about the food.  I keep hearing good things about The Irish Volunteer, but have yet to make it out there.  The Brick's menu had some very good things on it (Ryan's chilli was surely the best in The Jing), but the portion sizes and pricing were all over the place; and since Lee Mitchell's only just taken the place over, it's a bit early to tell how he may shake things up.  Similarly, Tongli newcomer 1st Floor has a few really excellent things (try the steak on 'Half-price Mondays'!), but the quality overall is too variable - and the bar itself too lacking in other positive qualities - to earn a recommendation.  And I'm afraid that - despite the admirable selection of toppings and relishes - the hot dogs at Fubar/Stadium Dog have somehow never got me all that excited.  No, for me the find of the year has been the unassuming Wudaoying Hutong bar Sand Pebbles, which offers some of the best Tex-Mex in town (great jalapeno poppers, wrapped in bacon and served with big slices of grilled tomato; a really huge burrito; refried beans that actually have some taste and texture - rather than the bland and unappealing gloop that you get at Amigo, and most everywhere else; tasty nachos [though a bit of a small portion size]; and a fantastic and great value 'Mexican chicken' - two pieces of breast stuffed with melted cheese and jalapeno slices, wrapped in bacon, with refried beans on the side), as well as some other good stuff like fish'n'chips and bangers'n'mash (made with South African boerewors sausages).  Flamme doesn't offer 'bar snacks' as such, and doesn't - yet (I have hopes for the imminent refurbishment) - have much of a bar to sit at; but the selection of tasty vegetable side dishes, all priced at a beyond-reasonable 18 rmb, is ideal for snacking; and indeed, a few of the items - like the vegetarian chilli - are almost a meal in themselves.

Best Place To Drink While Eating

Winner:  Traktirr

Runner-up:  BiteAPitta

What joy to welcome back these two old favourites!  Traktirr (the original one, around the corner from the Russian Embassy; not its much larger and rather charmless sister establishment on Gui Jie, Traktirr Pushkin) mysteriously re-opened around the middle of this year - in the identical location - after a hiatus of some three years.  And - after a shorter but still worrying period in limbo (the better part of a year?) - Avi Shabtai has finally got his great Israeli diner up and running again in Tongli Studios.  Both of these places offer tasty and filling food and cheap beer - you can come for a snack and then just while away the next three hours or so getting pleasantly toasted...  Sand Pebbles, unfortunately, doesn't quite make it into this category because it lacks draught beer; and also, there's not a lot of 'people watching' fun to be had there, since the place is so small and mostly pretty empty.

Best Place To Go For A Cocktail

Winner:  Flamme

Runner-up:  MaoMaoChong

Twilight has some nice drinks, but lacks ambience and suffers from a dreadful location (Is there a bigger shithole in the whole of Beijing than Jianwai SOHO??  I have one friend who refuses ever to visit the place, even though he works just across the street in Guomao!).  The other swanky new cocktail lounges in the CBD - Cloud Nine, Atmosphere, and Xiu - are probably way over my budget (but I'm never likely to find out, since I so seldom visit the CBD for work, and it's not a 'nightlife' destination).  I never much liked Q (The Winged Serpent, as my buds and I used to call it back when it first opened): it quickly got too busy for its own good, lost the intimacy and the mellow vibe of George and Echo's earlier, smaller ventures.  I hear George's new place in Gongti - the imaginatively named George's - is rather good; but I haven't got around to a visit in the four or five months it's been open, and I'm wondering if I ever will; I just don't get over to that part of town more than a handful of times a year.  Apothecary made a promising early impression during its extended 'soft opening' at the end of last year, but subsequently alienated a substantial portion of its likely clientele with price hikes, niggardly measures, a surreptitious 'service charge', and the owner-managers' apparent indifference to good customer relations (Leon Lee, in particular, usually comes off as arrogant and creepy).  So.... that only leaves two contenders, in my book.  And there's not much to choose between them: MaoMaoChong has the considerable advantages of being a walkable distance from my home, being run by friends of mine, also doing very good pizza, and offering most of its cocktail list (but not all - you have to be careful what you order) for only 25 kuai on Wednesday nights.  However, I think Flamme just shades it: the list cocktail maestro Paul Mathew has created there is mind-blowingly good and fastidiously executed (and also available at a too-good-to-turn-down 100 kuai all-you-can-drink on Mondays!) - it's the only place in town that does a proper Sazerac, for a start!

