Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Top Five New Bar Openings In Beijing This Year

Amongst many 'Top Fives' I was contemplating for this week, today, I suppose this is the most 'urgent' - since it is a preliminary to my last Annual Bar Review, which I'm aiming to compile this weekend or early next week.

There won't be any order of preference for these, because, although I have significant reservations about all of them, I suppose I'll have to choose one of them for my Most Promising New Bar accolade - and I ought to try and maintain some suspense about that.

So, here we go....

Froog's Top Five New Bar Openings In Beijing in 2012

Plan B
A great name for a bar, and particularly for an expat bar in Beijing, where so many of us - like the unfortunate owner, Trevor Metz - have to adapt to violent disruptions of our personal and business lives and try to start afresh. It's a great resource if you happen to live in that housing complex, but doesn't have the oomph factor to make it a destination bar - even, I would suspect, for folks from nearby Shuangjing. Minnie is a great bartender, but the space is small, awkwardly laid out, has rather random decor - and there's a very limited selection of booze. The strong local following is what really makes this place; but I'm afraid it's a bit too small - and too remote, too hard to find - to rate a recommendation to the general populace.

I think manager Kenn Bermel deserves some kind of award for the effort that he's put in to building up awareness of this venue through hosting special events, and even trying to rally fellow bar and restaurant owners in the area to engage in some joint promotion to try to establish an identity - or even just a name - for that unappealing wasteland of semi-redeveloped industrial estate that sprawls behind the now mothballed Pacific Century mall on Gongti Beilu. But I fear he's got his work cut out trying to make a viable business with that venue, in that location. It's a hopeless barn of a space, completely lacking in atmosphere; and the pointless 'Belgian' theme that he inherited is something of a further handicap (I'm sure I'm not the only person who finds that the image of the Mannekin Pis puts you off your food, or drink). The keen prices - and the dire state of Sanlitun's other 'sports bars' - give it some chance, I suppose; but I don't envisage it becoming a long-term survivor.

Cellar Door
My journo pal Mr Sex was rather taken with this place over the summer, wooed mainly by their price competitiveness against their well-established neighbour El Nido. Perhaps during the summer it was drawing bigger crowds, or it was more attractive to sit outside on their narrow sliver of sidewalk. I've looked in a couple of times for curiosity's sake, but I found nothing to lure me back. It seems to lack any distinctive charm of its own: it's just another squitty little hutong bar trying to ape El Nido - but it has far too little space, and also lacks Xiao Shuai's savvy in building a clientele.

I love the idea of a bar just off Guijie; that's something we could have done with years ago. Unfortunately, this place shares the failings of Cellar Door: it's too small, and is an utterly undistinguished space. It has a bit of continental panache about it, though: there's a much better selection of drinks. The cubbyhole around the bar is quite cosy (though so cramped it is difficult to access); but the bar itself is much too high (this is becoming a more and more common vice, it seems), the music is played a notch or two too loud (and it tends toward the more modern interpretation of Latin American music, heavy on the bass and going on too repetitively and too long), and the main area - with its tiny formica tables and rickety chairs - feels like an elementary school classroom. I have my doubts about the strength of the drinks, as well, although the recipes are interesting.

I've already reviewed this one on here a couple of months back. It's a great location for me (actually my nearest readily accessible bar), and a very comfortable space, but... it's just too damned comfortable for my taste, more a lounge than a bar - and a strangely soulless one at that. It makes a great event space, but I can't imagine anyone treating it as their 'local'. The dire name is a serious handicap as well, in my view. And the decision to close the shutters on the courtyard bar in early autumn was unfathomably perverse; that little bit of bar space is the only part of the place I'd ever be tempted to hang out at regularly.

