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[Lil’Laoban]: Colin and Simon of Revolving Door

"Some people stay longer. Some people have a shorter amount of time in the city, but it's like everybody has a story to tell."
2022-11-06 12:00:00
Lil’Laoban is a column series that shines the spotlight on independent entrepreneurs in Shanghai. We’re talking to them about their journey, wildest ambitions and how they’ve carved their niche in this city. The Lil’Laoban series is part of SHANG!, a grass-roots initiative founded by friends and businesses to celebrate the always-looking-up spirit of the city and everyone that calls Shanghai home.

A throwback to the neighborhood bars of simpler times, Revolving Door is a speakeasy-ish, dive bar-ish cocktails bar on out-of-the-way Hefei Lu. A disappearing breed — it's actually in a converted residential house — Revolving Door offers up everything you could ever want or need of a bar: really good, heavy drinks and a room full of interesting people to drink them with. A two story house, the first floor is the cocktails and the second is a cigar smoking den. On the menu is a collection of classic cocktails on one side, the in-house variations on these on the other, and then a bunch os seasonal, summery stuff thrown in. Easy enough.

SHANG! Talked to two of the three laobans. We had drinks with Colin (pictured) and Simon called in. Bartender Jackie made drinks.

SmSh: Okay, just to start, maybe you both can introduce yourselves?

Simon (on the phone): My name Simon. I'm from southern California — pretty much born and raised in Los Angeles. And I'm a chef by occupation. And I came over here because Kelly brought me over — the famous Kelly Lee [of Boxing Cat, Cantina Agave, Liquid Laundry, and more].

She brought me over for Liquid Laundry and I've been doing Shanghai now going on seven and a half years.

Colin: My turn. Okay. My name is Colin Pine. I have been in Shanghai. Wow. 15 years. In China for 17. Originally in Beijing for two years. Originally, I came over here to work for the NBA. The National Basketball Association. I did that for 15 years...

SmSh: And it drove you to drink?

Colin: [Laughs.] No... I was doing brand licensing and sponsorship. And before that I was actually a translator. So, my kind of small claim to fame is I was Yao Ming's translator. I was with him for the first two years he was in Houston.

SmSh: How was that? I've heard he's a really nice guy.

Colin: He's a super nice guy. He is actually a genuinely nice person. But anyway, so I came out here for the corporate job stuff but now I'm taking a break from it with this place.

"Heavy pours, good conversation, good value — at a place that is not pretentious. We want to be a place for people to actually like to drink to not just take pictures of the drinks."

SmSh: Can you introduce Revolving Door and tell the people what it's all about?

Simon: Yeah, with Revolving Door, we're trying to do like a throwback neighborhood bar. Obviously, it's off the beaten path a little bit and it's a little bit hidden. It was Colin's favorite bar before called Funky Monkey. Colin can probably tell you a bit more about that. But he inherited it from the previous owner, and he rallied some troops — me, Julian, and, basically, himself. And since I was the F&B person, I brought in some of the bartenders and some of the some of the concepts and more.

Colin: Yeah, so Funky Monkey was just a cool, little neighborhood bar — very under the radar — but a place that always had good drinks and good conversation. You know, the kind of place that you enjoy drinking at. And there aren't that many of in Shanghai any longer. Just a small, unpretentious neighborhood place — comforting warm environment, and but also get great drinks. So it's just carrying on that vibe and maybe putting our own stamp on it a bit. The playlist is all our own music that we like...

SmSh: What's on the playlist?

Colin: The hip hop side is mostly like classic like, classic hip hop say, like, mid to late ‘90s. Roots, Tribe Called Quest, Beastie Boys — that kind of stuff. I'm a big like, late ‘90s to mid 2000s indie head. Julian stuff is a little more on the electronic side.

SmSh: Do you guys fight over the playlist?

Colin: We definitely have discussions... [Laughs.]. As you can see, we've got the Grateful Dead poster on the wall — it's really just a mix of our different tases.

SmSh: How about the drinks aesthetics? Where does Revolving Door fit into the larger cocktail community of Shanghai?

Simon: I'm, you know, a chef in Shanghai, so I'm paying attention to what other people are doing but after a while, you just kind of go back to what you know, what you like, and what you're good at. I'm a highball drinker and I dabbled in some other things but overall, I just want a good, well-made cocktail. Something boozy. Something that won't break the bank.

So, we try to come in about you know, 25-30% less than the competitors, and we're just here for good cocktails, good conversation, and good company.

Colin: Yeah, exactly. And so I mean, if you look at our cocktail menu, we've got the whole classic section, which is just like your standards, like great cocktails that you really don't need to mess that much with. But like I will say we use really good spirits. Jackie, our bartender, is an incredible bartender. So, he gets the balance just right.

And, but we also have our signature stuff, which is a lot of riffs on the classics. And then some some like for summer, we'll update the menu every like, three, four months to do some seasonal stuff. I mean, like I said, Jack is really a pretty incredible bartender, so definitely want to give him room to express himself.

SmSh: But boozy-ness is key...

Colin: Heavy pours, good conversation, good value — at a place that is not pretentious. We want to be a place for people to actually like to drink to not just take pictures of the drinks.