Best Cocktail

Winner:  The Passionate Englishman (Flamme)

Runners-up:  Saigon Mistress (Twilight), French Toast (MaoMaoChong)

Many contenders here: hard to pick just a few.  At Flamme, Paul's Beijing Sidecar is an inspired piece of local colour, the Sazerac is done properly, and that thing with the flambéed fruit is also a knockout; however, while I'm not usually a fan of fruity drinks, his jokingly named Passionate Englishman (nicknamed by some of us The Oxymoron) is a revelation, an irresistible concoction of fresh passionfruit juice and gin.  Twilight, Daisuke's new venture down in the CBD, merits an honourable mention, even though I'm unlikely to go there more than  two or three times a year: the deliciously refreshing Saigon Mistress is a deserved favourite on the menu there.  And there are several of Stephen Rocard's inventive recipes at MMC that have taken my fancy over the year, notably his Walk The Plank with its Rooibus-tea infused vodka, his kaffir lime-flavoured Lady Boy or the marriage of chilli and honey vodkas in his Tail of the Dragon; but the cream of the crop is the French Toast from his winter menu, with its glorious homemade advocaat added to hot milk.

Best Place For Sitting Outside

No award (yet again) this year.

The city's never completely recovered from the ridiculous pre-Olympic crackdown on streetside restaurants; around my way, anyway, most of the small neighbourhood eateries are still discouraged from colonising the sidewalks - so the most charming way of frittering away an afternoon or an evening in the open air is still largely denied us.  I believe that there are quite a few pleasant bar/restaurant terraces in the city these days - if a bit too pricey for me and mostly in the dreaded Sanlitun area - but I didn't get around to trying any of them out.  We had a wretchedly cold 'spring' this year - that dragged on right through April and into May.  During June and the beginning of July I was entirely devoted to the World Cup.  Then, in July I was ill (and indisposed with a bad back) for a couple of weeks or so.  And in August I took a month off from drinking.  Sooo - the summer (at least for open air drinking purposes) almost entirely passed me by this year.  Sorry.

Worst New Bar

Winner:  The Stumble Inn

Runner-up:  Hmm, can't think of any other new bars of any note this year.  None that I tried, anyway...

Amazing that a bar with such 'experienced' people behind it manages to get just about everything so dumbfoundingly WRONG.  Being upstairs in a mall pretty much dooms it for me from the outset.  It seems to be doing quite well at lunchtimes on the weekend, but I can't imagine how it's going to get much trade at any other time.  A new top tip for The Dead Pool.

Most Pointless New Bar

Winner:   La Fite English Exotic Bar
Or whatever the hell it's called... my local spy tells me that it may be 'British' rather than 'English' and 'La Fete' rather than 'La Fite' (?!), and may even have added the superfluous word 'Pizza' in there now somewhere.  It does seem to be one of those bars that is quietly determined never to attract any custom at all.  Probably another candidate for The Dead Pool.

