A remarkable thing has happened. Beijing bar owners have finally discovered the concept of improving their venues, making changes that are actually useful (rather than perverse, pointless, and retrograde) and executed with some taste and and attention to quality.
Luga's has long been struggling with a variety of problems and challenges: its on-again-off-again expansion into the neighbouring basement space, its ambiguous relationship with its sister Vietnamese restaurant upstairs, the threatened loss of its outside pavement café and restricted access/visibility due to the mysterious erection of blue construction fencing right in front of it for several months last year. But it's starting the new 'season' strongly, with our diminutive entrepreneur having taken advantage of the slow period over Spring Festival to get the builders in. There's now an impressive new glass frontage (replacing that perpetually wonky sliding patio door), which encloses the staircase up to Pho Pho - uniting the two spaces to allow easy sharing of the food between them (their menus are now combined, so that you can order Vietnamese or Tex-Mex dishes in either part of the venue). Not much else has changed inside, but the place feels significantly more classy.
Even more surprisingly, grungy music bar Dos Kolegas also had a long close-down over Chunjie to allow for some remodelling. They've been able to expand into the unit to the rear of them, creating a small seating area behind the sound desk and allowing for the installation of three new loos (which, for the time being at least, are unbelievably clean) with an improbably swanky washroom area outside (including a huge mirror to help you adjust your make-up or groom your Mohawk). The green room has been slightly expanded, and an extension to the bar added (though not in use last night, since Gao Feng was on his own behind the bar) - taking over the space formerly occupied by the notoriously grotty gents loo (somehow, I'll miss that cracked floor sill that always felt as if it was about to collapse underneath you). It's not all good news: the curtain at the side of the stage - which used to allow a great close-up view of the bands - has been boarded up; and the super-tall speaker stacks have returned (although much skinnier than those awful ones they had for a while a couple of years back; and pushed right over to the sides of the stage, so they don't completely obstruct the view this time).
The best feature of the new improved Kolegas, though, is the expanded bar, with a collection of enormous beer fridges (this is just one of three). They're still going to run out of cold ones once in a while on a busy night, but it'll take a lot more than one hour now. (I wish other venues would take note: MAO Livehouse and Home Plate BBQ, in particular!)
[Some musical 'renovations' going on as well last night, with the splendid Amazing Insurance Salesmen emerging from a 7- or 8-month hiatus that had threatened to be permanent. They seem to be enjoying being back together, playing with tremendous energy and exuberance - and, to my mind, sounding rather rockier than before. I like to think that I may have witnessed an historic turning point in Beijing musical history a couple of months back when I ran into their frontman Jean-Seb paying a rare visit to VA Bar's Wednesday night jam session. He had brought along his acoustic guitar, thinking to try out some of the 'experimental folk' he's been devoting himself to recently; but he was persuaded instead to pick up someone's Telecaster for a couple of songs, and he really got into it. The usually rather glum Frenchman was beaming from ear to ear when he came off stage, and confessed to me that he hadn't played electric in six months and had forgotten how much fun it could be. I really think that might have been the moment when he decided to get the band back together.]