Another year, another's readers' poll, one with a lineup looking suspiciously similar to last year's. Perhaps 2012 wasn't the year for new small businesses in Chengdu. Development of the city's nightlife venues in particular seems to have grinded to a complete halt; the top three this year are exactly the same as last year. Well, there's always next year.
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.
We would like to emphatically state for the record once again that results of this and every year's poll are chosen by voters and not the staff of CHENGDOO citylife.
Best Nightlife Venue
For the third straight year, Jellyfish dominates the nightlife category of our poll. Rumors of stuffing the ballot aside, what gives? The three young owners have a finger on the pulse of the foreigner market for nightlife in Chengdu: The location is prime, the drinks are strong, and the tunes ensures a busy sweatfest on the dance floor even on the coldest of late winter nights. Well, what more can one ask of a nightlife venue anyway? GoChengdoo readers agree: "Best bar in town!" raves reviewer Angry bird.
Lazy Pug appeals to a substantial portion of the international population in Chengdu by hitting that balance between raucous nightlife and so-dry-you-might-as-well-be-at-home. Of course, it doesn't hurt that you can come for dinner and then stay for drinks, or that their mascots are cute, furry animals, or that their owners are unflappably friendly. Interestingly, the bar/restaurant's biggest fans seem to praise the Pug for its ability to mentally transport them out of Chengdu at least temporarily.
The little bar that could maintains its honorable mention position in our poll as in years past. More than just a lazy little hangout for a dedicated group of fans, the Machu has become instrumental (yeah, see what we did there?) in Chengdu's folk and experimental music scene—a tiny powerhouse for intimate live performances you won't catch anywhere else in the city. "my favorite place to go. NO DOUBT AT ALL," remarks GoChengdoo reviewer vivien331
A cheerful couple serving coffee, coffee drinks, and Swedish-style snacks and desserts in a cozy interior makes Kaffestugan our readers' hands-down favorite place (they received more votes in their category than any other venue) to have a chat with friends, get some work done—or pretend to get some work done—while enjoying a freshly brewed cup. Fans like the attention to detail (ice made out of coffee in the iced coffee—so when they melt, there's more coffee) and suspiciously fast Wifi. "This place is AWESOME, DELICIOUS, AMAZING! ... Sandwiches, Sweedish dishes, i want to order them all (and often order three things to split with two people). It just gets better and better! ... if you think the foods good, you got another thing coming once you try their coffee. Could be the Best Coffee In The City. Thank you Kaffestugan, for taking me on an hour long vacation to The West, with only a 15min cab ride." —GoChengdoo reviewer absolutjct
Having opened its doors in 2006, the Bookworm is by now a bona fide old-time establishment in Chengdu. It might take some flak about its food (and, interestingly, odors) from GoChengdoo readers, but the 'worm provides a wider range of services to Chengdu residents than any other venue on this list: Breakfast and brunch house in the morning, coffee shop, lending library, and bookstore by day, and nightlife venue with full bar service and live music by night. That's in addition to the Bookworm's other community events, such as fortnightly pub quizzes, hosting of various activity groups, and, of course, the annual International Literary Festival. P.S. About the food, Bookworm has hired a new head chef to revamp the menu, and word on the street is the offerings are pretty tasty.
The Seattle-based coffee giant makes a reappearance among our readers' favorites after being beaten out by Leanna's Bakery last year. Sticking out like a sore thumb in a sea of independent businesses, Starbucks (and its appearance on this list) is controversial by nature. Love it or hate it, with new locations (some within spitting distance of the next one) opening seemingly every week, the chain certainly can't be beat for convenience and consistency.
