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.
Unlike years past, 2010 brought lots of new winners to our "Best of Chengdu" list. More so than in any other year, in 2010, Chengdu saw many new places open and established places close or undergo changes. And these changes to the city's milieu were reflected in our readers' poll with first-time winners constituting a record 50 percent of all winning venues.
Will we look back on Jellyfish's win in 2010 as the upset of the decade? Probably not—but the new bar's quick ascent to the throne came at the end of a heated race among half a dozen places duking it out for the title. Unlike other categories, where a clear winner emerged shortly after the start of the poll, the bars battled it out 'til the bitter end, when, during the final hours of the poll, Jellyfish pulled ahead.
Jellyfish was opened by four enterprising young foreigners last winter in what had previously seemed to be the doomed-for-vacancy spot next to Café Panam(e)—at least three different food and drink venues had opened and closed in the space over the past five years. But never mind that spot's history; the foreigner palace known as the Blue Caribbean Square, housing Café Panam(e), Grandma's Kitchen, and the now-closed Panda Club, proved to be a good choice. With its proximity to the Sichuan University neighborhood virtually guaranteeing a healthy audience of weekend bar-goers that make up in enthusiasm what they might lack in studiousness, Jellyfish needed only to add its praised cocktail menu, a DJ or two, and Saturday ladies' nights to the mix to emerge as a winner!
Honorable Mentions: Best Bar
Since Machu Picchu's makeover last year into comfy day-and-night hangout with frequent live folk shows, the one-time sleepy hole-in-the-wall quasi-run by a lone local has become a quasi-bustling go-to spot for both foreigners and locals looking for a laid-back spot to meet friends over a beer, coffee, or wodka. Its intimate setting ensures that guests will never be alone, and any show that draws more than a dozen onlookers makes for a packed house.
Three-time "Best Bar" winner Le Café Panam(e) steps down from the throne this year after undergoing a change in ownership from French founding duo and driving forces Chloé and David to former longtime One-Way Recreation (Danxing Dao) singles bar manager Melon. After nearly a month of renovation, the bar reopened in early December to debut its same, same—but different interior
Best New Venue of 2010
"Best New Venue" was the most exciting category for us to watch this year. With more new venues vying for the title than in any year past, the competition was sure to be stiff. And given that those venues were of all varying types, the results were sure to be interesting. In the end, French restaurant Le Sud clinched the win to become this year's only double-header (and triple if you count its victory in last summer's Pizzalympics).
Why's it the best? We guess it has something to do with the restaurant's unmatched simplicity—there's no other place quite like it in Chengdu in terms of food offerings, ambience, and price point. Opened last winter by French chef Julien Rideller, Le Sud is a no-frills restaurant serving an unadorned set of starters, main courses, drinks, and desserts. With its location near Hemp House, Mooneys, and Lan Kwai Fong on a street that is slated to become the city's urban financial center, Le Sud's future looks bright.
Honorable Mentions: Best New Venue
After taking the "Best Bar" title, Jellyfish gets another nod from our readers in the "Best New Venue" category. With recent changes to its foreigner-frequented neighbors (most notably Café Panam(e) and Panda Club), it's anybody's guess as to what the future holds for the two-story drink-and-dance pub.
The only new visual-art space that opened in Chengdu this year, the Chengdu International Photography Center stands out amid a sea of contemporary-art galleries that display mainly oil and sculpture. Housed in what used to be the Chengdu Industrial Civilization Museum the center aims to promote the development of Southwest China's fine-art photography. With over 1,000 square meters of floor space spread out over two floors for exhibitions, and a soon-to-be-opened café and library, the center will hopefully do its small part to fill a glaring gap in the city's contemporary culture venues. Already it's hosted a handful of exhibitions as well as the Australian On the Edge New Media workshop and performance series.
And finally, new British pub Underground, which maintains, contrary to what its name would indicate, a high enough profile to garner an honorable mention in the Best Newcomer category and garners an additional honorary title for Most Controversial Bar on GoChengdoo.com. Sitting in a formerly doomed spot in the Jiuyan Qiao club megamall that formerly housed a short-lived Japanese restaurant, an even shorter-lived French magic-themed bar, and we can't even remember what else, but there was something! Anyway, now it's Underground and serves drinks and a surprisingly long list of food items considering it's not technically a restaurant.
