Friday, December 30, 2011

The Froog Bar Awards - 2011

So, here it is - my fifth annual review of the best and worst of Beijing's bar scene.

I've trimmed things down quite a bit this year, dispensing with a number of categories. Partly, this is reflective of the fact that I've been out much less this past year, and am losing touch with - or interest in - many of the city's newer venues. Partly, though, it's down to the fact that things on the nightlife scene have become a bit static in the last few years. The shit bars remain shit; we're still waiting for the customerless Danger Doyle's and Nanluoguxiang's hilariously bad Wiggly Jiggly's to close; no-one has come up with a dafter bar name than Lafite Exotic English Bar; and so on. It's all the same as last year.

I've also given up the attempt to identify a 'Best Cocktail': the field is just too broad, and I'm not that much of a cocktail drinker.

There are, however, a couple of new categories this time: Least Surprising Closure and Best Happy Hour.

(I was also contemplating separating out the music stuff into a separate post... but, you know what, inertia won out!)

As ever, I aim to provoke (and sometimes, godammit, yes, to offend) as well as to enlighten, so please feel free to pitch in - and bitch in - down below in the comments if you have anything to add in regard to any of these opinions.

Best Live Music Venue

Winner:  What Bar
I am very happy to have rediscovered this out-of-the-way little gem this year, after three or four years of complete neglect. This place certainly ass-whoops the competition in terms of longevity: it celebrated its 9th anniversary (or 8th, or 10th - depending on who you ask) a few months back. To be honest, I go there more for a quiet early evening drink when I'm walking back from Tiananmen than for gigs (which are ill-advertised, but nevertheless - in such a tiny space - often uncomfortably busy); but it has been the scene of a couple of the most fun shows I've been to this year. If you hit the right night - good band, modest crowd - there's nowhere better. And it also trashes the rest of the field for friendliness of welcome: the lady boss there is one of the best laobans in town.

Runners-up: The BookwormJianghu13 Club, Hot Cat
I'd passed over The Bookworm in the past, as being only a very occasional venue for music events; but in the past year or so, in addition to Time Out's excellent monthly 'Sunday Salon' series on Chinese and classical music, they've been mounting a pretty regular series of Saturday gigs with a variety of jazz and folk artists - and it's proved to be really a very good venue indeed: decent sound, intimate vibe, attentive audience (pity the draught beer is so AWFUL!).  Jianghu continues to be the most reliable of the venues that are readily accessible to me, and their Tuesday jazz nights have been going particularly well this year. Unfortunately, as they've become better known and their advertising is getting better, it's become impossible to squeeze in there for weekend shows - or whenever there's a major act on. D-22 had got over most of the problems that plagued it in its early years (terrible sound, terrible bar staff), but a couple of Chinese musicians I know have told me that it really seems to have lost its way over the last year or so: just not generating a buzz or drawing many big crowds any more; and now it's about to close. I always preferred the atmosphere of its less laowai-dominated next-door neighbour 13 Club; on those rare occasions when I drag myself up to the Wu, that is. I think 13 is the best venue in the city, but unfortunately is has become almost exclusively a heavy metal club - which is not really my thing. Hot Cat reminds me poignantly of the very first of the Wudaokou music bars, the short-lived, much lamented Loupe Chante: an engagingly cheap and grungy bar that just happens to have some very good rock'n'roll shows occasionally as well. Unfortunately, its programme is still a bit thin, and seldom well-promoted. [I always seem to overlook East Shore Jazz Cafe in this section, because I don't go that often, and it only does jazz; but it is very good.]

Worst Live Music Venue

Winner:  Yugong Yishan

Runner-up:  MAO Live House

2 Kolegas is getting back to winning ways (having trimmed down the outsize speaker stacks that for so long obscured their tiny stage); but their 18 months in the doldrums has completely broken my habit for heading out there. And their programming seems to have become very weak: they can't compete for the bigger names very often any more, so it's the same handful of bands week after week after week. Yugong Yishan continues to disappoint - or appal - with its lousy acoustics and posey, chattersome crowds. I have pretty much given up on the place: I can't imagine a band that could draw me back there now (certainly none of the local outfits; it would have to be someone really BIG). MAO Live House seems to have had some good gigs this year, but almost all in the raw punk or heavy metal categories, which have a strong local following but aren't really my cup of tea. The continued absence of any worthwhile bar or any air-conditioning have meant that I haven't been back there in ages - maybe not this yearMako Live and The One continue to be much too far away and much too intermittent in their programming to register on many people's radars. Gulou newcomer Temple has been starting to piece together a decent schedule; but unfortunately, it lacks charm as a bar, and its dreadful acoustics restrict its potential as a gig venue. Recent openings Modernista and Beiluo Café show some promise, but are probably only going to be once-or-twice-a-week music spots like Salud, rather than dedicated gig venues. Ditto Za Jia - a great bar, but music is only ever going to be an occasional sideline there. Gulou 121Zui Yuefang, and Tushuguan continue to be largely wasted opportunities - as, increasingly, is Jiangjinjiu (another place I've scarcely been to all year; a sorry indictment from someone who lives a short walk away, and used to be a weekly visitor). VA Bar I have very mixed feelings about: it has probably had the best regular programme of gigs of any venue this year, but it's such a charmless - often downright unfriendly - bar that I seldom feel it's worth a cover charge.

Best Gig of the Year

Winner:  The Chicago Live! Jazz and Blues Show at CD Blues Café a few weeks ago (part of a week of arts events organised by Booey Lehoo)

Runners-up: The St Patrick's Day gig by Blackwater at Salud, and visiting Norwegian girl band VOM at What Bar in June

Others bubbling under were amiable world music maven Abaji at Jianghu early this year, Ajinai playing at the short-lived Amilal spin-off Aluss in the spring, local folksters Dawanggang opening for Huun-Huur-Tu at Yugong Yishan a few months back and also playing some great stuff at this year's Ditan Folk Festival, Xiao He quite a few times (the best, I think, was his opening for Jeffrey Lewis [see below] at Yugong), and solo Mongolian folk artist Gangzi (probably the most consistently impressive performer around at the moment) quite a few times. Perhaps the most magical evening of all, though, was the one where my old friend David Mitchell gave a low-key solo show on guitar and tambur at Amilal - basically playing just for me and a few friends - during the October holiday week.

