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??


Gary said...

Happy New Year, Froog!

Glad you got to see BRMC in the Jing.

I'll have to check out Flamme and Fodder Factory next time I get over.

Have a great 2012.

Anonymous said...

Awesome post! There's so many of these places I haven't been to - especially the live music places, except Jianghu and 2 Kogelas (for Daze Feast). Have been to James Joyce a few times recently and like it. I'll have to check out Mai, too.

Froog said...

Glad to be of service to a fellow music fan.

Let me know next time you're stopping by the Gulou area.

Froog said...

You should also check out Amilal some time: very good music selection, mostly on CD; mainly jazz, ballads, and world music. It is, to my knowledge, the only bar in Beijing - and quite possibly in the whole of east Asia - where you have a chance of hearing some Nick Drake (or Nick Cave or Jacques Brel).