Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Froog Bar Awards - 2012

This is it, my sixth (and final) annual review of the best and worst of Beijing's bar scene.

I suppose I'm not really very well placed to comment on the scene in detail this time around, since I've been away from Beijing for at least a third of this year, and didn't go out very much while I was here. However, my respect for tradition compels me to maintain the custom of a year-end 'review' post that I inaugurated in 2007.

As in previous years, my aim here is to provoke (and sometimes, godammit, yes, to offend) as well as to enlighten, so please feel free to pitch in - and bitch in - down below in the comments if you have anything to add in regard to any of these opinions. I hope a few people at least will find this post (although burying it a few days back from the ostensible closedown date of the blog on December 21st minimises its visibility, I know), and find it useful, or at any rate interestingly provocative.

Best Live Music Venue

Winner:  VA Bar
This place has grown on me over the last year or two. They impressed from the get-go with with their regular and eclectic lineup of shows, but compromised their appeal with inept/surly service and rather high prices. Prices have now been lowered, the attitude has improved, and the sound system remains about the best in town. Just about all of the best gigs I've been to in the last 18 months have been at VA Bar (although it now seems to be making a move to rebrand itself as Vanguard Livehouse).

Runners-up: Hot Cat Club, 2 Kolegas
I love the grunginess of Hot Cat, and its throwback-to-the-good-old-days prices. I don't love its erratic scheduling and non-existent advertising. Much as I want to like this venue, I suppose I've only gone three or four times this year; and only when specifically invited by a friend, rather than looking in on spec, or because I've seen an interesting lineup advertised. I'm impressed by the remodelling at 2 Kolegas, greatly improving their toilet facilities and their beer fridge capacity; but, unfortunately, as Beijing's taxi service has declined towards unusability, the place is just too darned far away to entice me very often any more. Similarly with the old What bar, I'm very fond of it - but it's just a bit too much of a hike for me to go all that often. Old local favourites Jianghu and Jiangjinjiu were both rumoured to be closing this year, but have both survived; alas, they are both now too well-known for their own good, and uncomfortably packed out for most shows. How I miss their early days, when they were a music-lovers' 'secret'! I suppose my most conspicuous omission here is Temple which, while I find it a welcome addition to the scene, is not a place that I've been able to warm to. The sound system, the prices, the clientele, the general vibe - it's all just a little bit off, somehow. [As I noted last year I always seem to overlook East Shore Jazz Cafe in this section, because I don't go that often, and it only does jazz; but it is very good. And I am going to make a point of getting in several visits before I depart Beijing.]

Worst Live Music Venue

Winner:  Yugong Yishan

Runner-up:  MAO Live House

MAO is actually the best venue in town in terms of the regularity of its shows and the quality of the sound system. It just does nothing to make itself attractive to customers - the air-conditioning and the bar remain huge shortcomings there. Yugong Yishan continues to SUCK, for all of the reasons that I catalogued here. I can't recall if I've been there at all this year; I am doing my best to boycott it.

Best Gig of the Year

Winner:  The intimate Beijing Beatles gig at tiny Nanluoguxiang bar 12 Square Metres in March
Limited advertising and inclement weather threatened to scupper the event, but after anxious delays and an awkwardly slow start, these adverse circumstances actually helped to make it into a rather magical evening.

Runner-up: Tulegur at Jianghu (a couple of times)
The artist formerly known as Gangzi has decided to start going by his real name (which could prove a mite confusing for people who bought his previous releases), but he continues to be in a different class from just about anyone else around: a superb musician, a great voice - spell-binding.

