So with that, I went on an overnight drunk to find out which of these places are actually good, to help YOU make the right decision, dear reader. As it turns out, some are extremely good. First, a few lessons:
1. Sad but true: you're gonna pay 70-100rmb for a cocktail at most of these places. Now, I don't like that any more than you do but these are the facts of life.
2. The bartenders that run these places take a lot of pride in their game. This is their life. They shake their cocktails like 100 times and you can almost hear them counting inside their heads. You're gonna get a decent-to-great-drink at most of these spots.
3. Real alcohol is just as dangerous as fake alcohol.
Chapter 1: Southside Drunk & The Wrong Way To Go About This
1. U Way
U Way is a little bar run by this guy Jerry who won our Family Mart Cocktail Challenge, along with several of the most prestigious bartending championships. To get there, you go to Ximinli Lu, which no one has ever heard of, then you just climb right into this panda that collects clothing for people in Africa.
Not really. Just go up to the third floor of this office building and look for the New Year's decorations from 2011. When we reached the door, a woman walked out of the office next door, and our conversation was like:
Me: "Hey have you ever been to the bar in here?"
French Woman: "Zer iz a bar? No..." [looks nervous and walks away]
Sorry, sister, but there is a bar, and it's Jerry's bar. There is no menu, and all drinks are 65rmb. They have an Xbox, and the stereo plays straight up American country music. Now, obviously with a name like Jerry, he should be raging some Grateful Dead, but he gets a pass anyway.
Jerry creates a new signature cocktail each week and blasts it on WeChat to keep the neighborhood regulars from getting bored. This week was some kind of gin cucumber foam joint that was deceivingly strong.
U Way is a little out of the way, but the drinks are great and you're not going to run into anyone you know there. Highly recommended.
So Jerry's like, "Hey thanks for writing that First Sip on my bar" and starts pouring out some rare Johnny Walker King George. Jerry says he knows about another hidden bar. Something about a furniture store and a parking garage in Xintiandi. So he calls his boy San Diego to see if it's alright to come down and have a look...
San Diego says it's cool to come over to his bar. And we're thinking this is just gonna be some uncles drinking huangjiu in the backroom of a furniture shop. Just a quick detour. Turns out it's...ummm...some kind of private restaurant for one-percenters. Maybe a swingers spot? Dunno.
Says one guest: "It's just, you know, an exclusive place -- just for friends. We have the craziest parties -- look at this video, we were dancing on couches until 5 in the morning. We might open to public in a few months."
Still can't figure this place out. A painting of DJ Razor sat in the corner, as group after group of good looking people walked through the passcode-locked doors. Guests were eating rare fish and sipping rare champagne, probably talking about investments. The vibe was very Stanley Kubrick, and the sexual tension was so thick that it felt like as soon as the two outsiders left, people would tear off their clothes and just start fucking violently like the world was ending.
And San Diego just kept making drink after drink after drink... "You like cream? Let me show you my cream," he says, before pulling out a canister of foam and whipping up a butterscotch drink.
[To make this shit even more Twin Peaks, I was grabbing a drink at another party last week, and guess who was behind the bar -- San Diego]
Dude even made a huangjiu cocktail, so we were half right. Several hours later, and far, far behind schedule, we stumble out of there and head to a more predictable place.
3. Speak Low
Just within walking distance of that weird cave, Speak Low is the Japanese bar hidden upstairs from a bar tools shop on Fuxing Lu. They opened in 2014 and since then pretty much everyone found out about it. So...it's behind the bookshelf?
Bitch you guessed it.
Last Thursday, every inch of the bar's four floors was packed. The second floor is more like a New York house party, with people discussing the horror of Trump getting elected, whereas the fourth floor is like "Japanese gentlemen please stand up!" It's a nice scene, and you can only smoke on the first floor.
Speak Low is popular for a reason. They make damn good drinks, with service to match. This does not come cheap, and you'll pay 80-100rmb on the second floor and up to 140rmb or so on the upper levels. Can't remember what this was -- think there's some Chinese medicine in there -- but the one made with Wang Lao Ji tea was better.
Good place, extremely crowded, even on a Thursday. Better go early if you want a seat.
Ok, this one isn't a speakeasy per se, but bear with me for a minute and this will all make sense. Now, just around the corner from Speak Low and Meka is this bar street called Danshui Lu. Well, it was a bar street, until the man came and shut down all the illegal, unlicensed businesses over there. Sadly, one of the casualties in this crackdown was a really great little whisky bar / speakeasy called Comet, which was hidden in an alley and had space for just twenty people. They played jazz and served good single malts and some flight attendants and consulate people hung out there.
So when we visited Comet for The Article, we met a sign on the door with a QR code that said, "We've moved! Welcome to join us at Utopia! 7/F, 10 Baoqing Lu, near Fuxing Zhong Lu."
Now, here's the thing about the 7th floor of 10 Baoqing Lu -- it used to be an actual speakeasy called The Boulevard. They went out of business in 2015, and now it's Utopia. So, two speakeasies merged into something that's not really a speakeasy at all but is still kind of hidden and that's why it's on this list. Beautiful space.
In typical post-everything form, trance music blasted from the speakers while The Godfather played silently on a giant screen next to the bar. A near-complete collection of single malts from Comet rested proudly on the counter as a bartender explained that this was supposed to be a Xinjiang restaurant, and while somehow that didn't work out, they do have some "really fresh lamb from Xinjiang."
