Goodbye Q | Last call for a Beijing bar legend

I posted this on social media on April 26. Edited lightly. I really need to come up with a list of “top 10”–or maybe “top 100”?–Q Bar moments.

The last martini has been stirred, the last frozen margarita poured at Q Bar, the cocktail joint perched atop a slightly seedy Sanlitun South Street hotel and an instant “bar of the year” candidate when it opened in 2006. Q Bar built on a following bartenders George Zhou and Echo Sun earned at spots like First Cafe and Midnight Cafe, on lessons learned from owners Keiko Shirata and Roger Houng at that first joint.

On the ample free coverage by the city’s lifestyle magazines–the editors from Beijing Talk, City Weekend, TimeOut and that’s Beijing (the team behind The Beijinger) all lived nearby at one point and covered these two up-and-coming entrepreneurs. And on their own ambitions. Ralph Ziegenhorn, who worked in the media field, provided financial backing and Team Q was off and running.

Those early years were something. You’d arrive at Q and find the bar inside packed while a band of bartenders shook up quality drinks to jazz and blues. Those heading outside to the rooftop deck had plenty of nooks and crannies, even private rooms, tied together with the clever use of lighting, walkways, levels and foliage. It was a true getaway in a city then far more chaotic and polluted than now. (Sipping a martini to the soft sound of a bubbling water fountain was not to be underestimated.) That design was part necessity as it absorbed sound and helped ease nonstop noise complaints from neighbors across the street and, in turn, reduced police visits.

Witnessing Q’s success was delicious. After all, I had arrived in Beijing just two years earlier, when Zhou and Sun had just learned to make martinis. I was a First Cafe regular and watched them ditch that place for Midnight Cafe–right next door! I helped them to carry their belongings from Midnight Cafe when that project fell apart. And now they had the happening-est bar in town!

I spent lots of time and money at Q, witnessed the peaks and valleys, from the early days when Q Bar raked in mountains of cash (success that sadly seems a deathknell for many bar partnerships) to a split that saw Zhou leave to open his own spot–George’s Bar–in Workers Stadium. From what felt like a holding pattern, that overlapped with the Q Mex restaurant project, to finally closing–for the first time. Then, about a year later, in 2015, Q Bar reopened with none other than Zhou back at the helm, the spot he discovered a decade earlier, a space that had once been empty offices and messy rooftop storage in a locale most thought too far from the main Sanlitun action. Zhou returned home.

Now Q has closed again. Zhou finished moving the furniture and bottles and glasses et al this week. It’s not surprising given the hotel has been hampered by the virus crisis, the drinks scene has been hit hard, too, and business has been slow for Q the past few years. When Q reopened, the times had changed. There weren’t just a handful of bars making decent cocktails; there were a hundred. And they weren’t just making classics; they were diving deeply into the creativity pool.

Q Bar settled as a spot for long-term fans, curious newcomers, friends of the investors and those popping in every now and then for old time’s sake. It still doubled as a special getaway, precisely because the crowds were lighter now. Where else in the core of a hectic city like Beijing could you spread out on a quiet sprawling deck and enjoy a tasty fairly priced martini on a clear Beijing night with just a few other patrons around? Such space is a luxury.

I will write more about Q Bar soon but need to prepare World Marselan Day now. I’ll let my memories run rampant a few days. Of all the tourists, business people, teachers, chefs, officials, journalists–you name it–I met just because I was sitting at Q having a drink and so were they. Of buying jianbing, stinky tofu and mala tang from the street vendors outside and bringing it up to enjoy with cocktails. (Or Champagne: a fantastic match for chou doufu.) Of holding events for so many projects–World Baijiu Day, Grape Wall Wine Challenge, Maovember charity events, a Canada Day party, more. Of hanging out with the birds.

Of being invited to Q on Chinese New Year to enjoy an Anhui feast made by Zhou’s family, and then serving as bartender for the staff as they watched the CCTV Spring Gala. Of a surprise birthday party that truly surprised me–and featured the coolest of cakes. Of all the people–friends and colleagues and wine trade guys and even my Mom–I took to Q.

And that one time we partied until sunrise and I went outside and climbed on the roof overlooking the deck and Zhou came out and couldn’t find me and finally fell into a chair exhausted and I climbed down and we finished with a final glass of wine as I grinned about my act of pure required silliness. Lots of memories. Thank you for those.

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Get regular Beijing updates via my Instagram and Twitter feeds. Also see my sibling sites Grape Wall of China, World Baijiu Day and World Marselan Day. Help cover the hosting and other costs of these sites with a WeChat, AliPay or PayPal donation.

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