Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Generic expat bars - and why I hate them

Just before I quit Beijing, I found myself out on the east side of town a couple of times on shopping expeditions and so looked in on a newly-opened bar near the Lido Hotel.

It's called Little Britain - and it left me very, very unimpressed (although it doesn't quite make it on to my 'Hate List', since I find it inept and uninspired rather than utterly DIRE).

A couple of months back I produced a particularly withering review of a new bar in the Gulou area called Eje Beer Club, which seemed to me to epitomise the things that are almost invariably CRAP about Chinese bars. Little Britain, I feel, epitomises what is CRAP about most laowai bars.

Remote location
Most foreigner-targeted bars are way out over on the east side, which is no good for those of us who live in the city centre. And even if they're sort of OK, they're never impressive enough to justify a special expedition: I used to go to the original Goose & Duck once in a while when it was at the west gate of Chaoyang Park, but now it's moved two or three miles further east, out beyond the 4th Ringroad, it's off the map for me; I quite like Nashville, and used to go a lot when it was on the old Sanlitun Nanjie, but its new incarnation can't inspire me to venture as far away as Lucky Street.

Naff (or inappropriate) name
Foreign-owned bars never plumb the depths of ludicrousness of Chinese bar naming, but they do tend to be still pretty bad. The now defunct (at last) Danger Doyle's was a piece of unmotivated alliteration. The Goose & Duck was not a bad name, but misleading, since the place was not at all like an English pub. The Stumble Inn and BeerMania are trying too hard to be amusing. Paddy O'Shea's has no connection with anyone called Patrick O'Shea. Little Britain appears to have no connection either to Britain (the owner, I gather, is a Kiwi, although he wasn't around on either of my visits) or to the cult BBC sketch comedy of that name (if you try dropping one of the show's catchphrases like "Computer says no" or "I am the only gay in the village!" on them, you will be met with blank incomprehension, I'm sure); it's just trying to be a cutesy way of proclaiming "We are a foreigner bar." Groan - I HATE cutesy.

As I observed in my touchstone post on What Makes A Great Bar?, any kind of 'theme' is usually anathema to me. Yet in Beijing no-one seems to think that a bar can just be a bar; it's always got to be an "Irish Bar" (or a "Belgian bar" or a "New Orleans bar" or...) or a sports bar or something. It's particularly annoying where your 'theme' is apparently 'English pub': the English pub does not have a 'theme', it just IS.

Half-arsed execution of the 'theme'
Little Britain has fish'n'chips and bangers'n'mash on its menu. That is the beginning and end of its 'Britishness'. It doesn't have ANY British beers - not even in bottles.

Unclear and/or stingy 'happy hour'
It's amazing - appalling! - how foreign-run bars tend to be much worse about this than Chinese ones. Little Britain only offers a paltry 20% off for 'happy hour', and only on selected items - a fact which is not advertised (not prominently, anyway) and not brought to your attention by the staff. If I say, "Well, if it's 'happy hour', I'll have a Guinness", I do not expect to get charged full price!

Limited draught beer options
Little Britain has only three beers on draught, the 'unholy trinity' that seems to be becoming ubiquitous: Guinness (much too expensive in China for regular drinking), Hoegaarden (who the hell likes this cloudy, fruity-tasting muck? in preference to a straightforward premium lager like Stella or Kronenbourg or, if you're going to be slightly fancy, Leffe??), and Carlsberg (SHITE - why not just have a local Chinese beer, or maybe Asahi or Tiger as your budget draught?).

Chinese characteristics
One of the things that irritates me most in a bar (and again, it tends to happen more often in foreign-run than in Chinese bars) is playing to the local obsession with numerology by having prices end in a 'lucky 8'. Little Britain does this with its entire food menu, and it BUGS THE CRAP OUT OF ME!

Too sodding expensive
The Guinness at this place is 50rmb for a smaller-than-a-pint glass. I think the Hoegaarden is 40 or 45, and even the crappy Carlsberg is 35 (MORE than I am paying for premium brews back home in England!!). Most food items are 68 or 78rmb. Who can afford to pay these sorts of prices???


Froog said...

Subsequent intelligence suggests that the proprietor of Little Britain is not a Kiwi male but a Chinese female (who lived in New Zealand for many years). That perhaps explains the curious detachment from any very convincingly 'Western' feel to this place - although it's not as hopelessly naff as the typical Chinese bar. And, as I mentioned here, foreign bar owners seldom do much better.

Froog said...

The major appeal of this place is likely to be the big window-seat booths, and the broad swathe of colonisable sidewalk out front. Unfortunately, this pavement cafe area (which probably has no legal basis for its occupation) overlooks one of Beijing's busiest road junctions - not the most appealing setting.

And I really can't see it competing with its well-established near neighbours Eudora Station and The Irish Volunteer. It's smaller (there's no usable bar at all), less appealing, and slightly more expensive. It might do OK during the summer, but will die the death once the weather cools. I certainly wouldn't invest in the place.