James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

An Elegy for Beijing’s Late, Great Dipsomaniacal Dog Whistle

An Elegy for Beijing’s Late, Great Dipsomaniacal Dog Whistle

Nasty Old Fashioneds at The Den

Since 1997 in Beijing, it’s been possible to answer, “Where can I get a really nasty Old Fashioned and a two-pound burger at 5 am?” “Who’s showing the goat-wrestling qualifiers?” and “What happened to my phone?” with the same words: The Den. Alas, no more: Seventeen years after President Jiang Zemin ordered the People’s Liberation Army to give up its illegally owned commercial enterprises, local units in Beijing have begun to reluctantly comply. As The Den turned out to be one of those innumerable illicit PLA holdings, the city’s only 24-hour all-in-one sports bar, restaurant, short-time hotel, crisis-counseling center, divorced men’s networking club, Pattaya tribute venue and dipsomaniacal dog whistle is already a gutted shell, its sinful daylight-blotting red curtains now the only remaining fixtures.

“A continuing expansion of competition and a slowing economy may both be playing a role in the changing of Beijing’s bar scene,” reckoned local listings rag the Beijinger, when news of its imminent demise surfaced some weeks ago. Competition? Slowing economy? Changing bar scene? All that seemed grist to its mill; The Den was not only recession and puke-proof, it was the kind of place people went to because they were unemployed. One doubts its patrons ever gave much of a passing care about “scenes,” artisanal infusions or whatever pop-up concepts suffer the long, hard-seat journey from the West to Beijing. The craft beer revolution was something that just happened to other bars; The Den was popularizing gastro-enteritis long before the gastro pub humped its way into the local consciousness. To the world outside it may have been 2015, but over in the People’s Republic of Denezuela, it was perpetually 2007.

That kept the regulars happy, but for years The Den had been a party whose goers are amazed why no one’s called the cops yet. The bar’s defiant location, at the foot of a faded hotel on the corner of some of Beijing’s swankiest, soulless real estate, had made The Den an object of intense speculation, long after the pitiful stalls hawking cheap booze in plastic cups that once surrounded it had vanished in a cloud of development dust. It’s fitting that Xi’s corruption crackdown should have sounded the last call, as a major stroke of bad luck was already accelerating it: the accidental triggering of a nearby fire alarm during preparations for October’s military parade. Surviving the impromptu safety inspection would have required a complete overhaul, on top of a hefty six-figure fine. Better an exit with the dignity of political victimhood than a hopeless fight against the inevitable, like one of The Den’s own early-morning evictees.

For a long time, I didn’t get the appeal of the place, finding it always populated by aging sports enthusiasts whose faces had exploded. My mistake was timing: I was coming in at sane hours, like lunchtime or 11pm on a Thursday. You needed to hit The Den at a very exact sweet spot. Peak Den was between the clubs nearby closing on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday morning and the rest of the world getting up and going about its respectable business: say, 4-7 am. This was when the magic happened. There aren’t many bars in Beijing where it feels dangerous to get chummy with the regulars after a certain hour, but The Den firmly ranked as one. For all its friendly aggression, actual fights were rare, though the staff were regularly called upon to remind emotional patrons where the door was. Closing time: You don’t have to go home but maybe you should, because it’s midday and you’re hitting on barstools and frightening children.

Tributes began pouring as soon as the news broke, ranging from pithy (“Wut?”) to prosaic (“Fuck”). So what was it about this place that inspired such poetry? What was the Definitive Den experience? Sure, there was the half-price pizza, the five-hour Happy Hour, the football, the fact that it was open. But for many, it was about the people: you’d get the full gamut, and gamut is definitely the word we need here.

Tourists would wash up at three in the morning and not believe their luck. Surly Eastern European dancers and Gongti shift workers, Aeroflot crews on recreational layover, Chinese students dining in the mistaken belief that this was a suitable venue to bring someone you hadn’t slept with yet, visiting scholars, Tier-88 entrepreneurs pressing business cards into the hands of elderly Australian men, borderline schizophrenics, saturnine Germans who arrived alone at midnight to watch Munich Bayern battle for the third-place playoffs of the Hofmeister Cup, expat sporting societies almost as old as The Den, angry Russians who’d been exiled from the Russian exile community: all were Denizens.

And because The Den never closed (and everywhere else did), it invited the most ridiculous benders: benders seemingly without end, benders that would leave the taste buds numbed for a week. Twenty-four hours in The Den? Child’s play. I knew an Icelandic guy who spent nearly three days there, before his girlfriend finally stormed in to retrieve what was left of him.

This bloke-ish appeal was not lost on others and a slightly scandalous reputation for hookers was probably the most overplayed aspect of Den life. Sure, in the wee hours, there was usually someone happy to meet your glassy-eyed gaze and steadily hold it; the odd brass; the occasional strumpet or two. But The Den wasn’t exactly the Red Mansion. More a last-chance saloon for Nigerian baby mamas on their way to a sweet retirement gig jacking-off pensioners.

Like honest Playboy readers in search of articles, many would argue they were there for the food: the “Denu.” This was no strip-club buffet: A multipage, black pleather-bound tome with a nice heft to it, covering a wide array of “cuisines,” The Denu was part of the venue’s core appeal. Solid. No nonsense. Unpretentious. If you’re down with The Den’s food, then you’re all right with me.

Unlike most restaurants, The Den’s picture menu was unafraid to dramatically lower customers’ expectations with blurred, two-megapixel shots of congealing sauces atop lonely cuts of meat, captioned with unpunctuated, unadorned prose describing the various ingredients. If a menu could be said to have a “voice,” then The Den was Samuel Beckett reading aloud government warnings from a carton of Mongolian filterless cigarettes. Thus, the actual quality of the grub was a consistent surprise. Hits included the pizza, fillet steak, sausages and mash, and, of course, “Eggs Norway,” the classy European breakfast choice for any true international Denizen. On the other hand, the “Lamb Turkish Pitta Roll” [sic] was more Donner Pass than doner kebab, a diplomatic incident waiting to happen.

For my final repast on closing night, I spun the wheel and chose the Corned-Beef Hash with Sweet Peas for the first time. Like a fry chef serving the condemned his last meal, The Den produced something thoroughly digestible that I would, like the venue, never revisit again.

This story originally appeared in The Beijing Cream.

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