Best Western Restaurant
It's easy to mistake this dimly lit eatery in a corner of what has become one of Chengdu's most notorious nightlife plazas as a grubby burger joint fit only for late-night meals when you've had one or 10 too many and need to put something down to keep it all down. Part of the Jellyfish conglomerate, The Spot serves burgers, salads, and breakfasts to club-goers and serious diners alike. One of the few past-midnight eating options that doesn't involve a whole heck of a lot of oil, a single burner, and a portable cart in a back alley, The Spot even manages to maintain 24-hour service on weekends. "The Spot in my opinion has the best burgers that I have ever had in Chengdu, and even China. ... Another plus is the extensive and moderately priced beer selection, and though I am not really into desserts, my friends are always raving about The Spot's tiramisu and its other desserts.
To sum up: great food, good drinks, fair prices," says GoChengdoo reviewer mzarate.
With weekly theme nights (currently up: Italian and Mexican) a short, regularly rotating menu of dishes that you won't find anywhere else in Chengdu, Lazy Pug does American food like they do in America. Or as close as it gets when you're in China. GoChengdoo reviewers rave about—what else? The hamburgers. "The best Chengdu got to offer when it comes to western food. Every dish that i tried have been delicious. I especially like the big nacho plate and the beef fajitas. ... After 5 years in Chengdu its nice with some real service. Drinks are strong and pretty tasty. Be sure to try the blue cheese burger, it could be the best burger i ever had in China," writes GoChengdoo user Ricos.
Once the untouchable dominator of the Western food scene in Chengdu, over the past few years, Peter's has faced serious competition—at least in our poll; businesswise, they seem to be expanding as rapidly as ever. GoChengdoo readers gripe about the menu price hikes over the past few years, but many are clearly still happy to hand over their cash for cleanliness, friendly, English-speaking service, and a comfortable environment, ensuring that Tex Mex maintains a runner-up position in the Western food category.
Mike's Pizza Kitchen
To the appreciation of a great many of Chengdu's foreign residents, Mike started delivering his handmade pizzas a couple years ago. This year he opened a small restaurant in Tongzilin, where guests can go for a sit-down meal of pizza, salad, and dessert. Mike, who in years past has been known to do Elvis impersonations, says he makes every pizza himself. GoChengdoo reviewer aamagpayo writes, "Mike, your pizza's are absolutely fabulous!!! It is our comfort food since moving to Chengdu in July 2012 from Canada. ... So far everything we have tried from your restaurant has surpassed our expectations. Even the ... delivery ppl are extremely friendly and kind. Thanks for making our move a little easier with a taste of home!!!"
With its distinct offers of pizza and beer by the meter, Pizza Mandolino gets a round of applause from readers for serving pizza that's not only long but pretty tasty too. "Their pizza is the best I've had in my more than two years in Chengdu. It's real pizza, made in a real wood-fired oven. In my opinion, no other pizza in Chengdu even comes close," GoChengdoo user tellitlikeitis sings praises for Pizza Mandolino.
Despite having changed managers and head chefs in the past year, Le Sud still nabs a spot on this year's poll for Best Pizza. Known for its super-thin crust, this French-style pizza is the go-to for those who don't dig the deep dish.
Pizzerias in Tongzilin might have reached critical mass, but that didn't stop this one in the Great World Mall from making its claim on a spot in our poll. Opened early in 2012, A Boluza's most notable feature is its open kitchen, which allows diners to get an up-close glimpse at their food as it's being made.
Best Asian (non-Chinese) Restaurant
Chef Hiroshi from Hiroshima cooks up soups and various katsudon set meals in this two-hall restaurant in the Jiuyanqiao club district. On one side, diners sit at a sushi-bar style circular counter, while the other dining room accommodates larger groups. The menu isn't particularly long, but the meals are tasty and the prices are much lower than those of other Japanese restaurants in town. Look for their second location at Chunxi Lu after Spring Festival.
For years, Cacaja was just a slip of a place next to Highfly Pizza, and if you wanted to sit outside, you'd be sitting in a parking lot adjacent to two busy roads. But that changed when the Xi'an-based Indian restaurant chain opened its second Chengdu location in the Kehua Bei Lu Soho building. Suddenly it had atmosphere and decent outdoor seating—still adjacent to a parking lot, but a bicycle parking lot. With an extensive menu of all of the typical Indian dishes and affordable prices, Cacaja is something of a standby for international dining.
