While Yelp’s advice back in Boston is greatly missed, it’s forced the Emerson Crew here in Beijing to make our own set of standards on how to decide what bars and clubs make the cut and which ones don’t. Back in the States, main decision factors may be atmosphere, price, and location. There are a couple of twists to what we consider when going out here in Beijing. For instance, does the bar accept credit cards?
Other key factors include does it have air conditioning or Western toilets? Often it’s common to find Chinese toilets that are shared among the ladies and gents. This is particularly not fun when you are craving the slightest bit of privacy as your knees are getting way too close to the pee-ridden floor.
Price usually isn’t a big concern here because everything is so cheap. Even if drinks reach the high price of 70+ RMB, our consciences are put at rest because we pay next to nothing for everything else.
Location is another factor for consideration. Will the taxi drivers be able to understand where we’re trying to go? So far, every taxi driver understands the Sanlitun area in any accent! In considering location, we also consider what other bars and clubs are close for when we’re ready to change scenes, and what late-night dining facilities are available. To date, the 24-hour McDonalds has battled the favored 24-hour Mexican burrito joint.
Some distinguishable perks to the nightlife in Beijing beyond the cheap drinks are the late hours. Most bars don’t shut down until 4 am so it’s easy to stay out all night and see daybreak on the ride home. Additionally, people are welcome to take their beers to-go and drink on the streets! This is particularly enjoyed in the Hou Hai area where locals and tourists alike rent boats and take their own boos out on the water.
Local Chinese students will be the first to recommend the KTV Karaoke clubs scattered around Beijing. While the Beijinger and City Weekend are popular magazines with good suggestions, we’ve also looked to City Weekend online where user-reviews can be found. But by far, the best spots have been introduced by expats or by just stumbling upon them.
Some other things that make the nightlife experience worth revisiting time and time again include the dance floors, music selection, crowd, drink selection drink specials, décor and seating. However, the amount of fun can’t quite be quantified by the mix of all the other ingredients.
When it comes to bars, first impressions are largely based on appearance. The atmosphere can make or break a place. Through critical eyes, bar-goers analyze the space, the bar itself, the lighting, the music, and the bathrooms before making judgments about whether or not the bar is worth re-visiting.
Luckily, in Beijing, you can find a bar that will suit all your needs. Whereas Boston is dominated by pub-type bars of all sizes, Beijing boasts a variety of settings for thirsty consumers. Those looking to listen to Western music while sitting street-side can take advantage of Sanlitun’s strip of smaller bars. If you’re looking for an upscale, yet affordable, environment where you can lounge in plush couches or beds while listening to live music, Song or Q Bar are your best bet.
Although you can find many different bar settings in Beijing, we’ve noticed some major trends. Most bars here are very spacious, featuring areas for dancing and those for seating. Seating usually consists of comfy couches or chairs around a small coffee table. Also popular are bed-type seating where you can kick off your shoes and relax while sipping your drink of choice. As for music, house and techno are overwhelmingly preferred. Bars and clubs are usually dimly lit with florescent or strobe lights breaking the darkness.
One of the greatest things about bars in Beijing is that most places won’t break your bank! On average, a bottle of pijou, or beer, will usually cost somewhere between 15 and 35 Yuan, the equivalent of about 2-5 U.S. dollars. Some of the swankier bars in Hou Hai will raise the price to 50 Yuan, a little over 7 American dollars. However, most local joints will serve very large bottles of Tsingao, the most popular brand of Chinese beer, for as little as eight Yuan, which is just over one American dollar! Tsingtao is a very light, crisp and refreshing beer that is very cheap for the American drinker. However, if you crave darker beers and bars with an extensive beer list, they are hard to come by in Beijing.
Beer is not the only cheap option at the bar. In fact, hard liquor and mixed drinks are also much cheaper in relation to American bars! The cheapest mixed drinks, such as a Bacardi and Coke or a Gin and Tonic will cost about 35 Yuan, which is 5 dollars, and taste quite strong while other bars can charge up to 80 or 100 Yuan on popular nights, which is about 12-15 American dollars and not taste quite as strong. Just like Boston, you must always take chances and choose the appropriate atmosphere for your taste but you can never tell which bars are keen to water down their mixed drinks. Also, most Beijing bars won’t offer more than 2 varieties of vodka, rum, gin, whiskey, etc. For instance, while Grey Goose Vodka is a staple in most American bars, you can never count on most bars in Beijing carrying it.
If it’s cocktails that you crave, they usually cost anywhere between 60-80 Yuan, 8-10 American dollars and are by far the best bang for your buck at nearly half the price of most American cocktails. Apple Martinis, Sex on the Beach, you name it! Most of the popular bars in the Sanlitun area carry them, and every bar has their own classy method of presenting them.
Something that isn’t prevalent in Boston is drink specials and their widely available here. Wednesday night is ladies night and always draws huge crowds. The ladies get free drinks for a couple of hours while the guys enjoy the company. Happy hour is another favorite where buy one get one free specials run at even the nicest places like Centro. Something completely foreign to tourists is the ability to bargain for your beer prices at the main Sanlintun street. The best price we’ve heard has been 10 Yuan for a liter of beer!
Thank you to Jenna Lebel and Sylvie Packard for contributing their thoughts.
Our favorite picks for bars include Q Bar, Song, Komomo and the "trashy" China Doll club.