Shanghai’s bar scene began to fill up again in 2018. Saturation. Maturation. Masturbation. About 40 new places opened that were noteworthy and sometimes even excellent temples to libations. If you are doing the accounting, that’s around twice as many significant closures we saw this year. Two steps forward, indeed.
What happened at the bar? The cocktail price index increased, as it always does, driven up by a few pricy openings and maybe rental and labor costs. Jing'an's stock price is trending upwards, while Xuhui's recession appears to be accelerating. There's even more gin, probably? There's even more craft beer. There’s definitely a high KOL factor.
Time to review. Drink up.
Beer made its way into more cocktails this year, and more cocktail bars are paying attention to the beer list, but the boozosphere is still broadly divided into places you go for a beer or places you go for fancy stuff.
The Beer World
It's been a fairly good year for the former. If 2017 was the year AB InBev took over the entire city (hail Goose), 2018 was the year some solid competition kicked back. Stone Brewing opened a brewery dedicated to its unapologetically beernerdy sensibilities. Local competitor Dream Brewers (brewed in Anhui) opened in the second phase of the Julu 758 complex in December. Australian Little Creatures opened up in Found 158 super early in the year. Blue Moon slapped its logo on Urban Diner Gastropub on Shaanxi Bei Lu, but you're still more likely to get it at a Brew Bear.
On the beermarket front, Beer Plus added two new locations and Brew Bear expanded like a virus, including a spore at Columbia Circle. For a sweet, sweet moment, Beijing's answer to the Beer Lady, Heaven Supermarket, opened up on the Bund. And then it closed.
AB InBev wound down its staff, and closed all the Kaibas, including their short-lived Kaiba Crafts project, and 45 Degrees. But where Kaiba closed, a new Boxing Cat concept called First Round opened, the only place I've seen with reverse taps, a ten-year-old innovation that does the Dr. Strange thing where he refills Thor's stein with magic — except this uses a dispenser station. Innovation! And Boxing Cat turned 10 years old.
The beer scene's cool uncle Jackie's Beer Nest bade goodbye to its first-and-final location on Zhaozhou Lu, caught up in the Laoximen redevelopment. There're rumors he may be back. See you at the crossroads, Jackie's Beer Nest.
The Cocktail World
A couple of Union Trading Company graduates broke off from the mothership to establish Bar Alcocase, which is a fairly unassuming (except for the all-crystal entrance) cocktail bar serving up interesting concoctions in the vein of their alma mater. I'm glad it exists.
This absolutely doesn't belong here, but the roving Mojito Man from Beijing deserves a mention for having churned through like three locations in a year. Keep submitting those venues, Mojito Man, it brings a smile to my face.
It's been a bit of a down year for Eddy Yang & company. Tailor Bar keeps on keeping on, but Second Moment and Above the Globe shuttered. They might reopen a paen to the latter, but it'll probably be in another city. We continue to hear murmurings among bar owners that maybe it's finally time to get out of Shanghai and try somewhere else. Hangzhou, Nanjing, Shenzhen, Chengdu and more beckon with lower rents, lower labor costs, and a lower likelihood of two identical bars opening to your left and right within a month. And then the whole block gets shut down.
Ars & Delecto are a bit more upbeat about Shanghai's prospects. The sister outfit to Asia's Top 50 Bars Bar Trench in Tokyo, Ars & Delecto took over the vacated Citizen Cafe spot, and are serving up a lot of absinthe in that solemn, elegant Japanese tradition. It's as nice a spot as any to fork over a red bill plus a brown or blue one.
Another spot banking on people forking over many, many notes is Odd Couple, Shingo Gokan's team-up with Singapore/New York's Steve Schneider. Settled into Xintiandi and charging a premium for the privilege, the paired-cocktail menu and the defiantly 80s, high-volume and neon-soaked atmosphere drew the expected amount of hype.
Wuding Lu Continues To Erupt With Activity
The Wuding Lu/Yanping Lu intersection remains probably the densest bar real estate in Jing'an, and the closest rival to the sunken city (Found 158) in terms of nightlife destination. This year saw a handful of closings and take-overs that don't really bear mentioning. Go on then. Just a handful: 45 Degrees replaced Cabra, before closing down within a year. Just underneath it, Sip took a spot that's seen four Wuding Lu bar-bistros come and go, and repurposed it into a... well, a Wuding Lu bar-bistro. Bites x Brews on Fire replaced Wattz, and seems to be packing out the crowds.
Latin beats! Latin beats hit the crossroads even harder than Revolucion, as Funka Del Sur, the strategic Jing'an redeployment of Funkadelino, opened up with more of a South American thing. Pinata pride of place, however, goes to Moka Bros' Sanlitun transplant La Social, which opened to rapturous applause from the sort of libertines who intentionally seek out samba nights, middling arepas and staggeringly packed opening nights.
The Odd Tale of the Bund
It's been a curious year for the Bund. Still inhabited by a handful of old faithfuls that'll probably be here when the oceans swallow us whole, but definitely feeling less active than in years past. A lot of that has to do with the sudden, though not wholly unexpected, closure of Unico.
At Rockbund, we've seen two very odd things: Arsenal Club Shanghai, which says everything on the label, and 1945 Chinese Tavern, which is a laudable, admirable example of that Chinese liquor Renaissance that we keep hearing about (I see and love you Healer).
There was a brief, glorious moment when it seemed that the Bund would be retaken for backpackers, with the appearance of Windows Times and the aforementioned Heaven Supermarket. Suddenly, affordable beer and cheap shots, mere puking distance from the river! Alas, it was not meant to be. Both closed down in short order.