I gather The Cranberries were probably the pick of the year's stadium gigs, but I didn't get to see that. Likewise, I didn't really do the festival scene this year, since most of them had been shunted way out of town; Black Rebel Motorcycle Club at the Intercity Music Festival in Chaoyang Park in September provided the one standout open-air music event for me this year. I imagine Cowboy Junkies were as awesome as they always are at the Kama Love Festival in June, but that was the most hideously organised event I've ever been to, and ill health (and raging dehydration: there was NO WATER available!) forced me to quit before they came on - my hugest regret of the century. My second hugest regret is having missed the jam between Black Cat Bone and DH & The Hellcats at Yugong Yishan in September, a collaboration which Beijing Daze memorably dubbed 'Hellbone'! That was, by all accounts, a thoroughly awesome show, and very nearly the last-ever appearance for the now disbanded BCB.

Worst Gig of the Year

Winner:  Jeffrey Lewis at Yugong Yishan in August
This guy appears to aspire to be a sort of Tom Lehrer of the slacker generation, aiming for self-consciously 'clever' lyrics and an arch humour. Unfortunately, he's merely lame and obvious. I observed to BeijingDaze's Ruby at the time that I could imagine being mildly diverted by him for a few songs if we were still in college and he showed up to play for free in our favourite coffee shop. But having to pay top dollar for him at Yugong, my patience was exhausted very quickly: I think I walked out after about 20 minutes. The only consolation of the evening was a little dose of genuinely intelligent weirdness from Xiao He doing the warm-up.

Runner-up:  Gia (reviving the Hang On The Box name) at Hot Cat early in the year
I can't remember exactly when this one took place; it might possibly have been last year. And it's probably not really eligible for 'Worst Gig of the Year' anyway, because there weren't any expectations to disappoint here: everyone knows Gia is a screeching talent-bypass. On this night, the other two bands were OK, so I just stepped outside for most of the 'HOTB' set.

Best Bar Food

Winners:  Flamme, The Den

Runners-up: Luga's, First Floor, The Irish Volunteer

Last year's winner Sand Pebbles has disappointed most times I've been this year. The food is good value, and there are a few things I really like on the menu; but service out of the kitchen is chaotic, and you often wait a long time for something that is barely warmed through. First Floor's grub is a bit variable in quality (AVOID the nachos!), and seriously overpriced; but the steaks, burgers, and ribs are amongst the best to be had (not high praise in Beijing, but...). The Irish Volunteer has some very good dishes (the Thai curries added this year are almost worth the long hike out to Lido on their own), but there's nothing else about the bar that's ever likely to entice me there. Luga's worthy-but-dull burritos, and The Den's reassuringly unchanging and refreshingly affordable menu of bar food standards continue to be front-runners year after year. I feel slightly awkward about giving the top spot to Flamme, since it is really a restaurant rather than a bar, and so its food is naturally a class-and-a-half above any of these other picks. However, it does also have an extremely good bar; and the veggie side-dishes are very reasonably priced. Hence, I find myself more often eating a snack at the bar than sitting down at a table for a full meal. [The pizzas at MaoMaoChong are very, very good, but... well, that's all they do; and I don't somehow think of pizza as 'bar food'; and it's pretty much impossible to get one unless you go down there early evening before they get too busy.]

Best Place To Drink While Eating

Winners:  Fodder FactoryHome Plate BBQ

Runner-up:  Biteapitta

The Russian places - Traktirr and White Knights - have rather dropped off my circuit this year, as the drinking buddies who used to like to eat there have left... and as the quality of service and portion sizes has progressively dwindled. Fodder Factory feels like a little bit of a cheat, because it's impossible to get to, outside the city limits. But it is a great place to get sloshed over/after a meal: come for an early dinner, stay for 4 or 5 hours! Home Plate is a major arrival on the scene this year, and might have won in the 'Best Bar Food' category... if it actually had a bar. Definitely a great place to suck back a few cold ones before, during, or after a light meal, though - especially when it's warm enough to sit outside on the sidewalk. I frittered away a few weekend afternoons there during this year's mild autumn. My one gripe with the place is that they try to stock too many beers in one tiny fridge, and thus invariably run out of the beer you want - or run out of cold ones, anyway - very quickly. Biteapitta continues to be one of the only places around Sanlitun that regularly draws me back for its food.

Best Place To Go For A Cocktail

Winner:  Flamme

Runners-up:  MaiMaoMaoChong

Flamme, for me, continues to be head-and-shoulders above the competition, even now that Paul Mathew has transitioned from being a hands-on manager to an occasional supervisor/consultant/'guest barman'. He's trained up the charming Coco and Sophie very well, and his recipes are the best in town. I know Twilight is very good too, and I'm sure George's and Migas are as well; but they have insufficient magic to entice me into a long cab ride across town. Apothecary is too expensive and too up itself; I haven't been there in over a year, but nothing I hear from others encourages me to give it another chance. MaoMaoChong is a great resource to have in my neighbourhood, but most of their mixes tend towards being too sweet for my taste (I prefer their winter specials - when hot'n'sweet is what you want to keep the cold and the 'Beijing throat' at bay! - to their summer ones). MMC may have some serious competition now, with newcomer Mai having just opened up in an even nicer hutong space (and even nearer to my apartment!).

Best Place For Sitting Outside

Winner:  Home Plate BBQ

Runner-Up:  Alba

Still rather a limited category for me, alas. Hutong restaurants with outside seating are still woefully few and far between after the Olympic crackdown on sidewalk 'clutter'. There aren't many bars with decent rooftops in my 'hood any more, either. I gather there are lots of fancy-schmancy places with terraces around Sanlitun and Gongti these days, but they're probably all a bit out of my price bracket, and I don't like that part of town anyway. The outside seating area is Home Plate's main attraction (see above under 'Best Place To Drink While Eating'), but they had a lot of hassles with the local chengguan arbitrarily shutting that down during their early months; let's hope we'll be free of those interruptions next year. I find the food at Alba, apart from the desserts, mostly fairly uninspiring; but it does have a great roof terrace, and is thus a fairly regular weekend brunch spot whenever the sun shines.