Most Surprising Survival

Winners: Drei Kronen/Danger Doyle's

Runners-up: Wiggly Jiggly's (aka Log-In Pub), Lucky Man

No change, really, from last year.  DK and DD seem to almost share a space, and possibly have some sort of common ownership; they certainly seem to share similarly inept branding and unrealistic pricing levels.  And yet - despite their unappealing location in the 'kiss of death' China View mall - they are limping on into their third years.  I would be curious to know how much money they've lost now (and under what circumstances - if any - the owners would actually pull the plug).  Probably not Dead Pool candidates, because they seem to be operating outside of the normal laws of economics.  Wiggly's, however, after heroic efforts in managing to continue to be Nanluoguxiang's least populous bar for four straight years (despite numerous redecorations and rebrandings), and in managing to fail to find anyone to buy out the lease (despite numerous attempts by the current tenant to escape the moneypit he's created for himself).... should be set to close fairly shortly: I believe the original lease expires around the middle of next year, and there are rumours the place might get chai'd before that anyway.  Lucky Man, the oddball Taiwanese whisky bar buried in the hutongs, has decided to 'decloak' - abandoning some of its 'speakeasy' affectation and word-of-mouth only approach to marketing this spring, after around a year of money-haemorrhaging obscurity.  It's still not doing much of a trade, and - if economic realities count for anything - I wouldn't expect it to remain open much longer.

Bar Which Has Deteriorated Most This Year

Winner:  Luga's Villa

Runner-up: 2 Kolegas

I used to have a big soft spot for this place, but.... Luga just can't figure out his target market.  And, in trying everything - half-heartedly, intermittently - he's gradually alienating just about every possible market segment.  He's got the Stella back, at least; and I gather he is occasionally pulling in quite big crowds with his cheap booze promotions and parties.  But my main interest in the place was as a sports bar, and he's been particularly inept, unreliable in developing that side of the business - the last half dozen times I've dropped in hoping to catch an English Premiership game, I've found nothing being shown; after that many disappointments, you just give up on a place.  For Kolegas, see above, under Best (and Worst) Live Music Venue: THOSE SPEAKER STACKS HAVE GOT TO GO!!!

Worst Bar

No award this year.

I've stopped going to bad bars!  Although the Most Overrated and Most Disappointing categories below - whilst not terrible - are better avoided.  And there's always....

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

Runners-up:  Mesh, Q

Not much change here, either - except that I reinstate Q Bar (see comments under Best Cocktail Bar, above) to the ranks of the unaccountably popular.  I still 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.  And 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; for me, everything associated with The Opposite House is tainted with insufferable pretension.

Biggest Disappointment of the Year

Winner:  The 2 Kolegas 5th birthday party

Runners-up:  1st Floor, The Box, Gulou 121

The big bash at Kolegas was still a party of sorts - a lot of people, young people especially, had a good time there - but compared to the level of expectation generated for the event, and compared to the awesome shows they managed to put on for their four previous anniversaries, it was really a damp squib.  They tried to spread themselves too thin, stretching the celebrations out over the whole weekend rather than having just one big night; apparently, despite the cold and drizzly weather, the Friday night went off pretty well, evolving into an extended jam session with all the Ningxia regulars; unfortunately, by Saturday, everyone was exhausted, and the bill was attenuated to just two live bands; a DJ on the lawn does NOT a Kolegas birthday party make!  I commented in detail on my runners-up here last week; they're not absolutely awful, but they encouraged hopes of them being better - hopes which they have rather dismally failed to realise.

Redemption of the Year

Winner:  Paddy O'Shea's

Now, there are a lot of things I still can't stand about the place (oh my god, the food.... just feckin' horrendous!!).  And it may seem amazing that I will cut the place any slack at all, after three years of slagging it off with my every waking breath.  But.... much as I deplore manager Karl Long's quizmastering abilities, I have to acknowledge he does a decent job helming a bar.  And most of the things I reviled about the place when it first opened - the lousy pool table, the excessive light from the big windows at the front, the pointless upstairs space, the silly feckin' leprechaun waistcoats for the staff.... even the unfortunate preponderance of IELTS examiners amongst the clientele - have been progressively eradicated.  The prices aren't too outrageous (at least by the inflated standards we are sadly forced to becoming used to over the past few years).  And they have some very decent staff now (at least on the night shift; during the day, not so much).  And they benefit from the unaccountable demise of the sports bar scene in Beijing (The Den has decided it would rather play hideous music all evening than let you listen to a commentary, the Goose & Duck has moved 'out of town', Rickshaw has closed, The Pavilion has closed, Luga's Villa appears to have given up even trying, the new Stumble Inn is a chaotic non-event - WTF is happening??):  Paddy's - little as I like it - is now THE ONLY PLACE TO WATCH SPORTS in central Beijing.  And, for that purpose, it doesn't suck too badly.  [But, oh my god, it would be nice to have some alternatives.  Someone, please???]

