Thursday, April 12, 2012

While the cat's away...

The mice fall back into bad habits.

I dropped in on Chad Lager's new project, The Little Easy, a couple of nights ago. He's acting as a "consultant", attempting to revamp one of those shitty little tourist traps at the bottom end of Sanlitun North Street into a bar that Beijing residents might actually want to go to.

The concept is sound: re-do the decor, introduce a New Orleans theme, add some quality booze at fair prices (Slow Boat craft brews on draft, for example; and GIANT cocktails for 60 RMB, including French Quarter standby, the Hurricane). Unfortunately, he's having to work against 15 years or more of history, the stigma of that strip having always been nothing but a collection of gaudy, inept rip-off joints.

And he's thus having to battle an unhappy combination of the extreme lackadaisicalness typical of most unsupervised Chinese bar staff and the dire culture of hard sell that has so long prevailed in that area.

Chad was not around when my friend and I stopped by to check the place out. In his absence, the staff had reflexively tossed aside all the improvements he's trying to bring to the place - reverting to their old cheesy playlist, cranking the volume way up high (to let people 100m away know that they're OPEN - and warn them against coming any closer!), turning the lighting up to the max. Moreover, the catastrophically dim waiter for some reason assumed that we would like to see the old menu - which is in Chinese only! When we eventually managed to pry a draft copy of Chad's new menu out of him, he hovered over-solicitously at our shoulder and kept flipping the pages for us every few seconds. Needless to say, there was not a single customer in the place. We quickly decided to leave without trying a drink.

Just a few ingrained bad habits among the staff had instantly converted the bar back into something that was indistinguishable from any of its godawful neighbours - and equally unappealing, equally CUSTOMER-FREE.

I fear the Chinese owner is likely to manifest similar recidivist tendencies. The rebranding is thus far limited to one - not particularly large or prominent - sign above the door. The previous name - e-Log - continues to be far more conspicuous, displayed multiple times in a frieze around the building. And one of the new cocktail recipes is lumbered with the name e-LOnG Island Iced Tea. (I'm told the chap is rather obstinately attached to this abysmal name because it is the name of  his Chinese blog!)

Ah well, the place is still in a preliminary, transitional phase - scarcely even what we'd conventionally term a 'soft opening' at the moment. However, Chad tells me that things have been going pretty well over the past week or so when he's been on-site to run things in person, and he did good business last weekend. He thinks it'll be another couple of weeks before he's really got things how he wants them.

I think the big man has got his work cut out with this one. But I keep my fingers crossed. Aside from the lingering stigma of the aggressive bar touts and naff cover bands that characterise this corner of Sanlitun, it is potentially a great location - right in the heart of the bar district, directly opposite The Village, just a couple of minutes away from Flamme, Union, and Blue Frog. If Chad can train the staff up a bit, condition them to keep the lights turned down low and the music playlist restricted to an upbeat mix of atmospheric Southern Americana*.... this might just possibly become the 'bar of the year'.

Then again, it might become the great dream that died, the bar that failed to crawl free of the swamp of tackiness that surrounds it.

* Disclosure: I'm ripping a lot of trad jazz, blues, and zydeco for Chad to incorporate into the music selection there, for even more of a N'Awlins flavour.

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