Best Happy Hour

Winner: Flamme
It's got a bit shorter (finishing at 7.30pm rather than 8pm now). They've never been very good at advertising when their special promotions are on (has that 'all day happy hour' or 'extended happy hour' on Tuesdays been completely discontinued now??). Things are getting a wee bit more expensive (the 330ml of draft Stella has sneaked up from 25 to 30 rmb). And they've recently introduced a cover charge too (an utterly trivial 10rmb, but it still rankles slightly). However, it is the only proper Happy Hour in the city: half price on everything - including the superb cocktails. Nothing else comes close.

Runners-up: The Den, Mississippi
The Den deserves kudos for having the longest-running and most consistent Happy Hour. I think they've moved the start time back from 4pm to 5pm, but basically it's been exactly the same deal ever since I came here: half-price, or very nearly half-price, on very nearly everything. Mrs Hippy (as I like to think of it) only knocks off about a third of the price for its Happy Hour tariff, but it's already a bit cheaper than The Den on its regular tariff. It has the additional advantage of being much less well-known (and is thus often virtually deserted). And its Happy Hour runs from 4pm to 11pm (which I feel is really a bit too long; but if you want to get completely lashed for as little as possible, this is the place).

Least Surprising Closure

Winner: July's
The second most awful and consistently customer-free bar on Nanluoguxiang has finally succumbed to economic realities. Wiggly Jiggly's, however, somehow still shambles on.

Worst Bar

Winner: The Stumble Inn
Which also, oddly enough, won 'Best Bar' in The Beijinger's (rigged??) poll earlier this year. There's no accounting for taste! I've hardly been in this year, so dismal an impression did it make on me in its opening six months; however, no-one I've spoken to who has visited more recently has anything good to say about it. Food, prices, and service all seem to provide regular sources of complaint. And it's upstairs in a mall.

Runner-up: Drei Kronen
How does this overpriced Bavarian theme-park keep going???

Additional Runner-up: BeerMania
In the old days, it was unassuming, it had no delusions of grandeur. The original space was at least cosy, projected a sort of ramshackle charm. The new, vastly expanded venue has the ambience of a college cafeteria. The beer list is irrationally long, and overpriced - and, of course, none of the staff knows how much anything costs!

Award in Perpetuity for Consistent Vileness

I always do this, to open up the 'Worst Bar' category for other contenders.... I have found 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. It had looked like it might have closed for good this year (it's now getting its arse kicked by other bar options in the CBD, especially upscale club Xiu); but, after a long 'refurbishment' hiatus, it's now back again - and almost certainly as DISMAL as ever.

Most Sadly Missed Departures of the Year

Winner:  No. 8 Beer Garden
Although, in fact, this little-known open-air terrace beside Gongti Beimen may perhaps have foundered in 2010; we had such a shitty summer I didn't get over to Gongti much last year (and I was distracted by the World Cup, and a bad back, and a spell off alcohol: so, scarcely had a summer at all). I only noticed the site had been redeveloped into a restaurant five or six months ago.

Runners-up: Ned's, Reef (?)
Yes, very sad to see the cheery little Aussie cubby-hole on Nanluoguxiang disappear - although I gather Stevo made a tidy sum on the buyout; good on him. And, oh my god, Reef is gone?? I just noticed last night that it's been gutted - don't yet know what the story is there. But it looks bad. (Ah, luckily Reef is safe: it  was just an unexpected and extensive renovation job.)

In the music scene, of course, we've had little but bad news, with some of Beijing's best - and most fun - bands, Black Cat Bone, The Amazing Insurance Salesmen, the No Name Trio, and Rustic (at least, as we have known them till now) all calling it a day, and Ziyo/Free The Birds looking moribund.

The demise of long-time Lido favourite, Tom's DVD Store, was also a sorry blow.

And on a personal note, I said goodbye to JK, the creator of best bar in Beijing, 12 Square Metres, and to KP, my oldest friend in China. A very sad year.

Party of the Year

Winner:  The inaugural 'dazeFEAST at 2 Kolegas
Food, booze, friends, music, and perfect weather. Badr and Ruby are now honour-bound (and goaded by death threats) to make this an annual event.

Runner-up: Nick Bonner's b'day bash at Great Leap Brewing
The Koryo Tours supremo is an all-around top bloke, and the surprise party for his birthday (50th?? Surely not?!) at the end of September drew an exceptionally diverse and jolly crowd.

Find of the Year

Winner:  Mai
In its first few weeks of 'soft opening', Mai really was almost impossible to find. The door to the street was usually not open, and sometimes not unlocked (even when it was supposed to be). The first time I went in, I'm not sure if he even had the red lanterns up. And then the lanterns were tiny, easy to ignore; the place looked like it might be a restaurant, if it was anything. I rather miss that initial speakeasy vibe - now Jeff's put an illuminated sign outside, he'll be starting to attract riff-raff.

Runner-up:  Za Jia
Not actually that hard to find, but the absence of a sign outside makes it possible to wander past without noticing it on your first visit.

There were many others too, ultimately less worthy but intriguing oddities nonetheless.

Most Promising New Bar

Winners:  Mai, Za Jia
Both have marvellous hutong spaces (though Za Jia has the richer decor, the warmer ambience), both are indecently convenient to where I live (though Mai has the advantage on that, since my move in November), both have very cool owners. It's pretty well impossible to choose between them at the moment. Although I suspect that, if Mai fully lives up to its promise (it's only a month old, for heaven's sake!), it will edge out all rivals next year - for its fine selection of imported beers and its very good and reasonably priced cocktails.

Runners-up:  The James Joyce, Temple, Modernista
Modernista is a bit too airy and European in flavour for my taste; but it looks to be aiming to put on a good number of live music shows, and may well establish itself as a decent alternative to Salud. Temple is grungy and also does live music shows, yet somehow it's failing to call to me - perhaps not grungy enough? Or not cheap enough? It has the potential to become the best dive bar in the district (er, the only dive bar...), but I'm doubtful whether it will realise this. The James Joyce is a very welcome new alternative to The Den, The Tree, and Paddy O'Shea's; but its charming Malaysian landlady is its strongest card. No ambience has yet developed there, the service is haphazard, and the food is so crazily expensive that nobody ever orders any. However, it's still early days. We must keep our fingers crossed for it.