The year Tandoor doesn't make an honorable mention in the Best Asian restaurant category, we'll be mighty surprised. Tandoor is not simply the only Indian-run Indian restaurant in Chengdu, it is the longest-running one in all of southwest China—the Chengdu branch opened in 1999, and the Shanghai location opened in 1994. Tandoor isn't going for budget-friendly, but that doesn't stop them from earning a spot on this list year after year. Clearly diners keep going back for a reason.
Best Chinese Restaurant
Presiding over one of the city's most prestigious intersections, the Western Tower Gingko location is a well-established landmark, and dining there signifies a certain status. Diners pay several hundred per head for a selection of Sichuanese, Cantonese, and even Western dishes.
This old-time favorite of Sichuan University students and other Zongbei dwellers makes a surprise comeback this year after failing to nab a spot last year. Yangyang is more than a hole in the wall, but it's not exactly high-end dining. Yet the volume of foreign diners is high enough that somebody decided it was necessary to create a menu in English and offer French fries (yes, with ketchup) that gives the McDonald's down the street some stiff competition. (Ask for shǔtiáo if you want classic French fries; if you're feeling more in a local mood, the finely sliced and supremely crispy gānbiān tǔdòusī will do.)
Vegetarian Lifestyle 枣子树
Classy interior, fancy mock-meat dishes, and understated but attentive service has earned Vegetarian Lifestyle a spot on this list more than a few times. With its image as a clean, healthful alternative to the dripping-with-oil usual fare of Sichuan, this Taiwanese chain restaurant has developed a loyal fan base of diners, vegetarian and omnivorous alike. "This is my favorite restaurant in Chengdu and I'm not even a vegetarian." GoChengdoo user misubi
Fans cite The Spot's excellent service and burgers as reasons it's the best thing that happened to Chengdu in 2012. The Spot's other positive attributes include: a foreign chef, student discounts, staff that bring freebies and apologies along with their meiyous, and the unique-to-Chengdu offering of 24-hour Western food service (on weekends). With all that, and an expanding menu (including Mediterranean nights), it's not a surprise that The Spot's clientele has expanded rapidly from mostly Jellyfish spillovers to include Chengdu residents from all walks of life.
Mike's Pizza Kitchen
If hearing his voice on the phone when you ordered a pizza wasn't enough, as of late last year, you can go into Mike's Pizza Kitchen near Europe City to watch him twirl your pizza dough high in the air. If pizza isn't your thing, of course, there's also salads, sandwiches, and pasta.
The management team behind Han Bar is a Korean trio who previously ran bars in Beijing and Tianjin. Their attention to detail shows in their drink list, which focuses on creative cocktails. Perhaps their opening came at a good time, with the attention turned to K-pop in 2012 thanks to a certain "Gangnam Style" ditty.
Filling a niche that has been mostly unfilled in Chengdu, Safari brings a menu of Middle Eastern food plus hookahs to a location on Kehua Bei Lu plagued by subway construction. If you can find it, and get to it, the interior provides a comfortable dining environment, and the set menus are particularly affordable.
Best Event of 2012
Jellyfish Halloween Party
We used to receive complaints from old fogies that CHENGDOO Magazine catered only to the youth, but when a party organized by a bar that's full of smoking young things on any given weekend night beats out all other events in the city in our annual readers' poll—well, clearly we've graduated to the ranks of old fogeydom too. We weren't there, and we know nothing about it. Except what was told to us: it went down in the five-star Celebrity Hotel with a reported attendance of 5,000 (can that many people even fit in there?) We don't have the answers. We're too busy knitting and shaking our fists at those noisy kids before retiring to bed at 8 p.m.
Zebra brought big promises when it held its first event in 2009—and it certainly did make an impact on the city's music scene with that first festival. But with its lineup on seeming repeat year after year, its scale and attendance has been dwindling. Nonetheless it paved the way for more large-scale cultural events in southwest China.
