Area:Tianzifang. Go in the middle entrance and turn right at the third lane. Bell Bar is at the end. From the outside it looks tiny, but this is the TARDIS of Shanghai bars.
What is it:Bell Bar really was tiny when it opened in 2006, just a long bar with a dozen stools. Over the years, however, it’s taken over three floors of a rambling house in Tianzifang. The bar is still downstairs but there are now three rooms upstairs on the second floor, one with a little mezzanine level. Upstairs again there’s an outside space and up more stairs there’s another room with DVDs and a flatscreen. It just keeps going.
The whole place is bohemian and ramshackle, with sofas and mismatched chairs, bookshelves heaving under the weight of comics and paperbacks, exposed brick, rickety stairs and cubbyholes. It’s a place to smoke shisha, relax with friends, meet strangers, lounge or hide from the world. It’s unusually nice inside. Really surprisingly nice. I hadn’t been there for a while when I went to do this and I had forgotten just how good it is.
Why it’s good:Many reasons, but let’s start with the most obvious: Amay. She is the owner and the smiley face behind the bar mixing most of the drinks. And she is one of the nicest people anyone could hope to meet in Shanghai. If you’ve been to Bell, you probably remember her. More to the point, she probably remembers you. She seems to be on first-name terms with everyone who’s ever stumbled through the door. She probably remembers your drink, too, and what you talked about.
Amay is a princess among women, the sort of kindhearted, chatty, optimistic person that makes a bar more than just a place to sit and drink beer. If you’re in any doubt about this, check out the two huge guests books where five years of visitors have scrawled their comments. At the moment they’re sitting on a table at the top of the stairs.
OK, enough Amay-love. The happy hour is another major plus: 5-8pm every day, all cocktails and beer are two-for-one. That’s a deal that’s been good for about the past four years and isn’t going anywhere soon.
What else is good… There’s always a bowl of nuts on the bar. If you want a new book, Bell Bar has more English-language paperbacks than most of the bookshops on Fuzhou Lu. They’re 20rmb if you want to buy one, or swap two of your own for one of theirs.
Atmosphere:Friendly, relaxed. Most people sat at the bar end up talking to each other, though privacy is available upstairs. If you were on a date, this could be a romantic last-drink place where you can hide and find a corner to snog. If you’re in a big group, it could be a rowdy Friday night place. The space lends itself to all those things because it’s divided up like an old house. If you wanted a private party, you could sequester the top room, watch sports, watch the olympics, watch a movie, play cards and order down for drinks. Amay says people sometimes hold business meetings in the top room. I can see that, too. In the winter it’s cozy. In the summer it’s bright and airy. So, all things to all people, or as good as you’re going to get, anyway.
Prices:Beer from 30rmb (Tsingdao) to 60rmb (Duvel) with lots in between. Draft Stella is 50rmb for a pint. The cocktail list is extensive (four or five pages long) with everything at 50-60rmb except some fancy stuff for 75rmb. Food is basic but inexpensive with appetizers from 25rmb (garlic bread), some Mexican staples (from 35-58rmb), salads (all 45rmb) and sandwiches (45rmb with fries). Pasta, pizza and Asian food are also on offer for around 50-60rmb.
Ordering Recommendations:Amay delights in serving very strong drinks. Many swear by the Long Island iced tea here. Others plump for the Fuck My Life, a mix of whisky, vodka, rum, orange juice. For something slightly less corrosive, try the Old Pal, which is Canadian Club, dry Martini and Campari. There are also fresh fruit martinis floating around.
The menu has been added to over the years by regulars, which explains some of its more random entries. Some of the drinks are just downright weird. Go explore, or stick to the tried and true…
Bonus Bell Bar gossip: A few weeks ago, Amay was inches away from opening a second venue a few minutes from Sinan Mansions but the landlord jacked the rent when she went down to sign the contract and the deal collapsed. But look out for a new Bell as soon as she finds the right place.