Barperson of the Year

Winners:  Coco and Sophie at Flamme
(See above, under 'Best Place To Go For A Cocktail')

Bar Owner of the Year

Winners:  Michael and Lauren of 12 Square Metres
I had been distraught at the prospect of losing both my favourite bar - second home! - of the last three years and its owner, JK, who had become one of my best mates. But I have to say, Mike and Lauren have proven to be superb replacements, far better than we could ever have dared to hope. They're an absolutely charming pair; and, in many ways, the bar is actually a little better than before. They're exerting themselves rather more to drum up new custom (a monthly Book Club, occasional movie nights and live music performances, a whisky tasting, a theme party for Halloween); and their own - small but very diverse - circle of friends has given us a much-needed infusion of new blood.

Runner-up:  Chad of Fubar and Grinders
Grinders has failed to impress me, and I'm a very irregular visitor to Fubar these days; but you have to give the big guy credit for managing to run two successful bars simultaneously. He's one of the most astute operators on the Beijing scene (though again, that's not necessarily high praise).

Bar of the Year

Winner:  Fubar
To be honest, I've hardly gone there this year, compared to my frequency of visits when it first opened. But I like it a whole lot better since the 2010 remodelling; it's much cosier, and that mezzanine is a great use of space. It is now about the only bar in Sanlitun/Gongti that could tempt me to cross town; the only place that always seems to have a good crowd in, mid or late evening; the only place that seems to be invariably well spoken off by a broad mix of people. Yet again, it seems Mr Lager is doing a lot of things right. [Ooops! I hope I'm not becoming a jinx, but... only a couple of weeks after this, Chad suffered a major falling out with the other investors, and appears to have been ousted from the bar. I fear that means that the bar will soon be in the toilet - because, frankly, Chad was the main reason to go there: it was his personality that lifted the place above mediocrity, and his watchful eye that kept the staff doing their jobs right. Whenever he wasn't around, the service was just a shambles. He was also solely responsible for sourcing keen promotional deals with various high-end spirits suppliers, and ensuring the authenticity of all the stock. I'm not at all optimistic about Fubar's prospects without him. Very sad news.]

Runners-up:  Er, many, and none. I am reluctant to revisit past selections in this category - although 12 Square Metres, Salud, Amilal, El Nido, and the Pool Bar are all still exerting their charm. I considered the supposedly likeliest 'contenders' - mostly notably El Nido, First Floor, and Great Leap Brewing - in this post a few weeks back. Though several places have created a lot of buzz for one reason or another, none of them, for my money, has been an unequivocal success.

I suppose many people would put MaoMaoChong (City Weekend's 'Bar of the Year' winner) in the frame as well. Much as I love the place, I somehow just never think of it as 'a bar'. It still, for me, has more of a bistro feel, even though they've given up the idea of positioning themselves as a pizzeria (what with the hopeless constraints of that tiny kitchen and the completely inadequate two-at-a-time oven). Their spirits and cocktail selections are great, but the beer list is very limited; and I can't see myself giving my top award to a place that doesn't have anything on draught. Maybe next year I might rethink - I almost feel they need a special category all of their own!

There we have it. Any comments, queries, abuse??

HBH 266

The agents of change
snatch our memories from the street.
Favourite bars vanish.

Walking home last night, I was saddened - shocked, appalled - to see that Reef, one of the oldest and most popular bars on Nanluoguxiang (the 'Yacht Club', as it was affectionately known to my friends and me), appears to be demised. Everything seems to be gone from inside, including the bar itself. I can't imagine why Chen would think he needed such a thoroughgoing refit. So, I must assume that he's been bumped out by an inflated rent demand, and that the space is about to become yet another upmarket boutique.

The Nanluoguxiang we knew and loved is all but gone. I expect it will have been swept away entirely within another couple of years. I don't want to be around to see it happen.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

So, farewell then... D-22

The 'big news' on the music scene this week is the apparent confirmation that the long rumoured closure of Wudaokou's trendiest music venue, D-22, is now imminent - probably some time early in the New Year.

I wonder if this has been on the cards for a long while; perhaps the owners, knowing the lease was up, had been losing interest in the place, starting to pursue other options. A couple of people in bands have told me that D-22 has been in the doldrums for a year or more, that the energy seemed to have drained out of the project, and the crowds weren't coming any more.

It's always sad to see the number of music bars get smaller rather than bigger; sad, too, to see a place go under that's been around for more than five years now.

I liked the intensity the place could sometimes achieve, with people packed at the front around that tiny stage - or hanging over the balcony behind it. And, after a very ropey start over their first year or two, they did eventually manage to get their act together in getting the sound system to work properly and finding some decent bar staff.

But, for me, it was never a great venue. The long narrow space meant you couldn't see much unless you managed to push your way down to the front. The mezzanine made the acoustics very muddy, unless you managed to push your way right down the front. Unnecessarily long bills and maddeningly late starts would often mean you'd have to hang around till 2am to see a decent band come on.

Worst of all, the place seemed to me to become almost immediately very incestuous and self-satisfied. In theory, the idea of providing a home base to incubate promising student bands is all well and good. But I'm not convinced how well it worked in practice; for my money, the roster of 'house bands' never had enough quality or diversity. It was mostly just a lot of second raters copying each other; and thinking they were pretty cool because they were drawing big crowds of foreign students from the nearby universities. Carsick Cars were generally reckoned to be the best of the "D-22 bands" - and I didn't rate them.

During the first two or three years they were open, I lost count of the number of times I found myself up in Wudaokou on a gig night, wandered past D-22 to see who they had on.... and ended up going to next-door 13 Club instead. Better space, better bar, lower door fee, bigger crowd - always fun times. 13 has always tended to draw more of a Chinese crowd, too. I think the thing that used to piss me off most about D-22 in recent years was that, on a weekend, the crowd would very often seem to be 70% or 80% laowai. When that happens, you're doing something wrong; there are lots of local kids who love this music too, but you've got to make it affordable for them.

Looking back over six years of gigs there, I think I've probably only had 4 or 5 really good nights (the best being a launch event for Arrows Made Of Desire's first CD, at which I got utterly wrecked on tequila shots with a bunch of Swedes...), and a similar number of rather mixed experiences (good bands/ shitty bar service, good bands/ show going on much too late, bands half good/ half bad); the other 15 or 20 shows I went to there were painful to endure.

So, sorry, D-22 - to be honest, you're not going to be much missed. I hope that something better is going to come along in your place.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Return of the Harmonica Man

Laurent Maur, one of the best jazz harmonica players in the world, is back in town again. I caught a few shows by him when he visited around this time last year, and he was quite spellbinding (check out the video clip embedded in that earlier post).

