Friday, December 10, 2010

Top Five New Hangouts

As a prelude to the fourth instalment of my year-end Annual Bar Awards, I thought I'd better run through some of the more welcome new discoveries that have been varying my nocturnal activities this year, and particularly over the last few months.  For a long time now, I'd been in a rather comfortable rut, never venturing beyond the 'Holy Trinity' of 12 Square Metres, The Pool Bar, and Amilal, never going across town to Sanlitun any more....  But this year there have been quite a number of new openings, some of them very worthwhile.

My Top Five New Hangouts of 2010

5)  Thong
This ultimate in naffly charming hutong eccentricities is rather more 'hidden' than 'gem', but still a serendipitous highlight of my year.  Thongs for the memory....

4)  VA Bar
It's just a tad expensive (the kind of place where half the crowd spills out on to the street to buy beers from the xiaomaibu opposite), and the service can be a bit unwelcoming (they regularly bug the crap out of me by trying to hassle you into giving up your seats whenever a large party comes in; utterly friggin' pointless anyway, since they don't have any booths that can accommodate more than 4 or 6 people; but trying to bump people who've been there an hour already in favour of people who turn up halfway through the show - that's just dumb, and rude: STOP IT!).  However, this is much the best of the new music bar openings this year: the only one to have established a regular programme of gigs.  Great sound system.  And less than 30 minutes' walk from my home.

3)  Sand Pebbles
I was attracted at first by the name (a favourite China-based film; although the owner is quite ignorant of this, and chose the name purely to suggest a beach theme!), but stayed for the food and the warmth of owner Ray's welcome (and his gorgeous dog, an enormous but very docile husky).  I worry slightly for its future: it has limited space, rather naff design, doesn't really attract any walk-by trade (its chief attraction during the summer months was its postage-stamp roof terrace - although even that is rather compromised by the din of the nearby 2nd Ringroad); it's been surviving mainly on good order-in business from the adjacent Yonghegong Villas - but that's up for the redevelopment, so next year could be a tough one.  However, the prices are low (especially with the 'extra discount' Ray always seems to give me; not sure if he's thanking me for having introduced so many other customers to the place over the last 8 months, or if he does this for all his 'regulars' - well, anyone who's come in more than once or twice, say; or anyone who spends more than 100 rmb in one go), and the food is excellent (although the service out of the kitchen can sometimes be slow, it's usually worth the wait): far and away the best Tex-Mex in town (well, inside the 2nd Ringroad, anyway), it has enabled me to turn my back on the repeatedly disappointing, really rather dismal Amigo.

2)  Flamme
It's upstairs in a mall (though this is less fatal to restaurants than to simple bars).  It's strangely hard to find (although it's just a stone's throw away from the highly visible Blue Frog, I fairly regularly manage to walk past it, around it, behind it...).  And it's a little above my usual budget (although the Stella is quite keenly priced at 25 rmb for 330 ml; the cheap booze deals on Mondays are proving very attractive; ditto the half-price steak offer on Tuesdays; and the excellent vegetable side dishes are a very reasonable 18 rmb each [the vegetable chilli with a couple of baked potatoes for 36 rmb is a decent meal]).  The decor's a bit naff, a bit soulless somehow, too; and the bar's just UGLY, and way too small (but they're supposed to be redesigning - and extending - that shortly).  However, it is, for me, way the best new restaurant to open in Beijing this year.  And it has the potential (if they make the bar bigger and get some more staff) to be the best cocktail bar too.

And in the top spot we have.... [drum roll]

1)  El Nido
A dive bar with class, this is a strong contender for Bar of the Year.  It's 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).  Add to that 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.)

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