Worst Gig of the Year

Winner:  Day One of the IndieChina anniversary show at Mako Live at the beginning of September
I'd never heard of IndieChina, but apparently it's a Chinese website that has built itself into quite an important fan forum over the past 7 or 8 years, mainly focusing on 'post-rock' - not a genre I have a lot of time for. However, their two-day celebration down in Shuangjing was one of the biggest events of the year, and the Friday lineup included some well spoken-of - and non-post-rock - bands. I'd only just got back to Beijing after nearly four months away, so I was quite excited about the potential of this one. Unfortunately, just about everything about the show sucked. The venue was uncomfortably over-full, and got very hot, as they didn't seem to want to crank the air-conditioning up. They ran out of cold beers within minutes of the start. And even Omnipotent Youth Society, one of my favourite Chinese bands, failed to thrill on this occasion - largely because of a lousy sound balance that wasn't giving enough prominence to their trademark interjections of soaring trumpet. This was particularly disappointing because enduring the three bands on ahead of them had been nothing less than painful. Openers The Dyne were a drums-and-guitar duo who played formless, self-indulgent instrumentals while staring fixedly at each other and completely ignoring the audience; they managed a few half-interesting moments - probably by accident - in the midst of 25 minutes of utter tedium. Glow Curve, well spoken of by some, were perhaps hampered by the bad sound setup, but appeared barely capable of playing their instruments. Low Wormwood, much lauded of late, and supposedly one of the most popular rock bands in China, appear to have attained that status by playing schmaltzy, derivative, crowd-pleasing folk-rock pap (I thought I remembered having seen them play a few times out at 13 Club in Wudaokou several years ago, but if that was them, they were a completely different band then, much edgier and more experimental). They started with what sounded like a Chinese cover of REM's Everybody Hurts, followed that up with another bland and oddly familiar piece (guitar solo ripped off note-for-note from The Edge!), and then did the obligatory ska number. When they then went into a maudlin slow ballad, my friends and I left in search of chuanr and cheap beers outside for the rest of their set (and I was happy to notice that significant numbers of the young Chinese punters did too; this was predominantly a rock crowd, not your FM Lite types). Those cheap beers were the only consolation of the night.

Best Bar Food

Winners:  Frost, Flamme

Runners-up: Luga's, The Den, The Irish Volunteer, Plan B

2010 winner Sand Pebbles may finally be getting its act together again, I think; although service out of the kitchen is still slow, and the place has got a little too popular for its own good, it has seemed to be much improved on my last couple of visits - restoring it to the status of being about the best place in town for Mexican food (though I'm peeved they seem to have taken my favourite chicken dish off the menu). However, this revival has come too late - or I have discovered it too late (sorry, Ray) - for it to get back into a prize slot this year. I've dumped First Floor from a runners-up spot as well, because it's really a bit too expensive (other than on half-price Mondays), and the service continues to be terrible. The significant new arrival on the scene this year has been Frost, Jeff Powell's tiny bar on Xingfu Ercun. The burger is about the best in town (though I've heard some people gripe that it's a little on the small side), the side salad is more than generous, and the yellow pepper relish is superb. I'm less enthused about the hotdogs; the homemade brats are large and tasty, but tend to be a bit gristly, and to use a non-edible skin. There must be a fear that the Chinese staff are unlikely to be able to maintain the quality of service, now that Jeff is once again moving on to grander things. And the bar itself lacks charm: it's too pokey, and the drinks are too expensive for a hole-in-the-wall. Hanging out on the tables outside was an attractive option on warm evenings in early summer, but I imagine it's going to be dead for the next 4 or 5 months. The burgers down at new Shuangjing opening Plan B are pretty damned good - and good value - too. Otherwise, no change from last year.

Best Place To Drink While Eating

Winners:  Home Plate BBQ

Runner-up:  TraktirrBiteapitta, 4 Corners

Last year's winner Fodder Factory has, I'm told, relocated to less cosy premises, and bumped its prices up quite a bit - alas, alas. Ah well, it was always too far away to be more than a once or twice a year special adventure, anyway. I'm pleased to see that the original Traktirr has reopened (a much warmer vibe than its larger sister around the corner on Guijie, Traktirr Pushkin), and it easily takes the prize as my favourite Russian joint - as White Knights, sadly, continues to get stroppier and stroppier staff and stingier and stingier portions. Biteapitta is losing its place in my heart as well: the falafel - long a favourite of mine - has become ridiculously salty. It clings on to its place here because there are still plenty of things on the menu I like, and the draught beer is about the cheapest you can find in Sanlitun. I've heard some very good things about 4 Corners, the revamp of the old Orange Tree bistro, but I haven't got around to checking it out myself yet.

Best Place To Go For A Cocktail

Winner:  Flamme

Runners-up:  MaiMaoMaoChongMás

Flamme, for me, continues to be head-and-shoulders above the competition, thanks to Paul Mathew's superb recipes - although the loss of both Coco and Sophie from behind the bar there this year has been a blow. Mai and MaoMaoChong continue to be very welcome enhancements to my neighbourhood. And newcomer Más has some interesting original mixes too - although they don't taste very strong, and the place is severely lacking in ambience.

Best Place For Sitting Outside

Winner:  Home Plate BBQ

Runner-Up:  Alba

No change from last year.

Worst Bar

Winner: The Stumble Inn
No changes in this category, either. Food, prices, and service at the Stumble all continue to provoke regular complaints. And it's upstairs in a mall. I refuse to set foot in the place.

