The new year means a look back at the eateries, party places, and watering holes of 2011. This year's readers' poll gave us a few surprises—unexpected upsets, unforeseen wins—but given the relative paucity of new places opening in 2010, plenty of winners of polls in years past maintained their positions on this list.
As always, we'd like to thank everyone who took time to vote in our poll, and we'd like to extend a warm congratulations to all the winners and nominees that appear on these pages and on the online survey.
Results of this and every year's poll are chosen by voters and not the staff of CHENGDOO citylife.
Best Nightlife Venue
Jellyfish takes the nightlife category for the second year in a row. The not-yet-three-year-old bar's loyal fans cite its good mixed drinks, the right tunes for dancing, and attractive clientele (mostly local and foreign students from nearby Sichuan University, it would seem, as well as young office workers and teachers) as reasons they keep coming back for more. Its location next door to longtime nightlife champ Café Paname probably doesn't hurt, nor does the constant opening and closing of foreigner-centric venues in the same building, including the new hip-hop-themed mini-club and bar DaBuzz. A regular rotation of weekly events—Thursday cocktail nights, Friday DJ nights, and Saturday ladies' nights—plus a smattering of special-occasion events—ensures that the Jellyfish door never stops swinging.
Size matters if you're trying to win a category dependent on number of votes. It doesn't matter, however, if what you're trying to do is cultivate a friendly, laidback atmosphere with a small but steady customer base who knows how to appreciate a Russian coke—a vodka shot followed by a squirt of lemon rolled in ground coffee beans and sugar. Machu Picchu, the eight-year-old folk bar sandwiched between a Wowo and a hair salon on a Yulin side street, is packed nearly any night of the week, but, then again, three's a crowd in this small space, and 10 is an out-and-out full house. With acoustic shows most weekends and candlelit open-mic Wednesday nights, Machu Picchu manages to balance business and the laid-back hippie vibe stereotypical of Chengdu bars. That said, the bar's tag-team Chengdunese/Dutch owner duo have been making the preparations to open their second location among the other Sansheng Xiang bar branches; let's hope that this expansion plan isn't the start of Machu going completely corporate. We kid.
Nobody quite knew what to make of this below-street-level den when it first opened its doors. Its frequent appearance on this list attests to its multipurpose appeal—come for dinner, stay for drinks (or, better yet, come for Sunday brunch, stay for drinks, dinner, and more drinks). With an extraordinarily friendly (and pug-owning) American couple running the show, the Lazy Pug prides itself on its bringing a new international standard to Chengdu in terms of food quality, ambiance, and service. A long list of creative cocktails, a menu of distinct dishes that can't quite be had elsewhere in the city, and special food and drink nights, the Pug stands out in a sea of run-of-the-mill "international" restaurant/bar hybrids.
If there were a category for "highest concentration of good vibes" in this poll, the Kaiyue Building would definitely take the cake. We don't know what's in the water along that stretch of the First Ring Road, and we definitely don't want to know what's in the air, but some of the people doing business in that building are so consistently nice and upbeat that it almost pains our inner tormented-teenager souls. Kaffestugan seems to have set the precedence for pleasantness above and beyond the call of duty, and their neighbors followed suit. Also nice: The large, south-facing windows out front manage to let in a good portion of whatever sunlight Chengdu has to offer, making an afternoon in the café an uplifting experience. While the interior might be a little more Ikea than we'd expect of an independent coffeehouse, this is probably the only place with a legitimate reason for that, given that it's a Swedish-themed café run by a Swedish couple and all. With a menu of coffees, teas, smoothies, shakes, light meals, cookies, and pastries, Kaffestugan earned an honorable mention nod in years past; this year, it topples longstanding "Best Café" winner Bookworm from the throne.
In the biggest upset of the year, Bookworm steps down from the top of the Best Café category for the first time since this poll began in 2007. A quick peek inside the bar/café/restaurant that is actually a library will tell you that nonetheless it still appears to be as popular as ever, and the Bookworm's continued effort to support the growth of contemporary international culture in Chengdu—and throughout China, with its locations in Beijing and Suzhou—via events and community clubs is commendable. Apart from books, the Bookworm is home to writing and photography groups, an environmental discussion group, a long-running pub quiz, live music, kids' groups, and, of course, the rapidly growing annual Bookworm Literary Festival, which this year saw big names such as David Sedaris and Peter Hessler. All of this goes to make the Bookworm not simply a purveyor of culture but also—and perhaps just as importantly—something of a home away from home for much of Chengdu's foreign community.