He played a small show last week at Jianghu, but I only found out about that at the last minute, and was feeling too ill to go. I hadn't heard of any other gigs scheduled. Last night, I received a fortuitous tip-off from one of the punters in the bar that he was jamming with the Hot Club de Beijing at Salud; so glad I caught a half hour of that at the end of the evening, but now I'm hungry for more of his playing.

I'm not sure how long's he's around this time. I hear he might be heading home to France early in the New Year. But I gather he's slated to play at Modernista on Thursday, and East Shore Jazz Café on Saturday. I'll have to go to at least one of those.

[Thanks to Jean-Seb for letting me know about these two gigs.]

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Froog's Christmas Solution (No. 22 in the neverending series...)

Froog's solution to being abandoned by all his friends, and having nothing much to do over Christmas in a foreign country, and being too wretchedly ill to fancy going out anyway....

Spend the entire (four-day!) weekend at home, around two-thirds of it in bed... with a bottle of whiskey on hand for comfort...

When some people remarked to me via SMS that the whiskey-in-bed option sounded quite enviable, I observed, "Just so long as people don't start to think 'Jim Beam' is my gay porn star lover!"

The worst business card in the world?

Take a look at this.

Does this guy actually want anyone to find his bar? Does he want a successful business?

It's not the hideous green-and-white colour scheme I object to. (Well, it is; but there's so much more...)

It's not the inaccuracy of the map, or the fact that it's in Chinese only. These things we get used to. (Although anywhere that courts a laowai customer base really ought to do biliingual promotion. And this chap has chosen an English name for his establishment and highlighted 'pizza' on his menu...)

No, it's the utter illegibility of the key contact information. The phone numbers are in a font that is only about 1.5 mm high, and extremely thin. I still have pretty acute eyesight, but I strained my eyes trying to read this. There is not a chance in hell that any Chinese patron would be able to.

Instant FAIL.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Bon mot for the week

"If there is a virtue in the world at which we should always aim, it is cheerfulness."

Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

I don't think I shall be celebrating quite this heartily. But that's what our imaginations are for.

A Merry Christmas to all my readers!!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas (anti-)cheer

A bar owner acquaintance of mine several years ago introduced me to this antidote to seasonal jollity, a song called Christmas Sucks, ostensibly by Tom Waits and Peter Murphy of Bauhaus. I mentioned this way back in the early days of the blog; but I couldn't find audio or video to embed back then, so just reprinted the lyrics. Now that everything is on YouTube (perhaps the only progress the world has seen in the last five years), I can finally let you hear the song.

But - shock, horror! - I discover that it's not really Tom and Peter after all. The song is by a band called Porn Orchard (GREAT band name!): Murphy is impersonated by their vocalist Ted Hafer, and Waits by guitarist Curtiss Pernice.

The bottle is empty. The sleigh has a flat.
The stripper in my bed is ugly and fat.

Great stuff!

But just in case fake Tom is not good enough for you, here's the real thing: a vintage performance from the 1970s - Silent Night and Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis. [I posted this once before, but it bears repeating.]

Friday, December 23, 2011

A labour of love

My new favourite barman - Jeff, at the dangerously nearby hutong cocktail haunt Mai - asked me if I could give him some jazz to play at the bar.

Could I?! Well, I wasn't all that sure. Jazz has always been something of a minority interest in my music collection; I'm certainly not any sort of expert. And the majority of my music collection - very nearly all of my jazz - is on vinyl, and back home in the UK in a friend's barn. I have just about nothing on my computer. But I said I'd see what I could do.

And as I progressed with my unpacking, I discovered that I did in fact have a surprisingly large number of jazz records on CD. So, at the beginning of last week, I set to ripping them all on to my computer, so that I could copy them to a USB for Jeff. And it took me about two days.

There are nearly 1,200 tracks (and I took some trouble to weed out duplicates; of course, there are various versions of classic songs by different artists, and a few different versions - or 'alternate takes' - of a song by the same artist, but no two tracks are identical). That's around 70 hours of music. Most of it is very trad and mellow, although there's quite a bit of variety. Billie Holiday probably takes the largest share, although Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, and the majestic Cape Verdean moma singer Cesária Évora are running her close. Sinatra, Miles Davis, Fats Waller, and, of course, Louis Armstrong are also heavily featured. Those seven or eight artists probably account for nearly half of the total. But there are twenty or so others who contribute an album or two each, and another four or five dozen who crop up just for an occasional song.

There's an Edith Piaf anthology, and a double album of other great French chansons of the '30s and '40s: Charles Trenet, Maurice Chevalier, Arletty, and so on. There's an album of Argentinean tango classics. There's quite a lot of Cuban music: old school stuff from the 1950s and the 'Buena Vista Social Club' revival of more recent times. There are also a few more modern things: Thomas Dolby's mellow cover of Dan Hicks's I Scare Myself, the reinvented cocktail jazz of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, the irresistible bossa nova of Suzanne Vega's Caramel, and the gorgeous folk/jazz ballads of the short-lived Eddi Reader/Mark E. Nevin collaboration Fairground Attraction.

Jeff, though, isn't sure if he'll use any of this. He seems to think modern punters prefer 'chillout lounge' stuff with their cocktails - and he may be right. Oh dear.

But if, next time you're in there, you should happen to hear... Coleman Hawkins, Julie London, Stan Getz, Dinah Washington, Chet Baker, John Coltrane, Etta James, Eva Cassidy... that was me. Enjoy.

HBH 265

Ground glass in the throat!
Alcohol's the only balm:
Breakfast hot toddy.

I am mildly ashamed of myself, but... this is the most miserably persistent cough/cold/sore throat I've had in ages, and I don't seem to have any other medicine in the house.

In fact, I don't even have any decent alcohol. We're talking an apple-cinnamon tea toddy with a shot of Jingjiu. Not the most wonderful tasting drink in the world, but it gets the job done. Hopefully I'll be able to get back to bed shortly and attempt to get some of the sleep I didn't really manage last night. 

Looks like it's going to be an under-the-duvet Christmas for me this year...

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Top Five New Arrivals

As a prelude to my forthcoming 2011 Bar Awards, here's a quick rundown of the most welcome - or at any rate, the most significant - changes on the scene this past year.

I have been grumping for a while that things have got rather static in the last few years, that there haven't been many exciting new openings.