I suppose there are a few others that might be in contention, too; it's been quite a busy year for bar openings. Hidden Lounge is an intriguing concept (creating a cosy little destination bar in a converted apartment, and combining a cocktail lounge vibe with attractively retro prices), but the owner seems to have an overdeveloped talent for rubbing people up the wrong way. Cuju I'd like to like - nice snacks, nice rum collection, have known the owner for ages - but again I find it too small and too characterless, struggling to create any sense of identity for itself. Serk I've heard a few good things about, despite its awful name; but I haven't yet tried it myself, and I suspect that like all of these other new hutong bar openings, it's probably just a quirky little hobby bar, too small to attract a wide following. Dada seems to have become quite popular with the younger crowd, but it's really more of a nightclub. Mai hasn't quite lived up to the hopes I had for it at the end of last year; Jeff means well, bless him, but he's a bit of a headless chicken sometimes in his promotions, and he still hasn't done anything to upgrade the spartan furnishings. And Malty Dog, his new excursion into the craft brew craze, seems pointless and doomed to me.

Yes, oh dear, that's it for the crop of newcomers this year. It might be hard to make an award in this category.

Oh, I noticed just the other day that there seems to be a new bar next door to El Nido. No name on it yet. It might even be an offshoot of El Nido - although there doesn't seem to be any inside connection between the two spaces (in fact, there's a narrow alleyway between them; but that doesn't preclude common ownership). It looks rather promising, actually; the best bar counter I've seen in a long time.

Another major disappointment is the Slow Boat Brewery Taproom, which held its launch day the weekend after I did this post - too late for consideration for any of this year's awards, but it seemed a likely contender for prizes next year. I want to like Slow Boat; I think they're a much friendlier crowd and much better at marketing and PR than their 'craft brew' rivals Great Leap (though that's not saying much!); but alas, their beer invariably disappoints. It doesn't hold its carbonation well, and it tends to taste a bit thin and watery. (I'm not a great fan of Great Leap's brews either, but at least they have a bit of body about them.) What's more, I find their beers all taste rather similar: there's a dominant undertone of some sort of fruit (mango is most often cited as the nearest parallel). In fact, when they christened their two taps at MaoMaoChong a couple of months back, several of us couldn't tell which beer was meant to be which, and rather suspected that they had muddled up the lines (the beer that was supposed to have a mango savour was actually much less mangoey than the one that wasn't!). Slow Boat and Great Leap are both in thrall to the current American fashion for creating ales with silly novelty tastes, rather than simple, straightforward beers. And they're not even doing it all that well; there were several beers at a recent 'Homebrew Festival' at PassBy Bar that eclipsed any of their offerings. They're trying it on a bit with their pricing as well: beer that you're knocking up in small batches in your backroom really shouldn't cost anything like as much as an internationally famous premium brand that's had to be transported half way around the world; it certainly shouldn't cost more. There were supposedly some 'special prices' for the opening of the Taproom (though it wasn't made clear what these were), but only a couple of the brews were 25rmb per glass; most were 35rmb; a few were 45 or more. That is TOO MUCH - for what is essentially 'homebrew'; and rather undistinguished homebrew, at that.

Even worse, though, than the offputting prices and so-so quality of the product, is the pig's ear they've made of their space. There are enough people who crave idiosyncratic beers - even beers of this American style - that this place could easily become a leading destination bar (its obscure and slightly out-of-the-way location notwithstanding). They've got a reasonable amount of space to play with; and they've done absolutely NOTHING with it. The bar is a complete waste: too small and too high - it acts as a fortress for the staff, clearly intended as a serving point only, not somewhere that customers will be encouraged to hang out. Ridiculous! It doesn't even extend the whole way across the shorter axis of the room. I can't see any reason why they couldn't have put it on the longer wall, or made it an L-shape, covering at least a substantial part of two walls. If they'd done that, it would be a place that people would come and hang out, singly or in small groups. (And, let's face it, beer tends not to be a major enthusiasm amongst the ladies; so, this is going to be the kind of place that guys come to on their own, when they get 'a night off'.) The canteen-style tables and benches - in regimented formation, like a schoolroom - might seem a logical solution for maximising the seating available in a limited space, but they make for an austere ambience. And some decor would be nice, chaps - even if it's just a few posters on the walls.

I'm sorry to say, this might well prove to be a colossal failure. Almost everybody I overheard talking about the beer was bitching it. And I saw two or three people throwing away the discount cards that were being handed out: the offer of every eleventh drink free holds no appeal for people who realise they're probably never going back there. A great pity. A major opportunity wasted.

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