SmSh: So can you introduce your bartender Jackie?

Simon: Jackie and I work together when was he was a head bartender at Liquid Laundry. And then he kind of just did his own thing as a consultant. Before that he was with The Alchemist, another Kelly's project...

SmSh: Ah, I remember The Alchemist!

Simon: He's very creative. He's very knowledgeable, very careful. measured, and you know, we try to strive for, you know, like, craft style — but I hate that word craft, because it's just been overtaken by, you know, hipsters, and whatever — But it does reflect where he's going. Because he's does take a lot of care what he does. So that's, that's why I brought him in.

SmSh: How did the cocktail menu come into being?

Simon: Yeah, that goes back to the "revolving door" concept — the revolving side of it. So the original concept is that we wanted the classics — the Negroni, the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned — and then we wanted to offer our own boozy kind of twists on those. With those twists rotating every couple of months or so. And then it's just kind of like, spun out of control. And now it's just like, all over the place. [Laughs.]

Colin: Yeah, we would have the classic cocktail menu, and then the twist, which is the revolving cocktail, which we will be updating every three or four months. But, you know, we opened September 2021, and it kind of evolved beyond that. We're doing lots of other stuff as well — some seasonal stuff...

We're still a young bar and we're still kind of finding our way. That original idea remains but we have more than that, adding interesting things, especially things that we can allow Jackie to show off his skill set, which was pretty impressive.

SmSh: What can you tell me about the design of the place. You've got the cocktail bar on the first floor and the cigar lounge on the second...

Simon: So, Funky Monkey before us was kind of a dive bar. But it was also, like I said, had great spirits really good cocktail. And so we kind of came up with the idea of like, the elevated dive bar. So it has the feel of a dive bar. It's not pretentious, it's welcoming, but you still get really good quality and value. So all the old whiskey labels are still on the walls in the bathroom from Jeff the old owner, and we just touched it up a bit with some wood and brick.

Upstairs, we just tried to make just a proper den, like a North American den. Some nice leather couches and a good place to smoke a cigar and have a nice whiskey.

Colin: Basically, just like a lot of the detail work to make it feel more comfortable and just like a little bit more civil I guess.

SmSh: Are people allowed to smoke cigars upstairs?

Colin: Yeah, we have we have a tobacco license.

SmSh: How do you like the neighborhood? It's really rare to find a bar in a place like this these days...

Colin: it's probably one of the reasons I love the bar in the first place. The reality is we never intended to be like a speakeasy but it's got that kind of feel. The front area is a coffee shop during the day and you have to know we're back here to come. So it creates and environment where everyone knows each other. And that's what we wanted — an environment of people that have interesting stories to tell, that are willing to, you know, share their stories and talk to each other.

But the location is really interesting. This is a really cool historical Street. The architecture is beautiful.

SmSh: I guess with Covid and lockdowns you've had to be a speakeasy for real. That's life imitating art. How has the lockdown been?

Simon: Well, brutal, really. But luckily, we are a small venue that, you know, it doesn't take much to make us busy. So, we've been able to survive this period. But it's like with Covid, It's like everything gets pushed back, pushed back, pushed back and yeah, we can't we can't really get our bearings...

But we're getting back on track.

SmSh: So, optimistic for the future then? Are you liking life in Shanghai these days?

Colin: Well, I've been living in Shanghai a while. And, obviously, the city has its quality — it's own style, you know what I mean. It's an incredible city, right? Anybody who's spent any amount of time here knows that this is one of the best, most global cities in the world. You're always meeting incredible people. It's easy to talk to people. Everybody has a cool story to tell, which again, is kind of part of the idea behind the bar and the Revolving Door.

It's like, you know, people come and people go, just like they do in a bar. And some people stay longer. Some people have a shorter amount of time in the city, but it's like everybody has a story to tell. Everybody has something interesting to say. I love the transience of it. I mean, of course it wears you out. It gets tiring after a time. And right now, I think everybody's tired of it because everybody's saying goodbye to a lot of people. But I I love the vibrancy of the city.

And, you know, I mean, yeah, we're going to have to take some time to get back to the way it was. I have confidence that we will, but it's going to take a little while. It's going to take some patience. But, you know, it's not going away. I mean, of course, I could be being overly optimistic...

SmSh: Tinged with sadness...

Colin: There's a little bit of melancholy there, sure. A lot of people are leaving. Certainly, I mean, yeah, people are getting hit hard. And there's, you know, there's been a massive economic impact. But if you in the long run who knows?

Well, we can talk about it all night...

Simon: I agree with what Colin said, I just wanted to just piggyback on it and say that from my personal experience, Shanghai has one of the best customer bases for F&B in all of Asia. It's a place where a chef or a bartender can earn an honest living and you know, be able to experiment and customers can appreciate that kind of craft. Like if you go to Hong Kong or Singapore, or to a lesser extent, Tokyo and Seoul it's just super competitive as far as allowing outsiders to come in to try to be involved.

Shanghai has been always very gracious and welcoming, and I think it's a very supportive, tight knit community. So, there's a lot of heartbreak but those of us who understand are just redoubling down our relationships and getting stronger.