Starting out as Comforts of Home, a local delivery service for hard-to-find baking ingredients and supplies in Chengdu and expanding to offering baked goods and prepared drink, cake, and cookie mixes, the American family behind Leanna's Bakery have been around the block once or twice and by now know seem to have the market cornered on what makes foreigners' taste buds tick. With a large, multi-room space in the Wuhou area not far from the temple, Jinli, and the Southwest University for Minority Nationalities that offers everything from flour to cocoa powder, baking sheets to cupcake mixes, granola to hot apple cider packets, Leanna's offers plenty of reasons to stop by if you're in the neighborhood—or even to make a special trip there. A full-service restaurant is also on the premises serving soups, salads, sandwiches, and so forth, as well as, of course, coffees, teas, and desserts—notably donuts, brownies, and chocolate-chip cookies. Custom-made cakes in a variety of flavors and decoration schemes are also available on demand.
Best Western Restaurant
Peter's Tex Mex
It's been a good year for Peter's Tex Mex. After seeing the bustling activity at its first four Chengdu locations, the restaurant opened up its fifth and sixth branches—and even better, it has reclaimed its title as CHENGDOO readers' favorite Western restaurant. That's not all; word on the street is Peter (there is indeed a real Peter behind the catchy name) has at least two more locations planned to open sooner rather than later. What is it about Tex Mex that draws in the crowds, both local and foreign alike? Nobody's told us specifically, but we're guessing the following might have something to do with it: Generous portions, an extensive and varied menu, consistency in food quality, friendly service, a family-friendly atmosphere, indoor and outdoor seating at most restaurants—and now it's everywhere you want to be.
Le Sud swept our poll last year, winning for best Western restaurant and newcomer (as well as taking the gold medal in our Pizzalympics 2010), but this year it makes a more modest appearance on the list under honorable mentions for Western restaurants. The industrial-intimate atmosphere of the small second-floor French restaurant still provides a great place to wine and dine when the occasion demands something a little more special than the nearest hotpot. An abbreviated menu takes an approach of "a few good dishes" rather than "everything under the sun, but nothing you want" and still manages—somewhat surprisingly—to have something for everyone. With fresh-baked bread, appetizers, main courses, desserts, and, of course, wine by the glass or bottle, Le Sud is a place to fill up on an elegant, full-course Western-style meal without the prices or institutional ambiance of a five-star hotel.
In a very successful run for the Lazy Pug, the American bar/restaurant nabs an honorable mention on the best Western restaurant list. The Pug's American owners and chef have been giving both local and Western patrons a literal taste of what American food can really be like when done right. With pizza, burgers, sandwiches, salads, tacos, the Pugs bring home the bacon by bringing on the bacon. What more can we say?
Best Asian (non-Chinese) Restaurant
Following, perhaps, in Peter's footsteps, Cacaja opened up a second location and since then the restaurant that serves no-nonsense Indian fare prepared by Nepalese chefs has made more frequent and more notable appearances on readers' radars. Outdoor seating at both locations, a long list of curries, naan, dahl, and a mean yogurt lassi all at reasonable prices make Cacaja a favorite for those nights when something a little out of the ordinary is on call—even if the issue of just how to pronounce "Cacaja" is still unresolved.
No surprises here; Tandoor unfalteringly takes its usual spot in the honorable mentions category. As Chengdu's only fully Indian-run Indian restaurant [at the time of writing], Tandoor's mostly authentic dishes are its selling point. The well-established chain behind Tandoor boasts locations in Shanghai (since 1994!), Beijing, and Guangzhou as well as one in India (named, interestingly, The Chinese), and its Chengdu location opened in 1999, making it the oldest Indian restaurant in all of southwest China.
With its corner on the Turkish and Middle Eastern cuisine in Chengdu, the Sultan nabbed the best Asian restaurant two years in a row, but this year it receives an honorable mention. A variety of dips, breads, kebabs, and falafel round out the menu; padded floor seating in the private room in the back—along with some flavored tobacco burning in a for-rent hookah—finishes off the the vibe.
Best Chinese Restaurant
Tiantian is one of the mostly indistinct Sichuanese restaurants on a small but busy street that empties onto Renmin Nan Lu. Unlike the others—and, it seems, most within the city—Tiantian offers the classics (shredded potato, tiger-skin peppers, twice-cooked pork) alongside dishes that are anything but run-of-the-mill (cashews and celery, fern-root noodles, crispy tofu in sweet-and-sour sauce). It does so with a picture menu, and via its extraordinarily efficient wait staff. Consistently fresh ingredients and short wait times, even when tables are all full at mealtimes attest to the restaurant's exceptional management; unfortunately, such praise cannot be lavished on the acoustics of the restaurant, which make it nearly impossible to carry on a conversation without ratcheting up the volume of your voice several notches. Tiantian actually has three locations, but the one on the north side of Yulin Dong Lu, which specializes in duck, is far and away the best.