FOGO, helmed by a cadre of Bund 18 alumni, demanded to be taken seriously as a Bund Lounge a little back from the main promenade. First impressions were... muted, but it's not like the Bund can't make space for another upscale lounge. Speaking of which...
The Hotel Caravan Rolls In
Wow there were a lot of hotels this year. Several within sight of the Bund. With a lot of bars. Edition opened up with about four bajillion polished countertops you could slide a Martini over, but the standout was the exclusive, bougie AF houseparty at the Punch Room.
One place that's gotten begrudging kudos from bartenders around town is ZUK Bar at the Sukhothai, where London-transplant Vincenzo Pagliara holds sway with a short list of minimalist concoctions. Contrast that with the hotel's URBAN Lounge, which boasted like 100 different g'n'ts. Not special, but the fact it's in a big hotel suggests 2018 might finally be the year that gin became a thing people actually drink in Shanghai? It's already in about half of all drinks in the city. Gin: still hot right now.
Elsewhere, Il Bar introduced a Bvlgari designed oval bar that Shanghai can call its own, serving up decent cocktails with pornographic views of Pudong.
Something like five other hotels opened up, some far beyond the cartographic limits of our ability to care, happily snapping up 100rmb++ bills, not to mention all the bar staff the city has been diligently training up for the last four years.
Restaurant in a Bar, or Bar in a Restaurant?
This is not a trend. Or rather, it's not a new trend. Nest is credited with leading the way on treating drinks and food as integrated complimentary concepts, and that was like four years ago. Nooot a new idea. Nooot going away anytime soon. This year, we've seen the likes of Bar Black/Table Black/Blackbird/whatever and FOGO built around that idea, and even Atelier opened with an entire kitchen before scaling it down a bit. MAD Lab went the extra mile by adding in a food conveyor belt for that hot, hot Moments appeal.
Of note is Bird/Bitter, which went the extra step of making two separate venues, one dedicated to food, the other to boozy no-nonsense drinks, separated by a couple of meters. Separate but equal, you might say.
The "cocktail bar that offers food" is almost a running gag in the industry, on account of how poorly one or the other tends to be executed, but it seems like Shanghai is cottoning on to what's already swept places like London and New York; you can't have good drinks without decent food. You can't have decent food without good drinks. I mean you can, but if you have one or the other, the customers go elsewhere for the one you're missing. It's not gud bidniz. Expect more ambitious grub-making facilities at bars in 2019.
Looking the Part
In 2018, the bar had to look good. Especially in square format or 15-second segments.
Social media, baby. Drinking for the 'gram. Since Shanghai consumers are a fickle, image-obsessed lot, bars have learned to build an easily recognizable backdrop. Will it work? Maybe. Probably not. But these places tried anyway.
Bar Flow, which used to be Gan Bar, serves Jaegermeister noodles behind a cynically telegraphed speakeasy storefront. They've predictably gotten popular enough to open a second one.
Park 18, which replaced Blue Marlin Sports Bar with its polar opposite, has like a part-Kryptonian crystal aesthetic with pink and white pastel highlights? Been twice, felt the need to buy a drink zero times.
I.A. Lab. It was pitched as Tron-inspired, which should've meant automatic love. The drinks are unambiguously terrible. The same can be said for Bar Lotus, a beautifully designed spot that doubles as a coffee shop during the day, and has a staggeringly unappetizing drinks menu. 1/3 Blossom, whose drinks were based on the fragrance of perfumes, falls into that same category, though it had the good graces to close barely a couple months after opening.
Three makes it a trend: 2018 is the year of good-looking bars with shit drinks.
It's not all bad! UP Shanghai has harvested best practices from the food, drink, music, merch and neon-lit toilet cubicles of Shanghai's contemporary nightlife and distilled it into what I can only describe as an attempt at a supersoldier serum.
Elsewhere, Twinkle Bar hit "fuck it." I rode the luggage carousel that doubles as an entrance, for a video I will not share here, for a drinks menu calculated for likes. Everything tastes like it's meant to be consumed visually. Weirdly, I got a pretty decent turn-of-the-century Mint Julep from the bowtied bartender, who seemed out of place among the neon kissy-lips signs.
2018. Also the year that neon really made a comeback.
It's Gotta Be Specialized
If you can't look good, and if you don't have the brand recognition to make up for it, you need to specialize. The Moments-obsessed trend is just the latest stage of what will hopefully turn into a more diverse palette of bars and lounges, targeted more keenly at particular tastes and styles, rather than one each for "middle-aged whiskey drinker" or "19-year-old KOL."
On the one-hand, there's stuff like Project W, which was Project Wine but is now basically Project Whiskey. Whiskey sales still work.
On the other hand, there's Ratio, a pop-up turned Raffles City venue built around a robot arm that makes the "perfect" cocktail. Mathematically sound. Looks like the thesis project of an MIT dropout, and it still requires a human to garnish and present. But it's a gimmick, and that's all you need to survive the first four months.
On the other-other hand, RIINK just decided to make a roller-rink! Why not! More ambitious, wacky concepts next year please, Shanghai!
The Miscellaneous Butcher's Bill
Hard Rock Café closed suddenly amidst a flurry of incriminations and accusations of financial malpractice. A sad end, except that it isn't the first time Shanghai has seen a Hard Rock close. Probably won't be the last, either!
Inferno's odd and perhaps poorly informed Bund Square location shut down, only to open up in the equally odd but less poorly informed United Valley location! Welcome back to Mobike distance, Inferno!
It's well known that the city's finest Fireballs were mixed specially at Specters. It was with a heavy heart that the erudite, well-groomed socialites of Shanghai learned of its demise. Psyche, it's back! Just in time for New Years.