The full version of this text was published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine issue 29.
Every year since CHENGDOO citylife was launched in 2007, we've asked our readers to nominate their favorite places in Chengdu as a way of recognizing the businesses that provide their customers with superior products and services. After all, these are the people and places that enrich our lives in Chengdu, bringing us enjoyment, entertainment, and simple pleasures like warm meals, hot tea, and music to dance to.
This year, we had bigger, better, and more prizes to give away to our readers than any previous year, and everyone who filled out the survey was entered into a random drawing for a chance to win one of more than 25 fantastic prizes donated by local businesses, including a car rental, Italian shoes, wine, coffee, entrance tickets, lunches, dinners, and thousands of RMB in food and beverage vouchers redeemable at some of Chengdu's most popular eateries.
Results of this and every year's poll are chosen by voters and not the staff of CHENGDOO citylife. All photos by ace photographer Dan Sandoval.
In 2007, Le Café Panam(e) was voted best bar in our first readers' poll. In 2008 it went neck and neck with the Shamrock. But this year Panam(e) retakes the throne, solo. The now nearly four-year-old bar is a definite go-to for the newly arrived and a frequent stop for the weary long-term resident as well. Primarily a bar, Panam(e) opens late but does serve a limited menu of easy-to-eat fill-you-uppers, and, with its long-running Friday-night independent-DJ party routine, has made sure there's always a reason to go out on Friday night in Chengdu.
BEST BAR: Honorable Mentions
Chengdu's home of rock, the Little Bar, came in a stunning second place for the first time since we've started the readers' poll. For the past dozen years, the bar has been a nurturing the seeds of the city's rock buds—and providing a place for the curious to experience a little part of Chengdu's (and China's) subculture. "Little Bar has always been just a simple, small place for gigs. Before there was Little Bar, in Chengdu there were only three or four bands, not more. So Little Bar, for the local bands, [has been] a place to increase their skills and recognition," said Little Bar's Cai Ming (aka Greenwall) when we interviewed him earlier this year. In third place Shamrock and Machu Picchu faced off: The former, last year's co-winner, is the quintessential China expat Irish pub while the latter, although it's been around nearly as long as the 'rock, was revamped just this past year to become a cozy day-to-night hangout with frequent live local-folk shows.
Late last April, a grungy little dance club called Xiongmao opened up in the corner of the Blue Caribbean Plaza. Minimal techno was the forte of its resident DJ Geezer, and soon after its launch, the earthquake sent a jolt not only physically but also psychologically through the city. Nobody was going out to clubs. It took months for the club to rebound. This year was rocky for the little club-that-could: After a successful hosting of the electronic-music stage at the Zebra Music Festival, Xiongmao shut down abruptly for renovation. Months later it opened again as Panda Club with a totally new layout, having transformed itself from cold, industrial warehouse club to posh lounge with Chinese characteristics. At the end of the day, it's "just" a dance club, but really it's a one-of-a-kind concept in Chengdu—aiming to do for underground electronic music something along the lines of what the Little Bar has done for independent rock music in Chengdu. Hosting some of China's most edgy DJs and producers such as B6 and Sulumi as well as a regular lineup of local indy DJs, Panda is a place to watch in 2010.
BEST BAR: Honorable Mentions
This year, old standby BABI II
took second place while last year's winner, 88 Club, came in third. An archetype of China's typical and ubiquitous posh-ish clubs jam packed with tables and fashionable people playing dice games while downing the popular Chivas-and-bottled-green-tea mix, BABI II is a spinoff of the now-defunct BABI, which was rumored to sell more Chivas per square meter than any other club in the country. Unlike many of Chengdu's clubs, which target the moneyed folks approaching middle age, 88 caters to an upwardly mobile generation of white-collar workers, making it infinitely hipper than the average club in the city, although to the untrained eye, it might look more or less the same as the rest.
For the third straight year in a row, Bookworm takes the title of "Best Café"—and the competition isn't even close. It doesn't require that much explanation: All the other candidates are just ... cafés, while the Bookworm offers so much more. From books to full-service restaurant and bar to weekly live music events to talks and the annual International Literary Festival, the Bookworm provides one of Chengdu's truly unique settings in which to sip a coffee or tea, surf the 'net, or lounge on a cushy chair with a book. The Bookworm started as a pure lending library in Beijing in 2001 with a private collection of about 1,600 books, and has since grown to encompass five locations—Chengdu and two in each Beijing and Suzhou—and all the rest that we know it as today.