While there was little about this year's poll that was the same as years prior, it seems we can still (at least for now!) count on Bookworm taking the "Best Café" title. For the fourth straight year in a row, Bookworm brings it—and, as always, the competition can't touch this. The Bookworm, which started as a lending library in Beijing in 2001 with a private collection of about 1,600 books, is known today as a multi-faceted cultural center with not only books galore, but also a full-service daytime café and restaurant and nighttime bar complete with beer, booze, and live music. As if that weren't enough, it was the starting point for the spin-off that eventually became the full-blown NGO Sichuan Quake Relief - SQR, which carries out aid work in quake-stricken areas of Sichuan and Qinghai, and runs charitable activities via Chengdu Sports Aid.
Honorable Mentions: Best Café
With its bright, airy interior, slightly-off-the-beaten-path location near the Sichuan Conservatory of Music and Sichuan University north gate, and concise menu of sandwiches, snacks, smoothies, desserts, and drinks, newcomer Kaffestugan provides a pleasant respite from the First Ring Road it sits on for snacking, studying, working, or chatting. The interior might remind us ever so slightly of IKEA, but we'll forgive them—they are Swedish after all, and they have what are probably the sweetest, friendliest owners on the entire continent.
It barely qualifies as a café, but somehow Machu Picchu managed to nab itself a spot on the honorable mentions list for Best Cafés. On those days when one of its two owners does decide to wake up and open the bar during the part of daytime that can still be considered "afternoon" (mind you, this certainly won't be before 2 p.m.), you might be able to get yourself a decent cup of coffee. But we're not placing any bets on it.
Best Western Restaurant
If Jellyfish's dethroning of Café Panam(e) wasn't the upset of the decade, then this must be: Newcomer Le Sud displaces three-time "Best Western Restaurant" winner Peter's Tex-Mex. Fewer locations, a far shorter menu, similar price points, not-quite-cozy seating ... what's there to love? Perhaps it's that the humble eatery breaks out of the standard Chengdu "Western restaurant" mold of burgers, fries, sandwiches, shakes, and apple pies to offer diners a small but regularly rotating menu of seafood, poultry, steak, pasta, pizza, and calzones. Le Sud certainly isn't the first French restaurant in town—think Maison Mode's TALK or Kuanzhai Xiangzi's Desir—but it's probably the most down-to-earth and accessible for regular dining.
Honorable Mentions: Best Western Restaurant
Dethroned three-time "Best Western Restaurant" champion Peter's Tex Mex maintain its composure with an honorable mention in the category. Peter (yes—there really is a Peter) squeezed in a fourth Chengdu location of his signature eatery this year (on the west side of the Zongbei International building) in addition to the existing three plus the branches in Beijing and Shanghai. And while Peter's menu prices have been sneaking up steadily over the past few years, the portions are still generous enough that (evidently) nobody's complaining.
The treasure trove of international cuisine that is the Shangri-la Hotel's Café Z really doesn't belong in the "Western Restaurant" category at all—it's sort of in a class of its own. Standard lunchtime and dinnertime all-you-can-eat buffet serving everything from Cantonese to Sichuanese, Indian to Middle Eastern to Mediterranean created by skilled chefs from around the world, a comprehensive a la carte menu, and special events like Japanese month when sushi and sashimi were added to the regular buffet make Café Z a hard place to beat when it comes to comprehensive competence. And with every detail of its interior carefully designed for subtlety and grace, from the acoustics to the lighting and even the staff uniforms, this five-star hotel restaurant offers one of Chengdu's most exceptional dining experiences at its price point.
Best Asian Restaurant
For the second year in a row, the Sultan takes out Chengdu's Indian restaurants to nab the title of Best Asian Restaurant. Opened in 2006, the Sultan has nabbed the Turkish-cuisine corner in Chengdu, offering the only menu of pita and dips, salads, kebabs, falafels, and hookahs in town. The humble restaurant tucked into a corner in the Yulin neighborhood serves mostly a foreign clientele, maintains a high profile by supporting expat events around town.
Honorable Mentions: Best Asian Restaurant
One of the biggest foreign-food chains in all of China (along with partner Highfly Pizza), the unfortunately (and apparently nonsensically) named Cacaja serves guests its no-nonsense Indian fare prepared by Nepalese chefs. With two branches in Chengdu (Jinjiang Hotel station and Kehua SOHO) and more in other cities, Cacaja's garlic naan gets them in the door and the lassi keeps 'em coming back for more.
