Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top Five Unlamented Closures of the Year

A final teaser before tomorrow's bumper 'Bar Awards' post (nearly finished, nearly finished).....

There's been a lot of 'change and decay' on the Beijing bar scene this year; more even than usual.  But most of the casualties I was glad to see the back of.  Most of them, indeed, had become so moribund already that few people even noticed their final demise....

The Top Five Unlamented Bar Closures of 2010

5)  Poachers
About a year or so ago, a guy I met at a party gave me a 'Membership Card' for Poachers.  I thought that seemed like a sign of terminal desperation: loyalty schemes work fine if you already have custom, encouraging people who already use you occasionally to come more often, drink more freely, and bring their friends; but they have very little effect in bringing new people in when you're deserted most of the time.  Poachers was the bar that time forgot.  When I first came to Beijing back in the early Noughties, it was the only bar - well, the only cheap bar - in North Sanlitun; and one of the few international backpacker hostels in the city.  Hence, it had at least a small captive audience almost any night of the week, and would do a roaring trade over the weekends - even with the much smaller expat population we had back then.  Poachers was the original, orgiastic, dancing-on-the-tables, Friday night frenzy venue in the capital.  And many people, no doubt, have some fond memories of the place because of that.  But in the past 5 or 6 years, scores of other hostels have opened; and scores of other down and dirty bars have appeared too - all around Poachers.  And the owners/managers didn't seem to have any response: they just watched as their business leached away, and shrugged. [I never liked Poachers, but I had a bad first impression of it.  I went to check it out because I'd heard it so much talked about, but in the middle of the week in winter I found it completely dead.  The mysterious - and, I think, always spurious - sign on the plate glass window advertising Sichuan food proved to be misleading; when I asked about it, the staff just laughed in my face.  The vaunted cheap draught beer was also 'off' on this night; again the staff just laughed.  I think they also claimed to be out of Tsingers and tried to force an expensive Heineken on to me.  Rudeness and price-gouging I have zero tolerance for.  It was probably a year before I went back; and I think by then the place was already entering its decline.]

4)  The Rickshaw
The Rickshaw finally expired early this year, but it had been almost completely deserted for some months prior to that, and had been in 'living dead' territory since shortly before the Olympics 18 months earlier.  I had been meaning to start a series on the blog called "Does anyone still go to....?", with The Rickshaw pencilled in as the first subject - but I didn't get around to it in time!  Poachers and Ginkgo would have been next up...

3)  Ginkgo
Ginkgo was always doomed to failure.  If its predecessor, Room 101 (briefly a rather successful bar; certainly a great favourite of mine, and of several other people who live in this area of town), had been unable to turn an adequate profit, then there was no way this directionless, personality-free 'restaurant' incarnation was going to.  The basic problems were the location (no matter how much the nearby Wudaoying and Fangjia hutongs and Gulou Dongdajie may take off, Andingmennei is always going to be a dead zone), the divided space (there was never going to be a way to make the upstairs area work), and the 'too many cooks' phenomenon of having multiple investors with conflicting views on how to develop the business.  The grand rebranding of 101 always seemed just inept to me: they gutted the place of its main attractions - the warm decor, the low lighting, the generous and creatively timed 'happy hours', and the marvellous little island bar - and replaced it with.... higher prices, an ill-thought-out restaurant concept, and a silly name.  The place retained a hard core of fans from the 101 days, particularly amongst the French contingent (mostly friends of the owners); and I hear they had a pretty damned good New Year's Eve party last year.  But the place had been basically dead on its feet for 18 months; the end was inevitable, and we were just waiting for someone to put it out of its misery.  [Of course, it is in theory still there - new Chinese investors having taken it over and attempted to keep the name and 'concept'.  I used to think the place was dead before, but now it's... DEAD.]

2)  10 Kuai Bar
Now, in theory, I like the idea of a '10 kuai bar'; but this Nanluoguxiang dive was such a charmlessly executed version of the idea.  A long, narrow, claustrophobic space; fake booze; and - worst of all - perpetually bored, unengaging staff.  The place never built up any regular custom.  It never even seemed to attract much casual custom away from the almost-as-cheap and much cosier Salud-clone next door.  It reminded me painfully of what the Yandai Huxley's has become in recent years: almost completely spurned by foreign punters; indeed, almost completely spurned by discerning punters of any nationality - sparsely populated by unwary one-time walk-ins, or Chinese youngsters who really can't afford to pay any more for a drink.  Amazing that it survived for, what, three years or so.

Ah, but the winner, the least lamented of all these closures, the one that has me dancing a merry jig of celebration over its carcass, is....

1)  Guitar Bar
Again, I quite liked the idea of a 'guitar bar'.  And when this place first opened half-way down Nanluoguxiang, I had hopes for it.  So did a number of my muso friends; one or two of them, I think, even took their guitars along hoping to be able to jam - they were rebuffed.  Only the owner and his mate were ever allowed to play their guitars there.  And it was ALWAYS.... exactly.... the.... same.... set.  I kid you not.  You might appreciate that El Condor Pasa is a pretty tune; but, trust me, when you realise you're hearing it for the 10 or 12th time in a month (just because you always happen to be walking past at around 9.20pm), you start wanting to tear the wings off the freakin' bird!  The concept here was ELEVATOR MUSIC Played Live.  "Steady on, there, that was almost getting a little lively; remember, the tempo must always be plodding.  And can we not make the sound any brighter?  Does this Treble knob not go up to 11??"  It was just excruciating stuff.  Unsurprisingly, the clientele was exclusively Chinese; mainly Chinese tourists, at that; I used to fancy that they were probably mostly people who worked in shopping malls and found that they were suffering withdrawal from the canned music that surrounded them during their working life.  The service was comically awful as well (I gave the place a try a few times in its first year): on one occasion we ordered three Tsingtaos, and the serving lady brought them one at a time (with a minute or more gap between each one, despite the fact that the bar was so small that even she - tiny woman that she was - could easily have crossed it in only five or six steps); then she did an elaborate 'Oh, what have I forgotten?' dumbshow before returning once more in slow-motion to the counter to fetch the bottle-opener; our companion who had foolhardily ordered a coffee realised that he was never going to receive it.  (I kind of suspect they had an actively anti-laowai policy there, in fact.)  It's already re-opened - in much larger premises - on Gulou Dongdajie, near Amigo.  But the obscene noise pollution hazard (How did they get away with blaring their tinny muzak into the street at such screeching volumes??  Major kickbacks to the local police, I imagine.) on the middle of Nanluoguxiang has been removed within the last few days - and I am beside myself with joy!!


chewingwords said...

My GAWD, Froog! You slay me with this post. Fo schizzle. Especially #5, Guitar Bar. I had to sit and wheeze in an my attempts to laugh (yes, I am still in recovery, thus the reason I am chained to my house hence my computer thus your blog [tho your blog isn't the chaining bit, being home is]). It seriously makes one (--> me) want to see all of this in the flesh because it's difficult to believe anything could be as bad as all this. And if it really is that bad, it MUST be witnessed and experienced!

Froog said...

Oh, yes, the whole country is like some weird comedy lab experiment.

I think everyone here must take secret lessons in How To Be Inept. It's probably one of the core programs offered by the Confucius Institutes.

I hope that pneumonia of yours is on the mend now. I hate to be the cause of wheezing fits.