BEST CAFÉ: Honorable Mentions
Looking slightly out of place on a list full of mostly independent one-off locations, Starbucks managed to equal last year's second-place win. With a dozen locations in Chengdu, the international chain is sort of like a taste of home for some, and a comfy classic for the rest. Finally, Machu Picchu
takes third place. The five-year-old bar was renovated in early 2009 and now opens in the afternoon for daytime dwellers, serves tea and fresh coffee, in addition to a lineup of liquor, and sometimes even fresh warm bread.
Best Asian (non-Chinese) Restaurant
One of the few first-time winners in this year's poll, the Sultan
knocked out the longstanding Indian-restaurant domination of this category. Opened in 2006, the Sultan is Chengdu's only Turkish restaurant and offers a concise menu of pita and dips, salads, kebabs, and falafels. And hookahs.
BEST ASIAN RESTAURANT: Honorable Mentions
Seems our readers were split on what comes next: The results showed a four-way tie between Parkway Thai, Cacaja, Tandoor, and Namaste, who held the crown for the past two years in a row. Indian cuisine—perhaps because of its familiar spicy tingle—seems to hold a special place in the heart of the city, and all three of the city's Indian restaurants are regularly voted among the city's best Asian/non-Chinese restaurants. The lone Thai restaurant on the list, Parkway (no relation to the medical clinic), is one of a handful of the city's Thai restaurants and one that prides itself on its authenticity, from Thai chefs to imported ingredients.
Best Western Restaurant
This is just getting predictable. For the third year in a row, Peter's Tex Mex took the "Best Western Restaurant" category. Now with three easy-to-find locations (a new one opened this year by the back gate of the Southwest University of Finance and Economics main campus), generous portions, friendly, bilingual staff, and unbeatable values, it's the kind of place both Chinese and foreigners frequent. The menu reaches beyond Tex-Mex classics such as tacos, burritos, and quesadillas to include pizza, sandwiches, and steaks. An extensive dessert menu, bottomless coffee, and free WLAN complete the deal. The entrepreneurial Peter opened his first branch in 2003 and since then has opened locations in Beijing and Shanghai as well, in case you ever get homesick while traveling outside the 'du. Peter's Tex Mex waitresses told us what's up:
BEST WESTERN RESTAURANT: Honorable Mentions
The "Western Restaurant" category yielded the exact same results as last year, with the Italian-owned and run Peterpan taking second place and Tex Mex's main source of competition, Grandma's Kitchen, taking third. The former, known for its generous, extremely rich portions, serves an extensive menu of home-style Italian dishes, including pastas, pizza, risotto, and desserts. Pricey by Chengdu standards, the restaurant is one of the city's few to use authentic imported ingredients rather than stretch its mozzarella-cheese supply as far as it will go. Grandma's Kitchen—part of a family of restaurants that includes Sunflower Café and Del Mar Restaurant—holds its ground this year with new locations open and new items regularly added to its familiar menu of steaks, sandwiches, pastas, pizza, and breakfast. This year, Grandma's tried out a salad menu, a vegetarian menu, and a Mexican-cuisine, as well as experimenting with various handmade pastas and half-priced coffees for the better part of the year.
Best Chinese Restaurant
Zongbei's go-to restaurant for foreigners and locals alike. Yangyang might not serve the best food, have the longest menu, or boast the friendliest staff, but where some restaurants might excel at one point and fail at most others, at Yangyang, every detail—the food, the service, the surroundings—is taken care of competently. Plus it has one of the nicest terraces in Chengdu for a restaurant in its price bracket. Yangyang is an independent restaurant that opened in 1997 and serves a great deal of potato dishes, from mashed (土豆泥/tǔdòuní]) to French fries (油炸薯条/yóuzhá shǔtiáo).
