Monday, May 23, 2011

More NOT The Beijinger Bar Awards

Following on from Thursday's post (predicting most of the winners of this year's The Beijinger Bar and Club Awards, and suggesting what I thought should have won in each of the major categories), here are my views on the subsidiary awards categories.

Best Value Drinks - El Nido
(In the frame: Smuggler's, Salud, Amilal, Laowai's, Tree House)
Smuggler's is the only one of the cheap Sanlitun dives I have any time for. Most non-Sanlitun bars offer consistently lower prices/better value than their Sanlitun counterparts, without even having to offer a separate 'happy hour' tariff (and many of these places give you very generous pours if you're any kind of a regular). However, El Nido definitely takes the cake - with its 10-kuai Harbins for the real cheapskates like me, a long list of imported beers (mostly priced at only 25-35 kuai), good house wine, the home-infused novelty spirits or absinthe for killer shooters, and a very decent and very reasonably priced whisky selection.

Best Happy Hour - Flamme
(In the frame: FubarThe Den, Scarlett, Nearby The Tree, The Brick)
Scarlett, I suppose, is the classiest contender - but I find all hotel bars a bit naff, really; and I think their super-duper everything-half-price promotion is a once-a-week TGIF affair rather than a perennial 'happy hour'. The Den's 'happy hour' is longer than anyone else's (10pm, hmmm), is half price on almost everything (even throwing the pizza into the offer), and gives you the only affordable pint of Guinness in town (although this rather begs the question of why it is supposedly "uneconomic" to sell it at 30 kuai a pint all the time). However, most of their draught beer (not always excluding the Guinness; and certainly all of the lagers) is usually SHITE. Therefore, Fubar's 'happy hour' edges it on the quality of the drinks - and the ambience, and the fact that the finishing time is often extended until 10pm or even later. Flamme, however, blows everyone else away with its properly half price on everything approach (including the awesome cocktails!).... when its regular prices are pretty reasonable, anyway: the best cocktails in Beijing for 25 or 30 kuai and a small glass of Stella for 12.5 kuai?! No contest. (Although I haven't indulged all that often, because the place is essentially a restaurant, and lacks that boozer ambience that I generally seek from a 'happy hour' session.)

Best Bar Food - The Den
(In the frame: El Nido, Sand Pebbles, The Brick, Luga's, 1st Floor, The Irish Volunteer, Salud)
The Den takes this one on the breadth of its menu, and its consistency over a number of years (and on continuing to produce much the best budget burger in town). I was really tempted to give this to El Nido, but their bar food offerings - though invariably excellent - have mostly been limited, ad hoc, short-lived; the sandwiches, though, are almost always available, and very good indeed (having a foreign deli just around the corner helps!); and if José's new hotdog stand becomes a weekend fixture, then this is definitely going to be a leading contender next year. [I found The Beijinger poll's choice of Blue Frog just unfathomable - on definitional grounds as much as anything. It's a restaurant, for gawd's sake! (I would have nominated Flamme in this category, but I thought they might have been offended.) They don't do much, apart from the burgers. The burgers are good-not-great: not quite as good as the similarly overpriced Let's Burger, and not nearly such value-for-money as The Den and 1st Floor. The Frog's obviously got a lot of PR boosters behind it, because it also won 'Best Happy Hour'... despite the fact that it's over by 8pm, their idea of a 'happy hour' is a cumbersome two-for-one deal on a few selected items only, and their prices are so freakin' high normally that this means they're just briefly dropping down to the kind of level you'd pay almost anywhere else all the time - NOT a 'happy hour'!!!]

Best Service - The Den
(In the frame: The Tree, The Irish Volunteer, and erm....??)
Unfortunately, the rest of Beijing's nightlife scene continues to be distinguished by its mostly awful - or at least wildly inconsistent - standards of service. Even my local favourite Salud doesn't exactly cover itself in glory here. I don't really very much like The Den (or its surly manager, Paul) any more; but some of the staff have been there years now, and the place has done a consistent job of finding good people (at least for the waitresses and the chefs; the bar staff are much less impressive) and giving them some proper training. Some of the hotel bars are probably pretty good too, but I'm not very experienced in that area. Most of the bars I go to are owner-operator type places, or places with only a very small staff - so 'service' isn't really an issue most of the time (indeed, in most of my favourite places, I'm allowed to serve myself...).

Best Music Selection - Amilal
(In the frame: El Nido, 12 Square Metres, Fubar)
This one's a no-contest. My runners-up are sometimes very good (but sometimes not), but... Alus may be the only person I've met who has even better musical taste than me! Whether it's something I know and love already (the Tom Waits or Chet Baker that he often puts on especially for me), the eclectic rarities that you'd never expect to hear in a bar (Nick Drake, Serge Gainsbourg), or stuff that's completely unfamiliar and sometimes a bit challenging (some of the Mongolian albums, and other 'world music' weirdness that he digs up) - I always like it. The man's a genius.

Best Cocktail - oh, too many to choose from!
I think I'd dispense with this, as being a bit of a random category. Few people go to cocktail bars regularly, fewer still have tried out all or most of the city's various offerings in this field, and even those who have are going to be drawn to something that made a big impression on their last visit (or just by something that fits their personal taste, or is a long-time favourite). It's impossible to make any sort of meaningful selection from such a diverse field. [I attempt to do so in my end-of-year Bar Awards, but I feel it's really a bit of a fatuous undertaking.]

Best Cocktail Bar Person - Paul Mathew of Flamme
(In the frame: George Zhou of George's, Echo Sun and Wendy Yang of Q, Daesuke of Twilight)
A very close fight, this one; but Paul takes the prize for me, for knowing how to make a proper Sazerac.

Friendliest Crowd - The Brick
(In the frame: 12 Square Metres, El Nido, MaoMaoChong)
I was very tempted to give this one to 12 Square Metres, but... well, I felt myself to be estopped from doing so.... by the fact that I am 'the crowd' in there most nights (the most regular of the regulars, anyway; and just about the only survivor of the long-term regulars, since we lost a lot of people this last year).

Top Bar Owner/Manager (aka 'Bar Personality of the Year') - Xiao Shuai of El Nido
(In the frame: Alus of Amilal, Joseph Kornides of 12 Square Metres, George Zhou of George's, Nico Pelissier of Salud, Chad Lager of Fubar and Grinders, Lee Mitchell of The Brick)
My contenders have all had big years, but Shuai is, I think, head and shoulders above the rest this time. It's quite remarkable what he's done - taking a tiny space in an undistinguished location and turning it into one of the most buzzed about new 'destination bars' to open in years... and steadily building a hutong empire for himself, too (adding bar food, obscure artsy CDs and DVDs for sale, a second spillover venue just down the road and - his latest venture - a grog shop).  Long live Emperor Shuai!

[Leading bar-blogger Beijing Boyce had a particularly good rundown of the contenders this year; worth a look.]

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