Cementing its position as Chengdu's only Indian-run Indian restaurant, Tandoor operates a branch in Shanghai plus a well-received Beijing location, and another in New Delhi. A tandoor, by the way, is a traditional clay oven that cooks food at temperatures up to 480 degrees Centigrade.
Best Chinese Restaurant
The Taiwanese chain makes a comeback in 2010 after winning the Best Chinese Restaurant title in 2007 and then keeping a low profile the next couple of years. With a policy of no animal parts or byproducts, no smoking, no drinking, and no MSG, the Buddhist Vegetarian Lifestyle was (to our knowledge) the first of its kind in contemporary Chengdu. Now facing more and more competition from a growing number of restaurants with an identical concept but different owners, Vegetarian Lifestyle has managed to hold its own with exceptional service, classy interior, and extensive menu of vegetable and mock-meat dishes.
Honorable Mentions: Best Chinese Restaurant
Gingko's haute cuisine is reputed to be some of the priciest in town. The four locations in Chengdu are not created equal—the Jinli ("Golden Pavilion"), and to a lesser extent, the Western Tower ("Southern Pavilion") locations with their pristine views of the city, are considered by those in the know to be superior. Go there to impress and to get your fix of Cantonese fare.
If fast, fresh, and cheap classic Sichuan cuisine is on the agenda, Tian Tian is the place. Its three locations, all in Yulin (two on Yulin Dong Jie and one in the alley off Fangcao Jie), are constantly packed at mealtimes, meaning a less-than-intimate ambience but holding testimony to the excellent food quality and quick service. A full-color picture menu helps non-Chinese-speaking diners select from the roast duck specialties, extensive cold-appetizer choices, and traditional-with-a-twist meat, tofu, and vegetable dishes.
Best Event of 2010
The Zebra Music Festival organizers had a tough act to follow—themselves. Having set a high bar with the 2009 festival, Zebra Music Festival founder Scarlett Li aimed for more organized logistics (check), a bigger turnout (check-ish), and a better lineup (debatable). Big names in 2010 included British electro rockers Does It Offend You, Yeah; Taiwanese MC Hot Dog; Sitar Tan; Soda Green; and Exile Parade. Perhaps 2010's festival failed to meet the star capacity of 2009's (Hightone, S.H.E., MC Jin), but Ms. Li made no apologies for the hotly debated lineup. "Music festivals have always had an equation equivalent to rock 'n' roll, which I disagree [with]," she told us during an interview on Day 2 of the festival.
The ambitious organizer has already turned Zebra Music Festival into a nationwide brand, with a three-day event in Hangzhou in October 2010, and a contract with the government to continue producing the festival in Chengdu for at least the next three years, and if Zebra continues to maintain financial viability, probably a lot longer. "We want to create the most popular music festival in China," Li has told the press on numerous occasions.
Honorable Mentions: Best Event of 2010
Tied for second place were the Chengdu International Photography Center Opening exhibitions, a series of three simultaneous exhibitions featuring the work of local, international-local, and American photographers, each on a separate theme, and the Bookworm's International Literary Festival, a month of near-daily talks, book launches, and seminars with celebrated figures in literary circles here and abroad. In 2010, the annual festival pulled in some big names in international contemporary literature—Colum McCann, Amit Chaudhuri—as well as Chinese literature and China-based foreign writers and dovetailed into the Bookworm Writers' Club publishing its very first edition of literary journal #Mala#.
Issue of the Year
Issue 34 "chengdu's mad tea party"
Our cover story, on the history of Chengdu's teahouses and their importance to the city's urban culture, as explained by Chengdu scholar and Texas A&M University urban history professor Wang Di, was a hit with our readers for good reason—it laid down a lot of insight into—and gave more meaning to—those oft-repeated Chengdu stereotypes: "laid back," "lazy," "mahjong players," and so on.
Cover of the Year
Issue 30 "little Chengdu"
British photographer and English teacher Blair Fraser captured this street scene of Chengdu and then used digital photo-manipulation techniques to turn it into the miniaturized version of the city that appeared on the cover.
what you had to say about (and to) us
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This article was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 40 ("and the winner is...").
Results of this and every year's poll are chosen by voters and not the staff of CHENGDOO citylife. All photos except the issue 30 cover shot by Dan Sandoval.