Saturday, December 01, 2012

The Shanghai bar scene

Does it have one?

Well, yes, obviously it does.

Just not one that I can afford.

And, even though there are exceptions to that affordability barrier (more than there were when I last visited 4 or 5 years ago, I think), I'm not sure that any of them would entice me into becoming a regular. I was in Shanghai the week before last, and in four days of walking the streets on the lookout for a promising bar, and four days of canvassing friends for suggestions, I drew a big fat blank.

I probably shouldn't blame Shanghai, as such. At least it has some bars, whereas most cities in China, even quite large ones, still don't, really. Even in Beijing, surely China's Western bar capital, a place that seems to have a much greater frequency and diversity of bars than Shanghai, there are only about half a dozen or so to which I would give my custom, and only two for which I have a real fondness (12 Square Metres and the Pool Bar). I'm picky: there probably aren't that many bars in the world - and increasingly few, it seems, even in the UK and the US - that would appeal to me. But in Shanghai, alas, it would appear that there are NONE.

It probably didn't help that I was mostly conducting my reconnaissance by day, when even bars that were supposed to be open often appeared in practice not to be - or, if they were, had not yet managed to draw in a single customer.

I cruised by Judy's, for example - a place that appeared to be divily cheap (a good thing!), at least by Shanghai standards, but had the most vile decor, and gave off the vibe of a Chinese bar that is desperate to attract a foreign clientele but has very little idea how to do so. (Maybe I'm wrong about that. I can imagine its prices alone, however bad the service or charmless the ambience, could draw pretty big crowds in the evenings. But I noted that its entry in the listings on City Weekend had only attracted a solitary user review, and that shortly after it opened 18 months ago. Not promising.)

I cruised past nearby Oscar's, my usual default bar on previous visits, but the place seems to have become even more charmless, and perhaps to have migrated just a little upmarket (I don't remember the fenced garden area out the front being so big before, or them having such an extensive food menu).

I cruised along Taikang Lu, where my friend Ruby had told me she thought she remembered there being a rather good bar. I found a large-ish event venue sort of place, The Melting Pot, which might possibly be worth a look in the future - but it was clearly not a homely boozing spot. (Turns out the directions may have been faulty. She claims there's decent 12 Square Metres clone on some little alleyway just off Taikang Lu. Next time...)

There was a gaggle of vaguely promising-looking bars along Hengshan Lu - but again, I was too early in the day. And I was put off by their undifferentiatedness. I liked the dim lighting and the preponderance of wood, but... I found a spot where there were two or perhaps three almost identical bars side by side, and it really was pretty much impossible to tell whether they were a single interconnected venue or not. It was also impossible to tell what they (it??) were called, because, although festooned with promotional signs for various beers, there was no obvious indication of a bar name, either in Chinese or English. Well, no, there was one sign that said, in English/pinyin, Dun Di Bar, I think. I wondered if they were trying for Dundee. I couldn't find any online listing for that name.

The only place to lure me in for a drink during this rather dull and lonely spell of wandering around the city was the Shanghai Brewery. Another American-style craft brew company! These places are spreading like Giant Hogweed! I gather it won the 'Best New Bar' gong in City Weekend's Shanghai Bar Awards this year - but perhaps only for want of competition. Decent barebones American sports bar sort of ambience, decent staff, a smattering of patrons already drinking in the mid afternoon - and a two-for-one deal on the burgers on a Tuesday (unfortunately, these are 70 or 80-kuai burgers, and I was on my own). More importantly, the home-brewed beer, at least on the extended happy hour (3pm-8pm, if I recall correctly), was only 28 kuai, which would be cheap for Beijing these days, and is virtually giving it away in Shanghai. On the downside, though, the TV picture for the sports wasn't much good (I think I've observed on here before that big-screen TV is a waste of time unless you've got an HD feed, and that's still a rarity in Asia), and the beer was... well, all right, but unspectacular, compromised by the excessive fruitiness that American brewers increasingly seem to feel is de rigueur. (You have to applaud them for making an effort, though: they've built quite an impressive website to promote this bar. That's still not something you often see here.)

The only place in Shanghai where I really quite enjoyed a drink on this last visit was Windows Too (apparently one of a fairly extensive chain of affordable dive bars) - although I wasn't really lured in, more goaded into it by JK's recommendation, and despairing of other options as the penetrating drizzle I'd been putting up with all day began to get even heavier. Upstairs in a mall, which is a very bad start for bar appeal; and hence pretty inconspicuous, pretty much unfindable unless you have detailed directions (mine weren't, but I got lucky). It had a similar problem with its large space lacking atmosphere, and its TV picture being shit, but... the staff were good, and the drink - at least on happy hour - was very, very cheap. 

I encountered this place in a receptive mood, when, after a gruelling and vexing few days, I suddenly felt like I needed to get off my face as quickly as possible, and not have to spend very much money doing it. When you find a place that will conspire with you in your self-destruction at a time like that, you get the warm fuzzies for it, however lacking it may be in every other kind of positive quality.

Forgive me if I seem to be too harsh on poor old Shanghai. I can well imagine having an equally shit time in Beijing if I came here as a stranger, not knowing where the handful of good bars are. In fact, I very often have had equally shit times here, especially out around Sanlitun.

So, sorry, Shanghai. I did at least find a few glimmers of hope for you this time, a few places that I'm actually curious to check out further on a return visit - something I'd failed to do in several previous visits to the city. Maybe Shanghai is slowly becoming LESS SHIT, just as Beijing is becoming MORE SHIT; and perhaps Shanghai's bar scene will be better than Beijing's before very long. Now, there's a depressing thought - at least, if you live in Beijing.

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