Most Sadly Missed Departures of the Year

Winner:  Everyone I namechecked here a week ago (it's been a crazy year for people leaving) - but especially Big Nige and JK, the two stalwarts of 12 Square Metres (I hope we are going to see them both back again one day, but it could be some months....)

Runner-up:  Tryst
Space Cadet Shaun's quirky novelty bar in the old Nali mall was a cosy little hangout during the cold early months of the year.  The antique typewriter and the stolen policemen's cap were a stimulating juxtaposition, two of the most appealing ornaments I've ever seen in a bar.  And Shaun's Old Fashioned - made with burnt orange peel rather than a cherry - was my favourite in the city.  I think we always knew it couldn't last....

Additional Runner-up:  The Beijing draught at 12 Square Metres
Another one of the huge boosts in the appeal of 12 Square Metres for me this year was the addition of draught beer.  I much prefer draught to bottles; and most of their imported bottled beer is a mite too strong for me these days, while the local stuff is a bit overpriced.  Hence, much as I love the ambience of the place, I was tending to spurn it in favour of other venues quite often because there was really nothing much there for me to drink.  The draught Kronenbourg they have there now is usually very nice - but a bit too pricey to drink all night (I rather think JK introduced the 25-kuai 'happy hour' tariff on it just for me: I encounter severe price resistance if asked to pay more than 30 kuai for a beer, any beer - and I probably would have started taking my custom elsewhere again if 35-kuai Kronie was all they could offer me there).  While I appreciate JK's feeling that he doesn't have quite enough trade to justify keeping TWO beers on draught, I wonder about the commercial soundness of his decision; there's probably a much better margin on Beijing draught, and people would drink more of it.  Kronie is unquestionably a far superior product, but.... sometimes you just want something CHEAP and thirst-quenching.  I miss the local draught.  This is why I'll quite often slope off to Salud after 8pm....

Party of the Year

Winner:  Amilal's first birthday bash

Runner-up:  My birthday bash at 12 Square Metres

Alus, the amiable Mongolian proprietor of trendy hutong hideaway Amilal, decided a year ago, somewhat arbitrarily, that he would celebrate the anniversary of the launch of his quaint new bar on New Year's Day.  It's hard to pin down an exact opening date, since he'd been fitting the place out and going through a sort of 'soft opening' phase with some of his established customers from the old Sandglass days since about mid-November 2008, but didn't really seem to be formally open until around Spring Festival time.  Perhaps bars, like racehorses, are automatically deemed to have been born on January 1st?  Anyway, it had slipped my mind, what with all the inevitable excess of New Year's Eve the day before, but.... I was summoned to attend mid-evening.  And the dear chap was insisting that everything was FREE all evening for the regulars.  Even the single malts.  I was doing my best not to abuse this excessive hospitality, but he remembers which ones I've tasted and which I haven't, and was adamant that I should use this opportunity to try them all.  I have absolutely no recollection of the latter stages of the night, but Dr Manhattan assures me that we staggered away to get some chuanr at The Muslim around 2am or 3am - and I fell asleep in there, leaning against the wall.  Oh dear.  A great, great night.  My own birthday was a very distant second; but I found it particularly pleasant this year because it was a small, fairly impromptu gathering rather than a large-scale, planned event - with many charming surprises, such as the reappearance for the first time in several months of Mafan, the delightful little dog my favourite bar owners adopted this time last year.

Find of the Year

Winner:  Sand Pebbles

Runners-up:  Zui Yuefang, Thong, Orange Tree

I didn't want to think of this as a 'Hidden Gems' category,  but the notion of a find inevitably requires that the place should be relatively little known and not so easy to happen upon.  These four places all share that combination of being serendipitous discoveries and still rather below the radar for most expats.  A cosy, off-the-beaten-track music bar, a hutong café with a knicker fetish, and an 'English' bistro just round the corner from Houhai - such is the variety of unexpected delights that Beijing has to offer!  However, my No. 1 discovery of this year is definitely Sand Pebbles, the bar food heaven on Wudaoying.