While that's still largely true - no newcomers at all around Sanlitun or on Nanluoguxiang? - there have been a handful of openings this year that at least have the potential to have quite a major and lasting impact.

I won't do a numbered countdown this time, because each of these places is of a very different type, and it's therefore difficult to compare them or put them in any meaningful rank order. Instead, I'll attempt a chronological order.

The Top Five New Arrivals on the Beijing F&B scene in 2011

Great Leap Brewing
Craft brews on draught in a great courtyard setting - it's won over many hearts. It is hoped this may usher in a proliferation of microbreweries around the city, and the possibility of regular bars being able to start stocking locally-produced craft beers. I'm afraid I'm disappointed that Great Leap concentrates on novelty flavours rather than on beer that is more traditional in style and genuinely characterful. Most of their brews are off-puttingly expensive, and just not very nice.

A large-ish dive bar in the Gulou neighbourhood, with ambitions of becoming a major music venue - it's got everyone's hopes up. Well, it's had our hopes up for well over a year now, since Clément first started looking for a space to build his dream in. Unfortunately, it's not a great space: it's an ugly, windowless box, with severe - possibly insurmountable - problems with its ventilation and acoustics. It's also fighting against the upstairs in a mall stigma, and against the obscurity of its location: we're not really a speakeasy, we're just very hard to find, and we don't have a sign outside....

Home Plate BBQ
The best American diner-type place in town, by far (though there's not a lot of competition): hardly surprising this place has so quickly built a following. They had a lot of problems early on with their chengguan closing down their outside seating area for days at a time; hopefully, that won't plague them again next summer. A more pressing concern is that they don't have that much space inside, or any bar as such; or very much beer storage capacity (only ONE fridge?? Come on, guys!). An expansion venue is urgently needed.

The James Joyce
One of the very rare attempts to launch a proper pub around Sanlitun (or anywhere else for that matter): its custom is building slowly. Actually, if we disregard Danger Doyle's (which is just ludicrously awful) and Nearby The Tree (which is a 'spillover' from its parent venue around the corner), the last such newcomer was Paddy O'Shea's - which is now 3 or 4 years old. And the last one before that was the transplanting of The Tree from Sanlitun Nanjie - which is, what, 8 years or so ago now; and it had quite a few years of history on Nanjie prior to that. And the only other surviving representative in this category is The Den, which is as old as the hills. At present, there are a lot of things wrong with the Joyce; but not nearly as many as there are with its rivals, The Den and The Tree. It does have - by a country mile - the best pint of Guinness in town. And it provides a very welcome - and, thus far, mercifully uncrowded - alternative for watching TV sport.

A cocktail bar that's not too prissy to keep a decent beer list too? In a siheyuan? 12 minutes from my home? Thank you, Santa!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Recommended Posts, July-September 2010

I've fallen a couple of months behind in my series of roundups of my best moments from a year ago. I just got around to a catch-up over on Froogville last week; now it's The Barstool's turn.

Guided Tour - recommended posts from the 3rd quarter of 2010

1)  A topical bon mot  -  5th July 2010
One of my wiser insights - on why the English may be especially addicted to supporting underdogs.

2)  Fighting Beer  -  9th July 2010
A great little skit from English comedian Harry Enfield, imagining what a Nelson Mandela TV ad might be like.

3)  The gloatiol to end them all  -  10th July 2010
Comment verification fortuitously invents a new word we can use to describe the sort of protracted goal celebration favoured by hyper-enthusiastic South American TV commentators. I am reminded of one of the most creative - and historically wide-ranging - of such war-whoops (unfortunately, England were on the receiving end of it; but it's funny, anyway).

An anguished review of why it's so hard to get a date in this town. Although, as it turns out, some of these complaints apply equally to trying to arrange a rendezvous with friends, particularly my delinquent male drinking buddies (as I bitched again here).

5)  The best barman in the world?  -  20th July 2010
An appreciation of my Aussie pal Nigel Murphy, who took care of my favourite 12 Square Metres bar on Mondays for several months - providing one of the highlights of my year (not least for his wonderful music selections!).

6)  Game of the names  -  22nd July 2010
I try to revive my 2008 'collecting box' for possible names for a bar or restaurant by offering some more suggestions of my own.

7)  Mojito trough  -  27th July 2010
One of my most inventive drink-related ideas! Still seeking some VC interest for this one...

8)  Trajectory  -  5th August 2010
One of my favourite posts on either blog in the whole of last year: a humorous analysis of the typical life-cycle of a small Beijing bar. (I followed up a week or two later with some examples of the kind of bars that had inspired this frippery.)

9)  The bar scene goes BANANAS!!  -  7th August 2010
I happen to catch a comically awful documentary on the evolution of China's nightlife scene on CCTV-9, the country's reliably dire 'English language' channel.

10)  Great Dating Disasters (8)  -  10th August 2010
I think this is probably the worst dating experience I've ever had (although my US-based buddy The British Cowboy claims he can top it!).

11)  The phantom comb (and other analogies)  -  12th August 2010
I draw a telling parallel between shaving one's head and giving up booze (both of which I did last August!).

12)  Great Love Songs (20)  -  15th August 2010
Versions of These Foolish Things from Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Jane Birkin (from Bertrand Tavernier's exquisitely melancholy film of the same name).

The weekend's musical post gets me to thinking about the things that most remind me of my dearest, most missed friend, The Arts Entrepreneur.

14)  Bon voyage, Pierre!  -  20th August 2010
A brief tribute to a departing foreign musician prompts some gloomy reflections of the precariousness of our existence here in police-state China.

15)  Glowing Ember  -  23rd August 2010
I pen a nicely balanced review of a recent show by Canadian singer-songwriter Ember Swift (70% marvellous, 30% not quite there); whereupon she unleashes her demented online fan club on me!! So, that's what a lynch mob is like...

16)  Something for the ladies....  -  27th August 2010
The very funny Ladies of the World, from Kiwi comedy duo Flight Of The Conchords.

17)  How much or in what manner?  -  29th August 2010
One of my most pithily devastating put-downs - of my least-favourite Chinese rock star.

18)  A dangerous combination  -  31st August 2010
A particularly intense birthday celebration for best bud The Choirboy gives him the idea for a great name for a cocktail.

19)  A taste of Xinjiang, in a glass  -  1st September 2010
I invent a new cocktail inspired by lao hu cai - that spicy cucumber salad that goes so well with barbecued mutton-sticks.

