Recently in Restaurants & Nightlife Category

Well, we called it. As anticipated when the new 'rules' were first announced, Beijing Municipal Authorities have backed off their original plan to implement new, strict smoking restrictions in bars and restaurants here in the capital.

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Restaurants exempt from smoking ban
By Cui Xiaohuo (China Daily)

Beijing restaurants, bars and Internet cafes have been exempted from a proposed smoking ban at public venues in response to concerns expressed by business owners. The venues will only be asked to separate smoking and non-smoking areas from May 1 as part of the new regulation. Zhang Peili, an official with the municipal government's legislative affairs office who is supervising the promulgation of the rule, said the changes were approved last week. Lawmakers and health experts said the difficulty in introducing a carpet smoking ban underlines the grave challenges faced in a country with the highest number of smokers. "Originally, we wanted restaurants to keep 70 percent of their areas smoke-free, but owners of Chinese restaurants - both big and small - worried the plan would hut their business," Zhang told China Daily. "It is difficult for us to control smoking in restaurants. It's just part of the culture." It was reported on March 29 that a strict smoking ban from May 1 would expand to bars, restaurants and Internet cafes. But the amended rule means only government offices, schools, museums, hospitals and sports venues will be designated smoke-free areas. Despite the setback, health experts said Beijing has made a breakthrough in tobacco control. "I think it is the right approach to go step by step. It is a brave move to ban smoking in government offices," said Jiang Yuan, deputy director of the national tobacco control office. Major cities including Shanghai, Guangzhou and Qingdao are also mulling amending laws on public smoking as part of a nationwide campaign in the run-up to the Olympics. Health experts in Beijing said they hope the city is used as a springboard for drafting a national tobacco control law.
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What I find interesting is not the fact that Beijing Municipal Authorities waffled, but that they would even consider floating out a blanket smoking ban in this city in the first place. China is a place where change is glacial at best. And to thrust the news of a New York-style smoking ban on the populous here in Beijing mere weeks before said implementation must go against every fiber in the government's being. So, in the immortal words of John Bender in the 80's John Hughes film "The Breakfast Club": 'Smoke up, Johnny!'

It appears - and I stress the term appears -- today that Beijing municipal authorities have confirmed a rumor that has been circulating around the capital's pubs and restaurants the past couple of weeks; smoking restrictions are going to be implemented in advance of the Olympics.

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Beijing to ban smoking in public places from May
Updated: 2008-03-31 11:57

BEIJING -- The Chinese capital will ban smoking in most public places starting from May 1 -- a big step toward tobacco control in a nation of 350 million smokers. The move will also meet China's pledge of a smoke-free Olympics. More than 150 Chinese cities already have limited restrictions in place, but the capital will be the first to ban smoking in all restaurants, offices and schools, English-language China Daily reported Monday. Beijing has had some smoking restrictions since 1996, when the municipal government prohibited lighting up in large public venues such as schools, sports arenas and movie theaters. The new rules, which were announced on Saturday, expand the scope to include restaurants, bars, Internet cafes, hotels, offices, holiday resorts and all indoor areas of medical facilities. Hotels must also have rooms for non-smokers, but the ratio is still being discussed, said Cui Xiaobo, a renowned tobacco control expert who helped draft the new rule. Institutions that fail to comply face immediate fines of up to 5,000 yuan (713 U.S. dollars), while it has not yet been decided how to deal with smokers breaking the new rule.

Speaking to a manager last week at one of my favorite haunts here in Beijing, The Purple Haze, I was told that while there had been quite a bit of discussion within bar and restaurant circles, no official rules have been brought forth.

I'm of two minds on this subject. Having lived previously in Vancouver, which had a city-wide smoking ban in place in bars and restaurants, I found that it was somewhat nice not having to get strong whiffs of smoke up my nose while I was trying to eat. That said, I am a smoker myself. And I enjoy nothing more than being able to relax with a beer at a pub or restaurant and have a cigarette. And I really wasn't a fan of having to trudge outside during a rainy Vancouver winter to hack a butt. But, much like a lot of things in life, you get used to it. Before the smoking ban was implemented in Vancouver, the bar and restaurant owners association was screaming bloody blue murder, saying a complete ban would cause incalculable financial losses. That never happened. However, Beijing may be a bit different. This is a smoking society. Anyone who has ever been to an official function is likely aware that its almost protocol to offer guests cigarettes as a gesture of respect. Handing out cigarettes has also become a tradition at weddings. Smoking is almost a way of life here in China.