Big Love had a big act to follow, coming in on the heels of Zebra. And with four enormous stages and more than 100 acts, including several big-name international and domestic bands, the Big Love organizers lived their big dream out over four non-stop-rock days in June. The scale of the festival was unlike anything ever seen in contemporary Chengdu, and the colossal financial failure of the festival was well documented in the local media. Despite what turned into something of a scandal, organizers have publicly hinted that the show might not be over just yet.
Your Favorite Cover and Issue of 2012
A roundup of the city's parks, past, present, and future and a look at the development of parks and the role they play in cities. Cover photograph taken at the Chengdu Haichang Polar Ocean World by Dan Sandoval.
Our Favorite Issue of 2012
Literal old schools (the world's oldest school, and Huaxi) and figurative old schools (retro cosmetics, Sichuan dialect as it was studied by early twentieth-century missionaries) and a quiz.
Your Favorite Column of 2012
After two years of surveying every fast-food chain we could in the city, Dandoval threw in the towel. But we had a new proposition for him, which involved teaching him how to cook easy, healthful foods, while he documented the process. That idea went over like a lead balloon, and so now we just get him to eat whatever we can dig up among the Chengdu's oeuvre of entrails and exotic animals. River rat? Sure. Raw yak? Been there, done that. Bull brains and balls? Yawn. A surprising number of these double-dog-dare-you eats have gotten the Dandoval seal of approval ("Crispy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside").
Mandarin Made Easier
"Mandarin Made Easier" columnist Lucy Wang is a Japanese-language major at the Southwest University of Science and Technology in Mianyang. After tutoring a number of foreign students in Mandarin for several years, she was inspired to look at her language in a new way. "One of [the students could] speak quite a lot Mandarin but he refused to learn to write characters. I didn't really realize how hard it is for foreigners to write characters until then. But I have always loved the depth and meaning of Chinese characters. They make sense to me (most of the time). From then on, I tried to study Mandarin from a different point of view; I bought many books, talked with many Chinese learners, and started tutoring Mandarin." After her former high school English teacher showed her a copy of CHENGDOO Magazine, she started writing the "Mandarin Made Easier" column. "I really love it, and I dream of teaching Mandarin in Japan or the U.S.," she says.
Mango mojitos—enough said. Han Bar brings a whole new meaning to the word "cocktail" in Chengdu where all too often a badly balanced mixed drink is meant to pass as an example of masterful mixology. The only difficult part is choosing from the extensive list of drinks, organized by main ingredient, from the perplexingly named Sex on the Babysitter's Bathroom Floor to the various fruit-filled mojitos, to a number of neon-colored concoctions. It's a ways off the beaten path, unless you're a regular at Bashiba, but it's well worth the trek.
Portions so big you can't even eat them all in one sitting using high-quality ingredients? Yes, please. The menu is short, and the dishes are fairly simple, but the service is good, the food is consistent, and with a couple dozen kuai you can fill your tank and be out the door again.
Best place you've never been to
On a small alley just north of Kuanzhai Xiangzi sits the Deli Wraps, the latest establishment by a native Chengduer with an obsession with Western-Asian fusion food. The menu offerings are all wraps of various kinds, inspired by different cuisines (Hawaiian, Vietnamese, etc.) and are served as set meals with small salads and sides or a la carte. When the weather is nice you can sit on the terrace and watch the hipsters across the street hopping about on their neon-colored fixed-gear bikes.
Place we were sad to see go
The last holdout for electronic music in Chengdu closed down for the third time since its initial opening just before the 2008 earthquake. Rumor has it that there might be a reincarnation but we'll have to wait and see what the future brings to this niche-market scene.
Place we wish we could afford to visit more often
Massively expensive and equally delicious.
Interesting Survey Respondent Demographics
Not so surprising: Males outweigh females by nearly 2 to 1. More surprising: One-fourth of respondent said they have lived in Chengdu more than 5 years.