Tried the lamb; not that fresh, not that great.
And the bartender just kept pouring them.
Tequila shots arrived as five fat chefs traipsed through the room, just off work. A rich looking fat fellow with two good-looking young women whispered to the bartender, "make the drinks extra strong for those girls." Fucking scumbag. Our bill was suddenly like 600rmb and I realized I hadn't eaten a god damn thing since lunch.
[That really was foolish, trying to do all of this in one night.]
Chapter 2: Doing Things The RIGHT Way, or Dog Dicks & Fire Ants
5. People 7
People think that Yongkang Lu is crazy. What they don't realize is that circa 2000, Julu Lu was so vile and filled with scum, swine, and filth that people would literally put a lawnchair on the sidewalk and draw a chalk circle around it to keep the seething whores away as they drank cheap vodka half-naked in the sun.
And a little ways down the road from that scene, a place called People 7 opened in 2002. This one is probably Shanghai's original speakeasy, and that's why they get a slot in The Article.
People 7 must have blown some minds when they opened. To enter, you have to shove your hand in the correct hole, and the bathrooms are even more confusing (not chill). The place is massive, with giant windows overlooking a hidden bamboo forest.
People 7 shows its age. They probably haven't changed the smooth jazz CD since 2006. They do have some pretty modern prices though -- 80rmb for a mojito without crushed ice.
They've got a big Japanese restaurant next door too, which is also expensive and not that dope in 2016. Both places remain popular with a slightly older local crowd, but you're better off hitting another place on this list. Still, respect to People 7 for so many years in the game.
6. Tailor Bar
This one is real good. They're upstairs from a Chinese medicine shop right around the corner from Jing'an Temple.
That makes sense, because inside they've got a giant vodka bottle in the corner filled with "dog dicks, starfish, fire ants, and other shit," according to our bartender that night. "It's like a liquid blue pill."
...Boy, what a view. Apparently they rage until 8am here several nights a week, drinking whisky as the sun rises.
Sorry, but after last week's trip to the hurt locker, I didn't try any of the dog dick fire ants wine. Did try the Sazerac though. Real nice. Bartender even sprayed the inside of the glass with a bit of absinthe. Then he explained how the classic New Orleans cocktail came about, and how they used to cut ice from the lakes in Chicago and ship it down south. They really know their shit and take a lot of pride in their drinks.
They play Blues and other music for grown folks at Tailor Bar, and it's one of the better options in this list. Will definitely return.
Oji is a dude and a bar. He looks like an anime character, and though his cocktail bar is inside El Ocho, it is not part of the Willy empire. He just rents the space, so it's a bar inside a bar. Just a classic lil' Japanese cocktail bar. No menu, lots of fresh ingredients.
Dial 0 for Oji...
If there's a date spot in this listicle, it's Oji. Low lighting, good jazz, pretty drinks. They only have sixteen seats, and while they don't have a minimum spend, you'd want to call ahead to reserve a seat.
"Japanese cocktail glass. Handmade. Cannot buy in China." says Oji, a man of few words. He's one of those guys that could either be 25 or 35 years old, and his cocktails are understated and smooth like a Lexus LS400.
Not the strongest drinks, but premium quality. If you bring your middle-aged side piece up in here, someone is getting laid.
Hey look it's that Coke machine bar. Went there once and that was enough. No standing, pretty weak drinks, lot of tourists and flashy young money.
Here's a cooler story about a Coke machine. Once, my buddy Tony and I were stranded at a train station in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur, along with about 10,000 angry locals who clearly did not care for white folks. Two security guards came up and notified us that it was definitely not safe to hang around and they took us inside, where we found four obese Westerners all huddled around a Coke machine getting devoured by mosquitoes. We tried to sleep but the mosquitoes and the heat were too much, so we smoked cigs and stayed up all night until the next train.
(There's not even a punchline to that story, and it's still cooler than Flask.)
We're at the end of The Article, dear reader, so let's end on a good note. Barules epitomizes what a speakeasy should be: good drinks and design, friendly bartenders and regulars, and decent music ('80s boogie on this voyage). You'll find it on the corner of Fuxing and Fenyang. Just step into the phone booth there...
Here's another great thing about speakeasies: most don't do that whole industrial chic design shtick that everyone copied from Noodle Bull. Look at this tin roof.
Even on a Monday night, half the seats were filled with people on dates and what seemed like old friends catching up. Everyone was smiling. The bartender took shots with regulars and a trainee poured water liberally (this is crucial).
Aside from the fancy entrance, this is just a good neighborhood bar. They do tax the hell out of beer (65rmb for a Brooklyn -- that's over 10USD), but that's kinda what you get for ordering a beer in a craft cocktail spot. Would you order a hamburger in a Chinese restaurant? Maybe you would, I don't know.
So who wins?
YOU WIN. PERFECT.
So, just to recap, these are the better ones, in no particular order...
1. Tailor Bar: Great view and atmosphere, goes late, and better for friends than dates.
2. Barules: Just a solid neighborhood spot.
3. U Way: Out of the way, but great drinks and a tad cheaper.
4. Oji: The date spot.
5. Speak Low: Crowded, but still a neighborhood vibe and good for out of town guests.