With that in mind, I have my doubts about whether this smoking ban will be put in place. Reading through the Xinhua report, one can't help but recognize the vagueness of the language, which leads me to believe that the government is simply planning on saying one thing, and doing another. As well, one has to wonder how Beijing is going to enforce any type of smoking ban. In this new era of bureaucratic reduction here in China, I highly doubt were going to be seeing roving bands of Taliban-like beard inspectors cruising around Beijing looking for bars and restaurants breaking a smoking ban. So, unless a snitch line is set up, there is going to be little incentive for bar and restaurant owners to enforce the rules.

I am not a supporter of smoking. I know it sounds hypocritical, but it's true. I have warned off numerous young people who have considered lighting up, because I know what a pain in the arse it is to try to quit. That said, come May 1st, I highly doubt I'm going to be forced outdoors to get my fix.

There was a day, in the not-too-distant past, when Shanghai was viewed by those in the capital as a glitzy but ultimately shallow city. Nothing but fashion, high-priced drinks, and pretension.

Here in Beijing, we had art galleries, culture, and history. Also some cheap bars and restaurants with real character. This is, in my opinion, what lead many people to call Beijing home despite frigid winters and steamy summers.

But oh, how things have changed.

For those who haven't been paying attention, Beijing's Olympic preparations have included far more than just the construction of venues. The capital is going upscale, is getting expensive, and is becoming increasingly like its southern counterpart.

As a fan and former resident of Shanghai, I don't mind a more glamorous city. I enjoyed Shanghai and everything that came with it; it's a beautiful place, it's livable, and comfortable. But what's sad is seeing Beijing transform in such a way that it's becoming no longer recognizable - a Shanghai knock-off, if you will.

In May of this year, the new Sanlitun Mall will open. A high-end facility featuring food and beverage options will replace what used to sit on that land: a bunch of run-down apartments. Photos I've seen of the project slightly resemble Xintiandi in Shanghai, which is a drastic change from the current Sanlitun.

Beijing Boyce has been doing a good job covering the food and beverage venues that are opening this year. The Legation Quarter is set to open in Qianmen beginning in May, with other restaurants to open in June. The Quarter will include the following high-end eating and drinking options:

  • Maison Boulud, "a French concept restaurant by award-winning chef Daniel Boulud from New York," according to the brochure. The ground floor includes a bar, lounge and main dining room; the second floor, accessible by two staircases, holds smaller dining rooms.
  • Mission, the 1400-square-meter nightclub portion of Legation Quarter, which will include a lounge, VIP rooms and deck space. Lee says that a New York-London outfit is handling the project. The brochure says Mission "is sure to blaze a trail across the sky of Beijing's nightlife".
  • Teatro, an Italian restaurant; this building will include a wine cellar and a shop that sells bread, cheese, olive oil, and other goods.
  • Shiro Matsu, a Japanese restaurant.
  • Tian Di Yi Jian, a Chinese restaurant "embedded" in a furniture showroom.

The Legation Quarter will also have a theatre and other cultural faciltities. Count me as one who's looking forward to checking it out once it opens.

If you've got money burning a hole in your pocket, there are other options, such as Face bar, Lan, and of course, Block 8. All of these bars would be at home in Shanghai, or even London or Paris.

It is with bated breath, however, that I await some arrivals from Shanghai, places I have missed since I left. Beijing has amazing options for Chinese cuisine from all over the country, but when it came to authentic western food, Shanghai is tops in China (in my humble opinion). This blog was born while sitting on a bar stool inside Malone's, which makes fantastic burgers. Another place I regularly went to for lunch was Element Fresh, which offers healthy and tasty sandwiches, salads, smoothies, and more. It will open in May in the new Sanlitun Mall.

Boyce also reports that KABB (also great sandwiches) and Blue Frog will migrate from Shanghai to Beijing this year. I never made it to Blue Frog for a meal, but the reviews are it's decent western food in a western environment. I did pop into the first Blue Frog to open outside of Shanghai, down at the Venetian in Macao, and was suitably impressed. Now if only New York City Deli would migrate here, too. They made some of the tastiest sandwiches I've ever eaten - anywhere (or perhaps I've just been in China too long).

So what does all of this mean for Beijing? Well, these newcomers to the restaurant scene aren't exactly cheap, and it wasn't until I spent last week in Dalian that I fully realized how expensive the capital has become. Rents are stratospheric (I'm quickly trying to convince my landlord to extend my lease at the current rate, even though it doesn't expire until July, lest he realize how much they've increased) and bars and restaurants are going upscale. Personally, I don't think this is a bad thing (well, expensive rents are a bad thing). Beijing was ready for a change, and as a capital and major international city, it only makes sense that it offers high-end services to meet the needs of increasingly discerning residents and visitors.