BEST CHINESE RESTAURANT: Honorable Mentions
The Taiwan-based all-vegan, no-smoking, no-alcohol, Buddhist Vegetarian Lifestyle appears on our list again after winning the category in 2007 and disappearing from the list altogether last year. With branches in Shanghai, the restaurant's posh interior, exceptionally professional staff, and long, rotating menu of vegetable and mock meat dishes galore appeals to both vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. A few years ago, Vegetarian Lifestyle was the only upscale and non-temple vegetarian restaurant in the city; now it faces increasing competition from similar concept restaurants, an increasing number of which seem to open every year. But at least among our readers, it seems Vegetarian Lifestyle still rules the (mock chicken) roost. Coming in tied for third place were upscale eateries Gingko and Baguo Buyi. We're not going to say anything about the implications on the taste of a group of people who vote a glorified hole-in-the-wall type of place as better than two of the city's most recognized nice restaurants (oh, wait, we just did), but we will say if you ever get a chance (to get invited) to either of these two, don't pass them up. Gingko's haute cuisine is known as some of the priciest in town, and Baguo Buyi, while moderately priced, is consistently ranked as tasty—and its nightly "face-changing" Sichuan Opera performances are also a reason to visit.
In Wayne's World 2, Jim Morrison visits Wayne in a dream to advise Wayne to put on a music festival in his hometown and name it Waynestock. How will I get any bands to play? Wayne wonders. "If you book them, they will come," replies Morrison. It seems the Zebra Music Festival organizers must have had a similar dream because they booked nearly the entire list of China's top independent rock bands, a handful of major pop acts, several reputed international bands, and pretty much every DJ, band, and singer/songwriter in Chengdu—and they came. Three days, three stages, and tens of thousands of people, the Zebra Music Festival was, in our opinion, a bona fide success and a milestone event for Chengdu that will have a lasting impact on southwest China's contemporary culture and arts scenes. Billed as a charity event with proceeds going toward rebuilding Sichuan after the May 12, 2008 earthquake, Zebra was headlined by French dubsteppers Hightone and Taiwanese pop group S.H.E., and featured a number of other major players in China's music circles: the Subs, Muma and Third Party, New Pants, Carsick Cars, Ashura, Soundtoy, Brain Failure, and so many more. By the end of three days and nights of campers running around the 198 Park grounds the scene was a muddy mess, the portable toilets had seen better days, and litter was scattered about. But it sure was fun, and we're sure to see it again.
BEST EVENT: Honorable Mentions
On a much smaller scale than the Zebra Music Festival, Rock Aid Sichuan brought outdoor music to Chengdu once again, this time at the 24 City grounds in October. Among the performances were Finnish band Oriental Jam and Tibetan performers Gesar. Folky act Gao Band and local rockers Mr. Chelonian rounded out the night. Coming in third was the Bookworm's International Literary Festival, a month of near-daily talks, book launches, and workshops with celebrated figures in literary circles here and abroad. The festival takes place every year, and for 2009, it pulled in some pretty big names in China literature—Fuchsia Dunlop, Jonathon Fenby, Mark Kitto, Tom Clissold—as well as other rising stars from abroad.
Best Issue and Cover
A tribute to the province we live in, the "Sichuan" issue was a learning process for most of us who were involved in putting it together. With local Chengdunese, Chinese nationals from other provinces, and foreigners all contributing in some way, we created a concise introduction to the province—the kind that's not found in the travel books or even the travel sites. We asked Beijing-based Chengdunese illustrator Daishu Ma to create the cover for our "Sichuan" issue because as a Sichuan native who's spent time in England, we figured she had the perfect blend of down-home knowledge and Western aesthetic sensibility that we sought—not to mention her mad drawing chops. "The man and woman are in Sichuan Opera masks and costumes, in black-and-white pen and ink with lots of detail, and then I threw in some colorful collage pieces—photos of Majiang tiles in the man's hand, bamboo, Sichuan dried red pepper, and lipstick in the woman's hand—to give it a modern feel," said Ma of her finished piece.
We'd like to thank all of the readers who participated in the poll, congratulate all of the lucky raffle winners, and warmly thank all of the poll's sponsors for their generous prize donations: 8trees Wine Bar and Restaurant, the Bookworm, Cafe Panam(e), the Chengdu Ocean Park, Del Mar Restaurant, Desir, Grandma's Kitchen, Hemp House, Lan Town, Latitude Femme Italian Shoes, Leanna's Bakery, the Leg & Whistle English Pub, Machu Picchu Bar, Mooney's Bar, Panda Club, Parkway Thai Restaurant, Peterpan, Peter's Tex Mex, Pristino Cuppa, Shamrock Bar and Restaurant, and Shouqi Car Rental.