20)  It shouldn't happen to a pretzel  -  6th September 2010
I discover Mark Zable, proud inventor of 'deep fried beer' pretzel-dough pockets. Apparently, this is but the tip of a frying-stuff-that-shouldn't-be-fried creative iceberg in America. (This led me in turn to the ultimate in artery-clogging bar snacks.)

21)  Free is not necessarily good  -  8th September 2010
Perhaps surprisingly, I come out against all-you-can-drink promotions.

22)  A moment on the pool table  -  14th September 2010
Perhaps the greatest shot I have ever played.... (though only a week or so later I would suffer one of the very worst evenings of my life on the pool table - it's a fickle game!).

23)  All typos mean something...  -  20th September 2010
Yes, they do.

24)  HBH 201  -  24th September 2010
One of my better efforts: heavy on the pith, with a dash of Bukowski.

25)  DANGER, Will Robinson!  -  28th September 2010
Sometimes, when that customer comes into the bar, you know it's best to beat a hasty retreat.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas comes early

My friend DD threw her annual kids' Christmas Party for friends of her little boy this weekend. I am a soppy fool around young children, and the afternoon did much to revive spirits which had been flagging badly for a week or more. Also, I was grateful this year to be excused playing Santa, as I've been called on to do once or twice before. That's fun up to a point, but it is a lot of additional responsibility and stress that I didn't fancy trying to deal with this year.

Then MB and LJ, the new folks in charge down at my favourite bar, threw a freebie lock-in party for a small group of friends and regulars last night. That was great fun - and dangerously alcoholic.

Unfortunately... we may have peaked too early.

There's now nothing on the social calendar for the next 12 days. The infamous Big Frank has cancelled a plan to pop over from Korea. The Chairman is heading off down to south China to visit his elder brother. The Choirboy has returned to the bosom of his family for the holidays - lucky, lucky bastard! Ditto The Weeble, The Man In Black. The city has emptied out. And there's absolutely bugger-all to do.

Christmas is a bit of a non-event around here.

But I have one of the shittiest colds in recent memory, so I'm not likely to be able to go out anywhere for a while anyway.  Grump, grump, grump.

Bon mot for the week

"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."

Philip K. Dick (1928-1982)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

See what you missed!

Here's a great clip of Andrew "Jnr Boy" Jones in action. He was the highlight of Thursday's Chicago Live! jazz & blues show at CD Blues Café.

Friday, December 16, 2011

HBH 264

Spirits lift at last,
After weeks in the doldrums.
Old friends, good music.

Last night's jazz and blues concert was very nearly as good as I'd hoped (I didn't much care for the female vocalist who came on in the middle, but blues guitarist Junior Boy Jones got the joint jumping with his closing set, and all the supporting musicians were excellent), but what made the evening especially enjoyable was the unexpected appearance of several friends among the audience - including one who had supposedly abandoned us for good a year or so ago, but has just returned.

Despite the lack of publicity, and the icy weather, there was a very good turnout - slightly too many for comfort, in such a cramped venue as CD Blues, at least at first. Unfortunately, many of these seemed not to have come for this event. The place appears to have become a trendy spot for Chinese yuppies to hang out, many of whom don't have much interest in the music: several left noisily in the middle of sets, even in the middle of a song; and one chap, sat right up front by the stage, was working on his laptop throughout, paying the musicians no attention at all. I've never warmed to this venue, anyway: the drinks are a bit too pricey, and the space is very awkwardly laid out - with poor access to the bar, and poor sightlines to the stage from much of the room. And if this is the sort of clientele they are drawing, I won't be going back in a hurry.

But I was very glad to have caught this Booey Lehoo show (my translator friend The Weeble was good enough to explain the reference for us yesterday) - definitely one of the best gigs I've seen in a few years.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Gig of the year?

This doesn't seem to have received any publicity anywhere that I've seen, but.... since the show's in quite a small venue, that's probably a good thing.

I discovered this in a happy moment of serendipity last weekend at an art exhibition opening which was part of a series of events being organised this week by an outfit called Booey Lehoo. No, I've no idea what the name is supposed to mean (and the website doesn't very clearly explain what the organization or the event is), but it's apparently a promotional initiative from APSA (Americans Promoting Study Abroad), collaborating with the 100,000 Strong Initiative and the Jackie Chan Foundation in efforts to broaden the social profile of young Americans coming here to study Mandarin.

The 'main event' is supposed to be a big concert this Saturday at the National Indoor Stadium (wherever the hell that is - never heard of it!) - but the 'headliner' is a rapper called, so that's of absolutely NO INTEREST to me.

No, the thing that's got me hopping around in excitement is that tonight they're putting on a much more intimate show at CD Blues - with a diverse bunch of blues and jazz musicians, most of whom hail from the Chicago scene and seem to have some pretty awesome resumés. [Not that any of this appears to be on the Booey website! If I hadn't happened to pick up the little booklet about their week of other arts events supporting the main concert, I'd be completely in the dark about this likely gem of a show.  Aha - here it is on the website. Very well hidden!]

Apart from hotel bar residencies and the occasional mini-festival, we don't really get any significant jazz performers coming here. And we don't get visiting bluesmen at all. Harp player Charlie Musselwhite was probably the last one, and that was nearly 4 years ago.

This is my Christmas present come early. Thank you, Santa!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

My Mai

Gosh, this is FATE.

Just as I move apartments, migrating outside the North 2nd Ringroad which necessitates a change of walking habits such that I now usually go down Beiluoguxiang rather than Jiugulou Dajie when heading out for the evening,.... a new bar opens up near the north end of Beiluo.

It's barely 15 minutes' walk from my apartment (it would be a lot quicker, if the 2nd Ringroad weren't such a pain to get across). It is now the nearest bar to my apartment (well, apart from Cangku and ZuiYuefang, and a couple of little cafés - none of which are serious contenders as a 'local'). And it's good. Very, very good.

It's called Mai, and it's set in a siheyuan. The long main room has some lovely high roof beams, well restored with a dark varnish. And the little courtyard might be nice in the summer. There's a small 'private room' and a kitchen on the other two sides of the yard. The boss, a young chap called Jeff Ji, trained at a couple of the city's premier cocktail bars, so he's going to emphasise his cocktails - very well-made, and some quite unusual recipes, but affordably priced - but not get snobby about it; there'll be a good range of wines and imported bottled beers as well. It's like Apothecary, but without the pretension - and practically on my doorstep. Or... like El Nido, but with way more space to sit inside - and cocktails! This place is going to be a winner.