Runner-up: Drei Kronen
How does this overpriced Bavarian theme-park keep going?????

Additional Runner-up: BeerMania
In the old days, it was unassuming, it had no delusions of grandeur. The original space was at least cosy, projected a sort of ramshackle charm. The new, vastly expanded venue has the ambience of a college cafeteria. The beer list is irrationally long, and overpriced - and, of course, none of the staff knows how much anything costs!

Worst New Bar

Winner: The Red House
I would have thought it was pretty much impossible to screw up a 'dive bar' - but this franchise extension into the city centre by the popular Wudaokou grot-hole is just dismal.

Least Surprising Closure

Winner: Danger Doyle's
The only surprise was that it had managed to limp on for - what? - nearly three years.

Most Sadly Missed Departures of the Year

Winner:  Mike and Lauren at 12 Square Metres
Their tenure as managers at my favourite bar was only planned to be temporary anyway, but they were abruptly, prematurely driven out by the absurd 'anti-foreigner crackdown' in Beijing this summer.

Runner-up:  Chad Lager - ousted from Fubar  
(at which he was really the only reason for visiting)
I have a feeling he'll be back next year in some new venture...

Party of the Year

Winner:  My leaving party in May
I feel a bit guilty about nominating a small private event, but I just didn't go to any major public events this year. And this was everything a leaving party should be - including barely making it home, crashing out on the sofa instead of in my bed, and struggling to get my packing done in time for my flight. My friends and I ended up in Amilal until nearly 4am, after consuming many, many, many shot-glass servings of mengjiu at a leg o' lamb restaurant in the hutongs.

Most Promising New Bar

Winner:  Plan B
Its tiny space, haphazard decor, and obscure location limit its prospects, but it's made the most of its meagre resources, establishing itself as a friendly and characterful little hangout for those lucky enough to live nearby - and it's an appealing enough oddity to entice us Gulou boys outside the Third Ringroad every once in a while.

Runners-up:  None - lots of new openings this year, but none of them quite cut the mustard for me.

Barperson of the Year

Winner:  Jane at Nearby The Tree
The only bartender in town who still gives me liver-wreckingly generous free pours. (I actually had to ask her to leave some room for the ice the other day!) She laid on a very nice spread for a friend's wake in September as well.

Bar of the Year

Winner:  Modernista
I don't love Modernista, myself. It's got a bit too much of a European vibe for me, the service isn't great, and it's an unfortunate size - just big enough to make you feel self-conscious if there aren't many people in, but too small to cope with the kind of crowds that it regularly attracts, rarely if ever attaining that happy medium of being buzzy but not cramped. But there's the thing - it is regularly drawing large numbers of people; far more, I would think, than any of the other recent openings (and it might well have claimed the prize as best newcomer too, since it only opened towards the end of November last year). And it's built up this following because the owners have made sterling efforts to create and publicise a packed programme of events. Whether it's swing dance classes, film shows, or mah jong evenings, there's almost always something going on at Modernista. Other bars could learn a lesson from that. And they deserve a lot of credit for their achievement.

There we have it. Any comments, queries, abuse??


Mike said...

Much agreement from me. Flamme's cocktails are head and shoulders above others, being delicious AND affordable. I'm not much of a live music buff but I've seen the Beijing Beatles several times at VA Bar and mostly had a good time, though the bar staff are moderately incompetent (I once made the mistake of insisting someone who was "ahead of me" in the serving queue get served first, expecting the bar staff to come to me next - naive fool!). 12SQM hasn't been the same since Mike left. I'd say Home Plate has the best food - am not convinced by Flamme's steaks. As for new bars, you've missed out Cuju, run by Beijingdaze's Badr. It's at Beixingqiao so it's about the nearest bar to my apartment, has draft Tiger at 25RMB, splendid selection of rums and unobtrusive sports. Have you been by?

Froog said...

I haven't warmed to Cuju, I'm afraid. I can't see the point in showing sports without the commentary track, Tiger isn't a very good draught, and I can't afford premium spirits (and I don't think I'd ever pay premium prices for rum, anyway - although I do drink it and enjoy it on occasion, it's my least favourite spirit). Bit of a bare, cold space as well. Nice to have as a 'local', I suppose - but I don't find it inspires me to even a 5-minute detour from my usual drinking routes.

Mike said...

They do play the commentary, or at least have done every time I'm there. It's gotten better as time has gone by. Being also a draft man, 25 for Tiger isn't to be sniffed at!