Saturday, December 10, 2011

Top Five Nearly But Not Quites

As the time looms for me to draw up my year-end 'Bar Awards', I find myself doubting whether I am going to be able to give a prize for 'Best Bar' this year.

Amongst my little circle of friends, the accolade would probably have to go to Nearby The Tree - which has become our default rendezvous in Sanlitun, because of its good service, keen prices, and convenient location (and the rather good - and scarcely ever used - pool table hiding upstairs). But it has to be said, the place lacks atmosphere. And it doesn't enjoy a particularly busy custom. I hope with this award to reflect a zeitgeist feeling of what bar has made the biggest impact on the drinking scene over the past year, rather than just boosting my personal favourites; and NTT, alas, falls a long way short by that criterion. The James Joyce shows a lot of promise, but is far too new for consideration this year. Za Jia is my pick of the year's newcomers, but it remains determinedly low-key; it hasn't yet built up much of a following beyond the surrounding Gulou neighbourhood.

I suspect quite a few people would nominate one or more of the following bars as a possible year's best. Hence, this post becomes a....

Top Five NOT Best Bar of the Year candidates

5)  The Stumble Inn
It seems to have developed some kind of a following. I find it hard to imagine how. I haven't been in since the beginning of the year, and I can't imagine ever going back there. I had such egregiously awful experiences with the staff there last year that I completely gave up on it - but the prices, decor, and location all work heavily against it as well. I find it almost literally invisible: I walk through the Sanlitun Village mall pretty often, never noticing quite where the Stumble is. And even if I could keep my prejudice against being upstairs in a mall in check - as I do quite often for Flamme, and occasionally for the Union Bar & Grille - I'd far prefer one of those near neighbours: much better food and a proper bar ambience at Union (but prices similarly far too high); much, much, much better food and one of the best bars in town at Flamme (although, unfortunately, not very much of it - since the place pitches itself as a restaurant rather than a bar).

4)  El Nido
Much as I love the place, El Nido doesn't have the scope to be anything other than a hutong curiosity. And I feel it has failed to sustain the momentum of its first six months. The likeable young boss Xiao Shuai was himself one of the main attractions of the place, but this year he's been distracted with other business ventures and is spending less and less time in his original bar; without him, the experience is just a bit flat. Limited opening hours may work against the place a little as well; I really think he ought to open no later than 6pm (I haven't actually worked out when he does open: I think it must be a not always terribly prompt 7pm), and possibly at 4pm or 5pm during the summer.

3) Temple
The new Gulou live music venue shows some promise, but - having only finally opened this summer after protracted difficulties with lease and licences - it is still too new for the top honour. And I have my doubts as to whether it will manage to be a contender next year either. It's a great location for me, only 15 or 20 minutes from home. And they are starting to piece together a decent programme of - mostly free - gigs. Clément Berger's music biz contacts and experience working at Salud give the place a head start; indeed, he's poached key elements of the staff and the core custom from Salud! But I'm not convinced that musicians will ever prove that successful at running a bar. The place just isn't inviting enough - or cheap enough - to draw a crowd other than on gig nights. And its prospects as a gig venue are severely limited by its awful acoustics (there's one 'sweet spot' near the head of the stairs; the uneven ceiling and huge transverse beams make it hopelessly muddy everywhere else - and the best sound system in the world isn't going to be able to do anything about that). My hunch is that Temple will manage to survive, perhaps even do modestly well for itself, but never break through to the level of becoming one of the city's leading 'destination' venues.

2)  First Floor
I predicted last year that this place would do OK but fall just short of greatness. I'm surprised it's done as well as it has. I suppose some credit is due to affable manager Jack Zhou for that. But I think it's rather more down to its prime location - that very conspicuous ground-floor spot on bustling Sanlitun Houjie - and the comparative dearth of decent bars in Sanlitun these days, rather than any great virtue of the bar or its staff. It has awful acoustics, awful atmosphere; and the food (other than on 'Half-Price Mondays') is too expensive. I hardly ever think of going there these days: The Den has comparable pub grub at much lower prices; Flamme and Element Fresh have much better food at similar prices.

And in the top spot, the place that has produced the most buzz this year, but still, for me, isn't quite making it....

1)  Great Leap Brewing
I think every foreigner in this city must have been to Great Leap at least once or twice. I'm sure every foreigner has at least heard of it. That's quite an achievement! But I like the idea of Great Leap more than its execution. I love the location, I love the courtyard... and I love decently strong and tasty beer in a style other than lager. I just don't particularly like the beer they make. It's all much too sweet for my palate: even the supposedly more bitter ones have a heavy dose of malt on top, and most of their brews have a fruitiness or a honey-sweetness about them that I find cloying. And for what it is - homebrew, with no brand name behind it, and weak consistency of product - it is far too expensive. (It particularly pisses me off that they never display the price of anything, either. I mostly drink only the No. 6 Pale Ale, but I seem to get charged something different for it every time I go there.) Their limited winter opening hours also militate against it being treated as a regular bar rather than a brewery that runs an occasional bar on the side. And one wonders how the viability of the bar operation may be impacted by their recent setback over getting a distribution licence (with them opening up a second production facility out of town, it had seemed as though their main focus was going to be supplying other bars rather than running one of their own). So, Great Leap Brewing has been a very welcome addition to the scene, and the year's biggest talking point, but that's not quite enough, in my book, to make it the year's 'Best Bar'. Indeed, it scarcely even counts as a bar at all, because they don't sell anything other than their own beer. No, I think that alone renders them ineligible in the category. Misgivings about their product (mostly fatuous novelty beer rather than real beer) and the warmth of their welcome (non-existent: gawd, they're an unfriendly bunch in there!) are but secondary gripes.

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