It was one of those frigid nights when people wear garbage bags on their head to dodge the rain and no cab will pick you up. The heater in our apartment had stopped working, and the AC was blowing nothing but cold air. A night where everyone looks like this.
So we set out to find the perfect winter bar. Just a place that serves warm drinks, or is run by people from a cold country like Russia, or has a fireplace, or could transport us to another world. In the end we found just that, in a most unexpected way. But it took a few tries to get there. Here's where we went...
Good for: Getting drunken with friends. Possible third/fourth date spot
The night began at The Chalet. Ski lodge vibes up in here. Some white people eating fondue, cheap drinks, and warmness. The happy hour here is out of control good. Daily select beers and cocktails for 30rmb until 9pm. The bill for an Irish coffee and a dirty martini came out to 60rmb. The Irish coffee was more coffee than anything else, but the dirty martini was way on point. Service is good. Place exudes quality. It's the kind of bar to stay a whole night in, but that seemed like a cop-out so we went to find fire. There's a pick-and-mix restaurant outside that all the taxi drivers love, so it's easy to get a cab out of here.
Good for: First and second dates. Chilling by the fire in the afternoon sipping tea like some British magnate
Stepping into Cotton's is like walking into some rich dude's courtyard house. They've got two branches, the original on Anting Lu that opened back in 2003, and another on the lovely Xinhua Lu. Both have fireplaces and that's what makes this place a winter standard. Admittedly it's a little cliche to mention the place but it's really good. Also, they do tea and other non-alcoholic drinks and open in the afternoon. Maybe a good place to take your mother for tea next time she's in town. Cocktails here are a little steep at 65rmb but you're paying for the atmosphere. They've got decent food too. Unfortunately the fire was already out when we arrived.
Good for: Craft beer by the fireplace and heavy American food. Hanging with some buds. Talking business with supply-chain bros
Oh yeah. Fireplace and six draft craft beers on deck. Boxing Cat on Fuxing Lu has their fireplace game on lock. Some other places we called were like "we don't have any wood". Pause.
The way to start here is the 85rmb beer sampler, where you can try six of their beers, including a few IPAs, a stout, and some lagers. One of the IPAs was really good. They do really hearty American food here too. The kind of fried chicken, chili, and sandwiches that'll induce the itis and make you pass out by the fire. Not a fan of the meat in their burgers and the bun kinda falls apart, but the chili at 38rmb is a real solid winter option and the beer is consistently good. Music is a random mix of rock and hip hop and not always in a good way. This is probably more of a come here with some buddies and/or your long-term love kinda place.
Good for: Shochu cocktails and dates with people from countries other than Japan so you can talk about how rad Japanese culture is but maybe not with an actual Japanese person because they're probably sick of hearing about that
This little bar down an alley in Jing'an sticks to the Japanese tradition of doing one thing really, really well. Here, that is Chūhai, a cocktail made with shochu, that Japanese alcohol distilled from barley, sweet potatoes, rice, carrots, and other healthy foods that can turn into crunk juice. They mix it with fresh ingredients like grapefruit, pomello, and ginger. So smooth. Your lady will probably love it.
The soundtrack stays on good vibes reggae every day of the year and the service is genuinely friendly. Only one problem with this place – it's impossible to get a seat. If you wanna post up here, you'll need to arrive around like 6pm or 7pm. They've got another location in Jing'an too but it's not as cozy as this one, though the drinks are just as good.
Good for: When you need a hug or just want to talk to someone.
BnC is the bar where the owners will come up and hug you when you walk in, if you're into that. The place has three locations in Jing'an and all the tell-tale signs of a dive, like cheap flags from every country strung around the place, writing on the wall, and random lighting. The only thing not dive about this place is the prices. We're talking 50rmb for cocktails and 35rmb for draft beer. The kindhearted staff make up for this somewhat though, and there's some nice art on the walls too.
They really do give free hugs to customers, and not in a sexual way. If I needed to talk to someone about issues in my life or just get some shit off my chest, I would come down and chat with Candy or Tina. That said, we're in the post-Perry's era and I can't really understand these prices in a dive.