But it also means, in my humble opinion, that slamming Shanghai for being pretentious is like the pot calling the kettle, well, you know....

Last year when it opened its 2nd location here in Beijing, there was a good deal of excitement (at least in our circle of friends) about Kro's Nest. kros2.jpg And I'm quite sure the proprietor of said pizza joint (which, by the way, makes some of the biggest "wheels" I have ever seen) were quite excited about the prospect of cashing in on their location outside Workers Stadium's north gate this summer during the forthcoming Olympics. But alas, it appears it is not to be. As reported on China Radio International this morning:

Restaurants, bars and nightclubs in one of Beijing's main nightlife centers and celebrity hangouts are to be closed to help ensure security at an Olympic football venue. A local official says about six restaurants and bars inside the Beijing Workers' Stadium compound will be ordered to suspend operation for more than 20 days before and during the Olympic Games. He says the venues, popular among Beijing residents, would suffer lost business, but the order was issued to guarantee security for the Games.

Security? The only imminent threat Kro's poses is bloating and a logy feeling after leaving. As for clubs like Vic's and Mix, procreation would be the main bullet to avoid. The notion that this is a security issue is a complete farce! In my mind, this is a blatant money grab by BOCOG, which wants people eat the crappy food inside Workers while watching an Olympic soccer match, rather than waiting until after to scarf down a pizza. So if this is going to happen to Workers during the Olympics, what about other nearby areas, such as Sanlitun? I suspect that municipal officials are going to be clamping down on this entire city like a python on a bunny come Games time.

UPDATE: Had a chance to have a brief chat with the owner of Kro's over the weekend as I was leaving (feeling a bit logy after a medium with a couple of friends), and asked him about the situation. His response was two fold: 1) It's nothing that a bottle of baijiu can't fix, and 2) Once he knows what exactly is happening, he'll let everyone else know.

The basic point that he was trying to make to me is that things are still up in the air. And if he does get shut down, Gongti shouldn't be expecting any rent out of him!

I remember, a few years ago, when the first Hooters outlet opened in China, in Shanghai's Hongqiao area. I was new in China at the time, and when a friend and I visited Shanghai on a road trip we figured we'd better check it out. Truth be told, as a Canadian and frequent visitor to the United States, I had never been to a Hooters restaurant before (honest!). So the Hongqiao branch was the first time I went.

Sure enough, it was kinda what I expected. Although the women weren't... erm... as "well-endowed" as I imagined (possibly as a result of the water in China... no?). When I moved to Shanghai a few years later, visiting Hooters become part of the tourist trip: first to the Bund, then the Pearl Tower, then the French Concession, then Xintiandi, then Hooters. For whatever reason, the Chinese seemed more enamored about Hooters than my foreign visitors did.

And now, Beijingers have no more need to head to Shanghai (or Hangzhou) to visit America's infamous restaurant chain. I think other North Americans can vouch that Hooters isn't exactly highly regarded in America... in fact, the only outlet in Vancouver went out of business. So I can't quite understand why a restaurant associated with low-end American culture seems so eagerly anticipated in China.

I had a talk with my girlfriend the other day about this very topic. She comes from a government family, and is fond of Mao, to say the least. She visited Hooters in Shanghai when I lived there, but was sorely disappointed that it had invaded the heart of China's capital, and her hometown. In fact, she swears she'll write an article on the editorial page of her newspaper denouncing Hooters' presence in Beijing, a la Rui Chenggang's campaign against Starbucks in the Forbidden City. (I'll let you know if she ever gets around to it.)

I live a few minutes walk from the Hooters in Beijing, which is on the northeast side of Worker's Stadium. It's a prime location, and I'm surprised that the government allowed Hooters to erect such large signage and lights around the restaurant -- believe me, you can't miss it. This, for a low-rent kind of chain.

It reminded me of local campaigns (both in my hometown of Sidney, and in parts of Vancouver) to ensure that Wal-Mart didn't set up shop and pollute those communities. Or of other areas in Canada, that fight to keep corporations and chains out of the area. It's clear that China is still having a love affair with foreign brands... but something also tells me that if the authorities fully understood how Hooters is regarded, perhaps they would've toned down the signage a bit - or asked Hooters to move to another location.

Personally speaking, I don't really have a problem with the place. It serves a certain clientèle and makes money, at least in China. Although on the night I was there, we saw an older fellow, with greasy hair flowing out from under his baseball cap, grab the rear-end of one of the waitresses. She giggled and continued talking with the two men at the table, but I couldn't help but feel a bit disgusted about what I had witnessed. My girlfriend was nearly in tears (it wasn't my idea to hit up the restaurant, by the way).