Before Vegetarian Lifestyle, there were two kinds of vegetarian restaurants in Chengdu: the temple restaurants and Lotus on the Water. Now there are three: The temple restaurants, and imitations of Lotus on the Water or of Vegetarian Lifestyle (though, it should be noted, the former seems to be a dying breed). Bringing a much-desired pizzazz to vegetarian restaurants in the city, Vegetarian Lifestyle pioneered the no animal parts or byproducts, no smoking, no alcohol, and no MSG vegan policy that's now common across vegetarian and vegan restaurants. Despite the competition, however, Vegetarian Lifestyle stays a step ahead of the rest with exceptional service, classy interior, and extensive menu of vegetable and mock-meat dishes.
Point out Gingko to anyone who's been in Chengdu long enough, and you'll get the same reaction: "Oooh, expensive." The prestigious brand has four locations in Chengdu—not all of which are considered equal by those in the know. The superior Jinli ("Golden Pavilion") and Western Tower ("Southern Pavilion") branches offer pristine views of the city, but all serve up afternoon tea and other Cantonese as well as Sichuanese fare.
Lazy Pug not only earned its spot at the top of the "best newcomer" list by a long shot, but more people landed at GoChengdoo by searching for "Lazy Pug" than any other venue name in Chengdu this year. Its numerous reviews—most glowing—on our sister site show the makings of a very loyal fan base. And the owners' sincere, courteous, and prompt responses to any critical reviews show that they respect their customers in a way that some places in the city just don't seem to. In addition to cheap beer and highly praised and rather unordinary food and drinks, the Lazy Pug's cleverly timed events (Thursday tacos, Sunday brunch) mean that it plays up what could be, in other hands, a rather undesirable location by giving Chengdu residents more bang for their buck (stop at taco Thursday at Lazy Pug; continue on to nearby Mooneys for ladies' night). Pretty smart, we say. We're looking forward to seeing what the Pug has in store for 2012.
Falafel Laila wins an honorable mention in the best newcomer category, but in our heart of hearts, they belong in the "are you serious?" group. Take two Israeli guys—one of whom had never before set foot on Chinese soil—and put them behind the counter of a tiny snack stand smack in between two high-traffic towers on a busy Chengdu street. What do you get? A whole lot of curious passersby, that's what. With a mission of introducing their signature regional dish to every last Sichuanese, the duo dishes out falafel by the half or the whole as well as schnitzel, chocolate mousse, lemonade, and other grab-and-go bites.
Xiongmao (Panda Club)
Since 2008, Xiongmao has been the city's sole purveyor of electronic music that detours from the slap-happy house and sped-up remixes of "Sister Golden Hair" and "Venus" played in every club. After almost a year off the scene, Xiongmao reappeared, opening its doors in a bigger and potentially better location. Its signature large dance floor, lounge area, and Friday and Saturday night DJ parties were still there; upgrades include a terrace, separate rooms, and the pull to bring in bigger-name DJs from other cities and countries than before.
Best Event of 2011
Jellyfish Halloween on the Lake
In a surprise upset of Zebra Music Festival's two-year run of wins, Jellyfish's Halloween on the Lake party takes the best event title. The party's word-of-mouth advertising seems to have worked; people went; people stayed; people had a good time and came back later to vote for it as the event of the year. Apart from a handful of DJs, lots of costumes, and a special location, we don't know what all went down there, but it was clearly memorable, and hopefully more in the treat rather than the trick sort of way.
Chengdu's first electronic-music festival, the Xiongmao reincarnate's debut event, coincided with the opening of the city's new East Music Park and the fifth Biennale, all city-supported art and cultural projects that drew thousands of onlookers to that otherwise quiet corner of the city each day. The music festival was, of course, on a smaller scale (apart from the free-to-attend daytime performances held outside the first day), but the three-night, one-day party lined up every last electronic-music player in Chengdu, plus quite a few from Beijing and other cities and, with headliner DJ Shadow, drew in hordes of hipsters, clubbers, and the curious—so many of them, in fact, that entrance was denied to latecomers the night he played.
In its third year Zebra is still good, biggest and only outdoor music festival the city has to ofer but has somehow lost its glitter, despite the great line up. But maybe putting the local rock and djs on one stage wasn't such a good idea. But sometimes Chengdu people are also just not appreciative, and Zebra did better than just runner up the last two years. Where others were promising Zebra has been producing with amazing consistency, seems like everyone is waiting for something bigger and better, but so far nobody has delivered. But with Big Love Festival we might see some more competition coming up.