Most Promising New Bar

Winner:  El Nido

Runner-up:  Fubar

I feel a little awkward about naming Fubar in this category for a second successive year (and relegating it to second place this time), but it hasn't quite yet made it up into contention for the 'best of the best' prizes (and I suspect it never quite will; though there are many things about it I like, it's just not really my kind of place).  However, I like it a whole lot more since the refurbishment this summer (it looks like they finally took a lot of my 'advice' in that original review, reducing the lighting level, putting more stuff on the walls, putting in a mezzanine balcony [I'd been sceptical about that, but it works beautifully], and - crucially - getting rid of that stupid armpit-high bar); it wasn't just a tweak but a radical reboot - it really does feel like a whole different bar since, so I'm restarting the clock.... and wondering if it might be able to win me over as a 'Best Bar' candidate next year.  I don't think there's any argument about the top spot, though: El Nido has been the event of the year - a little pot of gold in the hutongs, a dive bar with class.

Barperson of the Year

Winner:  Nigel Murphy, of 12 Square Metres

I like Justin at Salud (and he likes me!), but I don't think anyone can really compare to our Nigel - he's one of a kind.  His 'Special Mondays' running 12 Square Metres provided most of the high points of my year.

Bar Owner of the Year

Winner:  Joseph Kornides ('Zef') of 12 Square Metres

Runner-up:  Chad of Fubar

Yes, I miss him now he's gone!  JK is probably a bit miffed at me that I've passed him over for this until now.  But this year he's really earned the top accolade: remodelling his bar to greatly expand its space and its clientele, overcoming the myriad failings of Chinese plumbing to get an inside loo installed and operational (a process that involved months of grief), and running a very entertaining pub quiz through the second half of the year - whilst also dealing with becoming the owner of the world's most hyperactive puppy and getting married.  Chad also deserves a nod for the major improvements he's worked at Fubar this year, and more generally for being about the only person in the trade I can think of who's achieved significant success everywhere he's been (even starting out with a not especially promising situation at Rickshaw and a graveyard at Tun!).

Bar of the Year

Winner:  12 Square Metres

Runner-up:  El Nido

12 SqM has been my principal 'second home' for nearly two-and-a-half years now, but I hadn't previously wanted to nominate it in this category - partly because it was too darned small to bear the burden of such an award, and partly just because I wanted to try and keep it my secret.  I said above that Fubar's summer makeover was a radical reboot, but it was as nothing to the transformation 12 SqM underwent at the start of this year - opening up a second room, and more than trebling its effective space.  I'd had my misgivings about it at first (and I still prefer to hang in the original space, the front bar), but the distinctive cosy and friendly ambience of the place is - thank heavens! - undiminished, while its potential profitability is much enhanced.  Even more than before, the bar has been central to my life throughout this year (I've rarely gone more than a few days without at least looking in; and I was camped there more or less permanently during the World Cup).  We've had a great gang of regulars there this year (many of whom have now, sadly, passed on; but I imagine they'll be replaced in time), encompassing not just Aussies and Chinese (the nationalities of the proprietors) but Kiwis, Japanese, a couple of Germans and a Hungarian and.... who knows what else.  I am very much the token Brit in this cosmopolitan mix!

El Nido, though - for an upstart newcomer! - is making a very strong case for itself.  As I said a couple of weeks ago, Xiao Shuai's little hutong dive is an inspired amalgam of the best features of the old Huxley's (the cramped intimacy), Salud (the cosy atmosphere and the novelty house-infused spirits), and Amilal (the arty vibe and the superb, unexpected music selection). It also boasts some excellent bar snacks (sandwiches made with real bread and real pancetta!), an astonishingly broad selection of affordable wines and premium imported beers.... and ridiculously low prices (hello, 10-kuai Hapi, I think I love you!). Oh, and it's only a 19-minute walk home (Well, OK, it's a 19-minute walk there. It's more like a 22-minute walk back. You know how that goes.).  I do hope it will still be around next year to vie for the top spot - but I've got a nasty feeling it might prove to be an ephemeral phenomenon.  Let's enjoy it while we can.