Good For: Not spending much money while forgetting about reality
This is the proper cold-weather dive. It's so deep in the basement you could probably survive a nuclear winter down here. C's has been on Dingxi Lu for thirteen years and is in many ways responsible for Shanghai's underground music scene, but that's another story. The place is physically warm. It's in the basement and the walls are narrow, with lots of little rooms. Christmas on Skid Row is basically the vibe here these days.
Also, unlike most proper dives in Shanghai, they play decent music most nights of the week, and the drink prices are like happy hour all day every day. We're talking 20-25rmb for cocktails, beer for less than that, and even some decent Belgian drafts for 35rmb. Plus, Jesse and the other ladies who run this place are some warm-hearted souls.
Only one major downside. If you're looking for a clean bar, this probably ain't the one, but that's part of the charm. I've seen someone throw up every time I've come to C's in the past seven years. This time was no different. Had a few rounds here then set off for The Bund in search of luxury and opulence.
Good for: Rockin' in the free world
But first, a quick stop at one of my favorite bars for any season – Family Mart. Now, a lot of folks talk about baijiu, but warm Huangjiu is the standard winter drink in Shanghai, and it's deceiving in the same way a sake drunk can creep up on you. That's why I call Huangjiu "Sneaky Pete". Unfortunately Family Mart refused to heat my bottle of Huangjiu, and then proceeded to throw someone's plastic wrapped sandwich in the microwave for two minutes. Hey it's the sound of mutating cells. So, cold huangjiu it is. That's one way to roll to The Bund.
Good for: Sipping smooth vodka straight up and decent Russian food on the cheap
And who would know about the cold better than the Russians? The Flying Elephant is one of two Russian restaurants in Shanghai, located in an ancient hotel on Guangdong Lu near The Bund. On the corner outside, a gang of aunties asked if we'd like a massage or lady friend. This hotel looks like it opened up right about when China did. And look, live music.
The menu looks like a Steak and Shake menu, but with Russian, Chinese, and English and everything is made of potatoes, curds, vegetables that grow underground, or fried meats. Did my first Borsch and yeah, really pretty tasty, especially for 28rmb. Some nice chunks of beef in there.
A bunch of items on the menu looked like Chinese dumplings and were ehhh. But the vodka is what you really come here for. They have like twenty kinds and damn it's smooth. Goes down like orange sherbet in the summertime. The cheapest full bottle of vodka starts at 80rmb, but they have like ten kinds you can get a 100gram jug of for 30rmb. Yep, just slinging grams of vodka. Hardcore. Tried the Five Lakes and another, both excellent. No shots, just sipping. Then some ladies started singing like Russian KTV with an iPod or something. It was beautiful.
And that's about when Haibao showed up.
We had a bit of vodka with him and he told us of a bar atop a luxury hotel on The Bund. Haibao said that bar has a Jacuzzi on the roof that's a portal to another dimension, and if we really wanted to escape the Shanghai cold, that was the way to go. Just dive into that jacuzzi, travel through the psychedelic wormhole, and sink into ecstacy.
So we walked. It's weird how so much prime real estate in Shanghai is vacant or underutilized. We passed this bar, which didn't look too welcoming...
Good for: Impressive views and a Jacuzzi on the roof that doubles as a psychedelic wormhole leading to another dimension
We reached the final stop. Some more aunties downstairs offered their massage services. These ones looked a bit more fashionable, but we had a psychedelic wormhole to get to. The elevator chugged up thirty-something floors, causing the ol' ear pressure to change. Inside the bar was full with business dudes, tourists, and the sweet sweet sounds of House Music For Luxury Hotels 2014. The 100rmb cover got us a single drink, which unfortunately didn't work for an Old Fashioned. Just a glass of whiskey and ice and up the stairs we went to the rooftop to take in some views.
And there we saw it – the jacuzzi portal…
Haibao told us to take the capsule and jump in. Apprehensive at first, the cold winds blew around us so hard we said fuck it, the worst thing that could happen is we'd get our shoes wet. But Haibao wasn't lying.
Falling through the wormhole was like like an eternal long-jump into a silent fireworks show that I could touch without getting burned. The last thing I remember is a symphony of 50,000 cats purring and giant rain drops.
We woke on the other side of time. A world of warm snow, rainbow blizzards, and sunshine that sings classic soul songs. I think that dude who throws those Goa Trance parties lives here. Gonna chill here for a while yallz. This place is the new Yunnan. See you in the springtime.