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!

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