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


Anonymous said...

So colorful, Froog, as always.

- I couldn't help but wonder why on earth the Buzzcocks would do a gig in China. Then I read your original post. It sounds a bit like Hugh Grant in that movie with Drew Barrymore, Music and Lyrics; China perhaps their version of Knottsberry Farm...
- Mexican food in China. Oh dear. I mean, honestly, OH DEAR.
- At El Nido, your excited claim, "It also boasts some excellent bar snacks (sandwiches made with real bread and real pancetta!)" is frightening; what is the alternative to the real stuff???
- The Passionate Englishman, what a hoot! But it also, surprisingly, sounds delish.

The Weeble said...

My sole experience at Sand Pebbles wasn't all that inspiring -- I guess I'll have to go back with you once it starts getting warmer.

El Nido across the board for me. A great new place and it captures some of the pleasant, down-at-heels ambience of the bars on Sanlitun South years ago. For that reason in particular, I'd nominate it as one of the best places for outside sitting, though I suppose increasing custom and irritated neighbors may make that less of an option this year.

Froog said...

Happy New Year, Weebs!

Yes, I suppose I could have given another gong to El Nido for 'sitting outside', but it somehow slipped my mind. I didn't really get there that many times in the summer, and for the past several weeks it's been a cowering-inside kind of place.

What did you try at Sand Pebbles? You should definitely give it another go. That chicken dish is a damn good feed.

Froog said...

CW, Tex-Mex in China is a bit of a 'dog walking on its hind legs' deal. It is getting to be quite common, though, because there's such a huge American contingent here these days (100,000 Mandarin students, I hear?! Probably not all in Beijing, but a very substantial proportion of them are...).

I did a major rant a few years back on how Chinese cooking most sucks - here. We tend to take it for granted, because it's what we eat 90% of the time. Most Chinese restaurants are amusingly squalid, and very cheap - but not great on quality control or food hygiene. So, if we fancy a treat, most of the time we go for non-Chinese food.

The Chinese are enthusiastic but bad mimics. Hence, most attempts to recreate 'Western' products - whether it be ham or a can opener - are bizarrely awful. Locally produced bread is almost always off-puttingly sweet. El Nido is quite near a major, upscale foreigners' villa complex (although I hear it's about to be demolished, to build a car park or something), and so on one of the adjacent alleys a tiny delicatessen has opened up selling a lot of imported goodies - cheese, bread, salami. I think that must be where Xiao Shuai gets his stuff from.

Froog said...

By the way, CW, I LOVE Music and Lyrics. I watched it again just the other day.

Gary said...

Happy New Year, Froog!

Reading these posts make me feel I was back in The Jing. Almost makes me wish I was back in The Jing!

Froog said...

Hi, Gary. Long time, no hear. Happy New Year to you too.

Anonymous said...

OK, Froog, I've read the post about the suck factor of Chinese food. AAaaaand, how the bars are awful. The hilarity of which I've already discussed. However, all this begs the questions: What's the draw? What has kept you there all these years? It can't be the food or the bars, obviously. What is the IT factor that makes you pledge your allegiance as an expat to a country so rife with foibles and flaws? I'm just curious, this isn't a judgment at all. It's just fascinating.

Anonymous said...

Tex-Mex...I'm still imagining refried beans that would be too scary to contemplate. And tortillas?? Cheese? And I mean the real stuff like Oaxaca or Cotija...or is that too far-fetched?

And I'd never seen Music and Lyrics before this week. It was available on the On-Demand channel, and I like both actors, sooo, I ordered it. It was a good, light-hearted rom-com. Better, actually, than I expected.

Froog said...

Ah, CW, the So, why are you in China? question...

Well, (unsurprisingly!) I have addressed that question a number of times: the LONG answer is here, and a series of shorter and quirkier - but no less genuine - answers here. There's a more general attempt to sum up the charm of the place in this post from the end of last summer. But, alas, I fear the real reason of all reasons is THIS.