I discovered it by sheer good fortune - intrigued by the two tiny red lanterns hanging above an otherwise plain and inconspicuous doorway. It was just entering a week or two of 'soft opening' prior to its big launch on the first Friday of December. Jeff's a friendly guy, and eager to learn - open to feedback on everything from the cocktail recipes to the pricing. And the 'soft opening' phase wasn't really an 'opening' at all; while he was still stocking the bar and getting things shipshape, he refused to let anyone pay for anything (I tried not to take advantage of him too much). The launch party was a recklessly loss-making event too: bottled Stellas at a nominal 5 kuai and very strong Old Fashioneds for an equally ridiculous 10 kuai. Man, was I wrecked that night!

But this is a fine example of the effectiveness of spending a little money to engender customer goodwill (something Chinese entrepreneurs are often blind to). I feel so goddamned guilty and grateful for all the cheap-or-free good times he's showed me in the past few weeks that I'm now honour-bound to drop in for a last nightcap almost every time I've been out.

And Jeff's latest promotional craziness is a 'Beer Tasting' this Friday. He hasn't confirmed the details to me yet, but I think the plan is supposed to be that you can get 6 bottles of premium imported beer (not sure if it will be a specified 6, or a free choice from his extensive list) for the giveaway price of 60 rmb. Aha! It's not such a complete giveaway. He really is planning a 'tasting' - just a small glass of each beer. But then, you can get a free bottle of your favourite one at the end. 9pm start. Give Jeff a call on 13811252641 if you'd like to take part.

Hm, I wonder where I'll be this Friday....

[Mai is the Chinese word for wheat or malt, so Jeff felt it would be an apposite name for a bar that boasts an array of fine beers and single malt whiskies. Unfortunately, he picked the bizarre and rather unclassy Malteasers as the English name for the bar. I think he might be persuaded to drop that. Mai is a way cooler name, and easy to remember. That's all that's on the menu and the business cards, I think. And on the sign outside the door. (Yes, there is one now! He had a bit of a speakeasy vibe going at first: nothing to indicate that this unremarkable door was the portal to a little slice of bar heaven.)]

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Why I'll probably NEVER go to Blue Frog again

I have a friend who is strangely, sadly addicted to the Blue Frog 'Two-for-One Burger Deal' on Mondays, and she occasionally tempts me to accompany her. But last night, I ducked out on her, after suffering something of a panic attack in there. No, revulsion attack would be more like it. I've never really liked the place; and suddenly ALL THE REASONS WHY came rushing upon me at once!


Boy, it gets busy in there on Mondays now. I think I hadn't been inside the place in well over two years, maybe more like three - and back then, their custom was fairly slow. I'll usually only go when the weather's nice enough to sit outside - and right at the start of the evening, before things get too hectic. 7.30pm on a drab winter's evening: VISION OF HELL.

A full or nearly full house generates an intolerable hubbub in there. In those conditions, there is a strong case for no longer fighting to keep the music audible above the din of conversation: there's already enough of a feedback loop with people shouting to be heard above loud chatterers at other tables, without having to try to compete with the Frog's shite music playlist being progressively cranked up as well.

Impatient hunger
I have developed very Chinese dining habits: I don't usually eat very much during the day, and so am more than ready for my main evening meal by 6pm or so, and positively ravenous by 7pm. I have a very low tolerance of crap service at the best of times, but if you keep me waiting for food when my stomach is rumbling, I'm likely to get very cranky indeed. I've often had to wait 10 or 20 minutes to get a drink order filled in Blue Frog, even early evening when they're not yet that busy. In the chock-a-block conditions last night, I anticipated that we'd be lucky to place an order in much less than 30 minutes, and might have to wait twice that long for any food to arrive. That's not a viable situation for me.

Laowai overload
I've never liked the idea of places that completely insulate you from the experience of being in China. I thus prefer bars like Reef and the Pool Bar, where the clientele is predominantly Chinese, or places like 12 Square Metres and Salud, where it's about 50/50 - to places like The Den, where it's always 90% or more foreigners. But at least The Den manages to pull in a certain proportion of Chinese WAGs and business partners; Blue Frog last night was 100% wall-to-wall foreigners. How did we come to be so numerous? And why do we have such lousy taste?!

The quality's not there
I've found Blue Frog's burgers to be of somewhat variable quality, and - even at their best - nothing really all that special. The ones at Let's Burger are significantly better. The ones at First Floor are almost comparable, for a bit less. The ones at Home Plate and The Den are pretty good, and cost much less. Why does anyone bother with Blue Frog - even on 'half-price Mondays'??

Why the hell am I eating a burger anyway?
Back in England, I probably wouldn't eat more than 5 or 6 a year, at the very most - and those would usually be from Burger King (or, more likely, from a Turkish kebab place; I like to support the independent operators against the big chains wherever I can). I don't eat in bars very much back home; and burgers just aren't such a big thing over there. When I'm visiting friends in the States - yes, that can be a different story: I don't have cooking facilities of my own, so I eat out in bars and diners much more often; burgers are a standard, competitively-priced meal; and there are some very good quality 'fast food' outlets, such as Five Guys in the DC area (where I most often stay). I might well eat half a dozen burgers in a two or three week visit to the States. But here in Beijing? I cook for myself around half of the time. I'm quite happy to eat in Chinese restaurants most of the rest of the time. I only feel inclined to indulge in Western 'comfort food' two or three times a month - and more for the convenience factor of being able to get served quickly and eat on the hoof than because I suffer cravings for this kind of thing. And if my urges do take me in that direction... well, I'm more inclined to go for British pub grub (the steak-and-kidney pie at The Den or battered sausage and chips from Fish Nation), or for Tex-Mex (the Luga's burritos or the Mexican stuffed chicken breasts at Sand Pebbles), or for Middle Eastern (a doner from Kebab Republic or a falafel sandwich from Biteapitta), or for some barbecue (the pulled pork sandwich at Home Plate or the ribs at First Floor). A burger?? WHY????

I figure I eat 8 to 10 burgers a year out here. And that's about 6 too many. I've decided to cut back - and Blue Frog will be the first place to go.