Goodbye Nao | The Bar of The Year That Won’t Be Bar of The Year

I spotted the wild facade of Nao Bistro just after returning to Beijing from holidays in January. Walking Sanitun South, jet-lagged and lugging a load of groceries to restock my kitchen, I could only gawk at this bold expression against the city’s leafless trees and winter grey. What. Is. That. Place!?

My first visit came days later, when Simone Incontro of Veronafiere was visiting Beijing and, in search of some drinks, we decided to try Nao.

What a decor. High ceilings, multiple levels and rooms, a three-sided bar. And dragons. Two big neon dragons. Plus paintings of Chinese traditional drinking scenes. And more kitsch–tastefully arranged–than you could throw a blinged-out Buddha statue at. A combo of carnival and cocktail bar that was fun for the senses.

And the drinks? A long well-thought and creative menu loaded with local themes backed by a bartender who knew his stuff. I was sold.

Better, the bar was still not fully open–there were a dozen beer taps yet to be used–and this place thus held even more promise.

Here’s the thing: every year or so, a bar opens that feels right for me, a kind of personal Bar of the Year. Last year, it was Pi Bar. Before that, places like Press Release, Tiki Bungalow, Q Bar, Fubar and Ichikura. Nao felt destined to be one of these.

My second visit came just before the coronavirus crisis took hold. I was walking home after dinner at a friend’s apartment. Everyone on the streets now seemed to be wearing masks, the city on the verge of lock-down, the uncertainty thick like smog on a bad day. I turned right off Baijiazhuang Street to Nao, instead of left to home, for just one drink.

I was the sole customer. My martini, with Botanist gin, was excellent, the best I’d had in ages, the bartender diligent and precise. He told me Nao would soon close–coronavirus. We connected on WeChat so I would know when it opened again. I imagined my next drink at Nao would mark the emergence from this crisis, a thought that lingered in my mind then on.

My third drink never came. I contacted the bartender a few times during the crisis — he was stuck far beyond Beijing in his hometown — but there was no news about Nao. When he eventually returned, it was to work at another place. This past month, I passed by Nao several times, saw people inside and — hopeful — popped in to ask them about the bar. Not yet, I was told. But soon, I believed.

This week, as I walked up the street, I saw a stepladder in the distance, a man atop, part of the facade being wriggled loose and removed. Crossing the street to take a closer look, I saw bits of the sign on the sidewalk, the bar inside near empty.

Nao is part of a series of venues, so the brand lives on. Maybe the owners will open something else here, I don’t know. But what happened to this individual place is a waste, a lost opportunity, a symbol of these past five months. I’m glad I had that last martini.

My advice when it comes to bars and restaurants in Beijing is visit your favorites while you can. You never know when they might be gone–closed due to poor business or partner breakups or landlord disputes or legal problems or even a global pandemic. Have that burger, that beer, that roujiamo, that martini while you still can.

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