Plus, of course, the fact that the country is so ridiculously ramshackle and inept that it is almost continuously hilarious - for a connoisseur of the quirky like me, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Blogger just lost my comment.


Effing hell. That is as close as I will get to that expletive, but I rather want to shout it right now.

Froog said...

Very sorry about that, CW.

I have found - after years of similarly vexing experiences with trying to leave comments on blogs - that it's always a good idea to cut & paste from Word (if you have anything at all substantial to say, anyway).

I had a look in my e-mail comment notification folder, but your remarks didn't make it through to there, I'm afraid.

Conversely, my other leading commenter, JES, has recently made a few comments which did appear in my e-mail but didn't reach the blog. Who knows what's up with Blogger these days?!

I hope you'll try again when you have time.

Froog said...

Reflecting on my changing patterns of bar-hopping over this past year, I realise there have been some quite big changes.

One I feel a little guilty about is that I have been going to Amilal much less frequently. There's been more competition this year - from radically revamped 12 Square Metres, from always-lodged-in-the-heart Pool Bar (which I've been trying to start going to a little more often again, even though very few of my old pool-playing buddies are still around), and from appealing neighbourhood newcomers Sand Pebbles and El Nido. Also, my earnings have been drastically down this year, so I have been going out slightly less, and avoiding the temptation to indulge in top-shelf whisky too often. And my peak period for being an Amilal 'regular' was that few months in the early summer of 2009 when the lovely ABC barmaid Lixian was there - yes, I had a little bit of a crushette there (as did everyone else there, including Alc!). Also, I fear the place just started getting a bit too well-known, a bit too trendy: I only ever go on a slow mid-week night now, not on the usually heaved-out Fridays or Saturdays.

Fubar was another victim of my increased penury (and perhaps also of the departure of Dr Manhattan; he'd entice me over to Sanlitun/Gongti quite often - without him, I just can't be bothered). I think I've probably only looked in a dozen or so times all year; I went more often than that in the last two months of '09 alone.

But 12 Square Metres was the big winner of the year - perhaps something of a surprise, since I'd had such misgivings that the expansion might compromise the cosy atmosphere of the place. In fact, the front bar is much as it ever was; but having the new larger room in the back has meant that the place doesn't fill up so often. In the past, (although on a few extreme nights we had somehow managed to pack 20 or more people into that tiny space) I'd never cared for the little booth at the end of the bar, and the space at the bar itself would seem rammed if there were 4 or 5 people in (although you could cram more in, and have a few more squeezed on the window seat as well); many times I'd wandered by, looked through the window and seen no space at the bar, and decided to try my luck elsewhere. Now, the place is very seldom so busy that you can't find a spot in there somewhere; and since most of the Chinese punters prefer the new area in the rear, there's generally a bit of space at the front bar. Hence... my frequency of stopping in has probably nearly doubled over what it was before.

Froog said...

I was reflecting last night that the introduction of draught beer at 12 Square Metres this year was another key factor in boosting my attendance there - although I regret that they decided to discontinue the local Beijing draught pump after a few months.

I just added a supplement about this under the Most Sadly Missed Departures category: bring back the Beijing draught I say!

Froog said...

I looked in at Sand Pebbles last night, and found quite a few people in there. For once. Despite the inclement weather. I wonder if people have been picking up on it because of my glowing recommendation here??

Unfortunately, I was given cause to doubt whether I should have praised it so highly. Service out of the kitchen - often a bit of a problem on previous visits - was REALLY SLOW last night. And when I finally got my burrito, it was more or less cold, despite having had to wo wait nearly half an hour for it. I tried the potato wedges for the first time, too, and found it to be a rather stingy portion, and nasty powdery potato (not much that can be done about that, perhaps; all the potatoes in Beijing seem to be a bit shit at this time of year).

I may have to have a word with Ray about this. There are some really good things on this menu; but he badly needs to improve efficiency and consistency in his kitchen.