Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Awards time again

The City Weekend Bar Awards are already done and dusted, I believe. There didn't seem to be a very long window for voting, and the couple of times I dropped by the website to try to register my choices the survey widget was being very glitchy, and crashed half-way through; so, I'm not sure if any of my picks actually counted. [Er, no - in fact, voting is open until April 30th. But the bloody online poll is still cranky as all hell.]  A pity, because in the past, City Weekend's awards have seemed rather more credible than The Beijinger's, whose voting system is so horribly convoluted and unreliable that I'd guess the vast majority of attempted votes never get counted; and the nominations and the awards are always suspiciously dominated by those venues with a professional PR lobbying campaign (and/or a big advertising spend with the magazine) behind them.

Anyway, The Beijinger poll is now under way, so we should all at least try to register some votes.

It seems that things are slightly improved this year, slightly streamlined: fewer fatuous categories (although the 'Best Daytime Drinking' award seems a bit redundant alongside the almost identical 'Best Outdoor Drinking', and the bewildering 'Best Decor' is still in there, presumably just to keep Philippe Starck happy; 'Worst Decor' would be a much more fun category!), and the few new categories actually being quite sensible (separate awards by area, for Gulou and environs, Sanlitun, Wudaokou, and Lido/Shunyi).  Best of all, there seems to be a clear delineation between 'bars' and 'clubs' this time, with no nightclubs included in the Best Bar nominations (hmm, well, I wonder what the hell d Lounge is doing in there again; as far as I know, that is more of a 'club', but it seems to be used for private events only, and nobody speaks very well of it).

It's good to see Flamme and Paul Mathew are finally getting some recognition, after being bizarrely overlooked by all the magazines last year - although they're still strangely omitted from 'Best Cocktail Selection'. Should be a hands-down winner in all the cocktail categories. My apologies to George Zhou and Stephanie Rocard and Daesuke and Motonari and all the other worthy contenders, but the list Paul has created at Flamme is just in a completely different class; and he's got Sophie very well trained in executing his recipes and techniques when he's not around. Flamme should win 'Best Happy Hour' as well. It should, but, alas, it won't.

It's nice to see Salud finally appearing in some of the categories as well.  It has been the most consistently popular and successful bar in the Gulou area for the past 5 or 6 years now, but it is perennially overlooked by the English-language magazines here because it mostly draws more of a French and Chinese clientele than an Anglophone one. Palette Vino - surely the city's nicest wine bar, if not necessarily the one with the best or broadest range - is also finally being acknowledged in the nominations.

However, there are some truly bizarre oddities elsewhere among the nominations. The 'Best Value' category is dominated by outrageously expensive venues. Some might argue that places like Xiu and Apothecary provide an experience commensurate with their high prices, but this is not the common conception of 'good value' - which is high quality at a relatively low price, or value conspicuously exceeding cost. On that basis, it's a two-horse race between El Nido and MaoMaoChong.

'Best Service' inexplicably omits long-time category leaders The Den and The Tree (and Nearby The Tree), while including a few places - First Floor, Temple - that have conspicuously ropey service. These two old stagers are passed over in the 'Best Bar Food' category as well, which is OUTRAGEOUS: you might not think they should win (well, The Den probably should!), but they have to be in the frame. Even odder, Great Leap Brewing is nominated in this category!!! Who the hell nominated them? And WHY was the nomination allowed to stand? Keeping a plate of spicy peanuts on the bar is a nice idea, but it does not amount to providing 'Bar Food'. Keeping menus from nearby restaurants on hand to facilitate ordering in is a nice touch, but it does not amount to providing 'Bar Food'. This is obviously an inappropriate 'joke' nomination that should have been excluded.

Frankly, Great Leap shouldn't be eligible for anything because it's not a proper bar, it's simply a brewery that occasionally sells its beer (nothing else!) on site. And emphasis on the occasionally: they were closed completely for 5 months or so over the winter, and now seem to be operating only as a venue for private events. Therefore, they should not be appearing anywhere in these awards - unless a new 'Best Beer' category is introduced. People want to give them something for bringing craft brew to the Beijing scene, and for providing an interesting new party venue; but they just DON'T FIT into any of the existing categories. Maybe a one-off 'Special Achievement' award is in order?

The most baffling oversight of all, though, is surely the omission of The James Joyce from the 'Best Sports Bar' nominations. OK, it's only been open 8 or 9 months, and still hasn't built up the volume of trade that Paddy O'Shea's and The Den have, but it certainly has to be in contention. As I mentioned last year, there's really no need for a 'nominations' stage in narrow categories like 'Sports Bar' and 'Live Music Venue'; the eligible candidates are so few, you can simply list them all. In terms of the quality of viewing experience offered, the Joyce is streets ahead of the competition (Paddy's is getting way too crowded; The Den has become haphazard about whether it will play the commentary at all, and invariably reverts to painful throbbing dance music the second the whistle blows; Luga's Villa is a chaotic mess, perpetually uncertain whether it even wants to try to be a sports bar). It is A DISGRACE that The James Joyce was not nominated for 'Best Sports Bar', and we can only hope that it hoovers up the hundreds of votes it deserves via the 'write-in' option.

I'll close by reiterating the conclusion to my post on The Beijinger Awards this time last year:
I would restrict the main voting categories to: Drinking Bar, Sports Bar, Student Bar, Hotel Bar, Live Music Venue, Dance Club, Cocktail Bar, Wine Bar.... and, maybe, Lounge Club and Hidden Gem. 'Hutong Bar', I feel, is too hard to define... and either too limited or too broad a notion (almost everything outside of Sanlitun is potentially a 'hutong bar'!). 'Whisky Bar' is too narrow a category to be worth including, I think (unless they expand it to Specialist Bar, encompassing things like soju bars as well).

And notice what I led off with there - it's hard to know WHAT to call them, but awards like this tend to highlight the various specialist kinds of bar so much that the down-to-earth bar that is just a bar gets completely overlooked. The best bars in this city are clearly places like Salud, The Tree, The Brick, and 12 Square Metres - but these scarcely get a nomination between them.

Other categories should recognise the best...
Bar Owner/ManagerCocktail, (Cocktail) Barperson, Service, Bar FoodHappy Hour, Value Drinks, Music Selection, and Friendly Crowd. 'Best Whisky Selection', I think, can be dropped: that accolade obviously belongs to one of the handful of Japanese whisky bars in the city, but it's impossible to make the call between them, and it's too limited a competition to be interesting.

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