When the girls started dancing and singing songs, my girlfriend mentioned that they have probably been completely brainwashed by the company. She also said that if she ever tried to work at a place like this, her parents would give her all the money she needed just to stay home. She said she couldn't bare this kind of job, and would never be able to tell her family if she worked there.

To be fair, western girls could say this about other western girls working at Hooters. Again, I'm a practical kind of guy, and if there is a willing worker and a willing employer, and everything is above-board and consensual, then I don't see a problem. But yet, something about this rubs me the wrong way.

First, I have visited the Hongqiao Hooters twice, the Pudong Hooters twice, and now the one in Beijing. I have yet to meet a girl in any of the locations who are from Beijing or Shanghai. They are all -- 100% according to my unscientific poll -- from the countryside. Apparently Hooters pays fairly well, so the restaurant becomes a bit of a magnet for girls that need the money.

Second, I can only imagine what Mao would think (if we really care -- and most times I don't). Depending on the perspective, and if I was to spin this in a PR fashion, one could argue that China is selling out its girls from the countryside for the amusement of foreigners. (And yes, I know this has been happening for centuries -- but this situation just seems a little more overt, and with the government's obvious blessing). The fact this is occurring several blocks from China's Forbidden City leaves one with an odd feeling.

I'm not about to get too sentimental about this, because I happen to like the buffalo chicken wings at Hooters and they are now only a 5 minute walk away. One can argue whether Hooters should be here in the first place, and one can argue whether it should be promoted with giant signs and glittery lights next to a stadium honoring China's proletariat. Regardless, I can understand how my girlfriend feels.

I guess next time, I'll go with my buddies.

I enjoy trying Beijing's vast plethora of dining and drinking establishments, and once wrote a restaurant review column for Beijing Today magazine. I'm no culinary expert, and seeing as they were paying me peanuts, I decided to bail on the endeavor not long after it began (the magazine wouldn't even pay for the meal!). Also, as much as I love going out to bars around town, I could never compete with one Jim Boyce.

But in the spirit of shared information, I feel I may as well post the following email. I have dined at the Pavilion in Beijing twice without any problems. That being said, this email is written by a major media personality in Beijing, in my judgment, is a credible witness. You can certainly make up your own minds.

I just thought I would fill you in on my last experience at The Pavilion. It's a bit long, but well worth the read.

Let me first say that I have regularly frequented this bar since it opened.

OK. So, I arrived with some friends on Saturday evening at 6.50pm, just in time to grab a couple of happy hour drinks and sit back and enjoy the evening. After collecting our drinks at 6.55pm, we headed outside to find a table. Consuming two courses and many drinks, as well as inviting quite a few friends to join us (who also consumed food and many drinks) we decided to leave The Pavillion at 1.30am and headed to the cashier to pay the bill.

Checking the bill I noticed that we hadn't been credited our original happy hour drinks. I questioned the bill nicely and was shouted back at with "It says 7.04pm". That was because it took 5 minutes to originally find a table (after greeting some friends), sit down and then give the staff a table number so they could put our 6.50pm purchased drinks on the computer. Anyway, I politely told the lady (the owner Russel's wife, Christine) the situation. She yelled at me saying sarcastically, "Why don't I make the whole bill happy hour prices?" I said that there was no need to take that attitude. ....

The next minute the owner, Russel, came over and started yelling at us. First he called us losers, repeating "This bar is not for losers". Then he said, "If you just came for the happy hour drinks then you are not welcome here" (ignoring the fact that we had been spending money at his bar for over SIX hours). He said "Have you heard of the Bus Bar? It's just across the street. Why don't you go there?"

My friend came back from the bathroom and he shouted at her, "You should know better". Let me point it out that this friend has known Russel for many years and has attended various
functions with him. When she spoke back to him, in disbelief, he said, "Oh, so now you remember my name" (??!!!!) He then approached my other friend who is in the restaurant business. He stood about 5cm away from her face and said "Yes, I know you. Your restaurant is illegal." When she said "What?" in complete astonishment he yelled "Oh, feeling brave
now are we?" He then got all of his staff to come over, pointed at us and said "See these losers, never let them in here again".

I have never in my entire life been spoken to in such a degrading, disrespectful and horrendous way. I can't count the amount of money I have spent in Russel's bar and the number of friends and visitors I have taken there. To treat your loyal customers in such a way is absolutely beyond my comprehension. So, don't give this poor excuse for a human being your hard earned money.

The Pavillion might have a nice garden, but it has a rude, obnoxious, disgusting owner that deserves nothing good in this lifetime. No wonder The Pavillion is going under.

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