For Beijing’s best food, hit the hutongs

For Beijing’s best food, hit the hutongs

No longer just for mahjong and noodles, the alleyways of the Chinese capital are the place to be after dark
Beijing's funky Temple Bar and Restaurant is set in a former television factory that made the city’s first black and white TVs.

Beijing’s hutong alleyways have long been the focal point of the capital’s traditional life, featuring tiny noodle restaurants, lively mahjong games and ramshackle courtyard dwellings. 

But today, the hutongs are also home to a growing number of cocktail bars, upscale restaurants and brewpubs -- all with a Chinese feel.

Where to eat 

Brian McKenna@The Courtyard is located beside the Forbidden Palace's moat. The hutongs have always had an abundance of eating options, most offering local fare. In recent months, however, a few high-end restaurants have appeared.

Temple Restaurant and Bar (23 Shatan Beijie, off Wusi Dajie; +86 (0)10 8400 2232; Temple-restaurant.com) offers contemporary European cuisine and a 76-page drink list, including biodynamic and organic wines and infusion cocktails.

The location is tricky to find, but worth the effort.

It's set in a former television factory that made Beijing’s first black and white TVs. In the back are a hotel and centuries-old 3,500-square-meter temple that serves as a culture space.

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Brian McKenna@The Courtyard (95 Donghuamen St.; +86 (0)10 6526 8883; Bmktc.com), from award-winning Irish chef Brian McKenna, offers a Mediterranean-Asian menu in the Forbidden City --Beijing’s ancient palace -- and has private rooms, a lounge and cigar room. 

Visitors looking to get their hands dirty can try several places offering private cooking classes.

Black Sesame's lamb and pumpkin dumplings. Bet you can't eat just one. Black Sesame Kitchen (3 Heizhima Hutong, inside Nanluoguxiang; +86 (0)13 6914 7440; www.blacksesamekitchen.com) focuses on the art of dumpling- and noodle-making, among other classic Chinese dishes, in a cozy courtyard setting.

The Hutong (1 Jiudaowan Zhongxiang Hutong; +86 (0)15 9010 46127; Thehutong.com), a cultural exchange center near the Lama Temple, offers public cooking classes Mondays through Thursdays, focusing on knife skills, traditional Chinese medicine, Cantonese and more. 

“The Hutong is all about learning and fun, and providing great cultural experiences for people who want to get out at night and get underneath the skin of the capital, and really explore Chinese culture,” says general manager Morgan O’Hara.

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Where to drink 

A rising number of hutong bars are serving expert cocktails, something once reserved to luxury hotels and a few choice bars in Sanlitun, the traditional heart of Beijing’s nightlife.

Mao Mao Chong (12 Banchang Hutong; +86 (0)13 8103 51522, Maomaochongbeijing.com) offers an extensive list of creative cocktails, including several with mala -- a numbing spice.

Craft beer is catching on in Beijing. Slow Boat Taproom has 20 taps pouring beer brewed at its facility just outside Beijing. “When we opened the bar there weren’t any cocktail bars in the hutongs,” says award-winning bartender and co-owner, Stephanie Rocard.

“When people come to our bar it’s like a destination place -- you get a real Beijing feel and the adventure of finding the place. People get into the environment.” 

A few alleys to the east of the Drum and Bell Tower, Mai Bar (40 Beiluoguxiang; +86 (0)13 8112 52641), which opened last year, shakes up well-crafted traditional and modern cocktails and two coolers of imported beer.

A few alleys west is Modernista (4 Baochao Hutong; +86 (0)13 6712 74747; www.facebook.com/modernistabj), a throwback bar with swing dancing, burlesque shows, live music and vintage films projected on the wall.

New bars with creative concepts continue to spring up. Serk (40-2 Beixinqiao Santiao; +86 (0)13 4264 74634; Seerk.cc), in an alley not far from the Lama Temple, opened last year and serves as bike shop, café and bar. 

“The cycling culture has grown incredibly,” says Shannon Bufton, Serk’s Australian owner. “There’s the start of a modern cycling revolution here.”

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Another venue close to the Drum and Bell Tower is Bamboo (20 Ju’er hutong; +86 (0)10 6401 6083), which opened a few months ago and serves drinks make with soju, including the Kim Sour and Bloody Kim.

Opening soon, The Fort (5 Dongsiliutiao, +86 (0)156 5271 0448; facebook.com/thefortbeijing), located on a secluded rooftop, will be café by day, bar by night. Bagel-centered meals, private parties and morning yoga classes are all part of the plan.

Serk is a poplar spot to grab a Belgian beer after a long city bike ride.Meanwhile, the hutongs aren't short on good beer options.

El Nido (59 Fangjia Hutong; +86 (0)15 8103 82089) is a hole-in-the-wall owned by the charming Xiao Shuai (“Little Handsome”). This place is the original home of the hutong hipster, whose numbers continue to grow in Beijing, and sells dozens of imported beers across the globe.

Great Leap (6 Doujiao Hutong; +86 (0)10 5717 1399; greatleapbrewing.com), a brewery opened by a Beijing expat in 2010, kicked off Beijing’s craft beer scene. The courtyard is a perfect spot for afternoon summer drinks and the venue hosts events such as an annual chili cook-off and beer-and-movie nights.

Slow Boat Taproom (56 Dongsibatiao; +86 (0)10 6538 5537; slowboatbrewery.com) opened last year and has 20 taps serving beer brewed at its facility just outside Beijing.

“The reasons why we felt the brewery would work is we kept on seeing bottled craft beer coming from the United States, and we’d never seen that before," says Chandler Jurinka, Slow Boat’s co-founder.

"We felt there was a good chance [the craft beer scene] would pop sometime."

He says the low cost of entry and fewer hurdles to opening a business in Beijing compared with Shanghai will make the former the center of China’s craft beer scene.

After midnight, several new establishments are keeping the energy up in the normally quiet hutongs. 4Corners (27 Dashibei hutong; +86 (0)10 6401 7797) is a Vietnamese restaurant, live music venue and late-night hangout, with a spacious courtyard that buzzes in the summer.

Nearby are Temple Bar (206 Gulou Dongdajie; +86 (0)13 1610 70713), a live music staple, and Dada (+86 (0)18 3110 80818; Temple Bar), the neighborhood’s first true nightclub.

A Shanghai import, Dada opened last summer and features DJs spinning in the club’s bunker-like quarters till late.

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Mitch Moxley is a journalist based in Beijing. He's written for publications including Time, The Globe and Mail, Foreign Policy and The Guardian from China, Mongolia, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

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