Since 1997 in Beijing, it’s been possible to answer “Where can I get a really nasty Old Fashioned and a 900-gram burger at 5am?” “Who’s showing the goat-wrestling qualifiers?” and “What happened to my phone?” with the same words: The Den. Last weekend, all that changed. Seventeen years after President Jiang Zemin ordered the Chinese military to give up its illegally owned commercial enterprises, local units in Beijing have begun to reluctantly comply (further closures have already been announced). As of Monday, the city’s only 24-hour all-in-one sports bar, restaurant, short-time hotel, crisis-counseling centre, divorced men’s networking club, Pattaya tribute venue and dipsomaniacal dog whistle is no more.*
The Den… shut?
“A continuing expansion of competition and a slowing economy may both be playing a role in the changing of Beijing’s bar scene,” reckoned the Beijinger when the news surfaced some weeks ago. Competition? Slowing economy? Changing bar scene – The Den? All that seemed grist to its mill. The Den was not only recession and puke-proof, it was the kind of place people went to because they were unemployed. One doubts its patrons gave much of a passing care about “scenes,” artisanal infusions or whatever pop-up concepts make the long, hard-seat journey from the West to Beijing. The craft beer revolution was something that just happened to other bars; The Den was popularizing gastro-enteritis long before the gastro pub humped its way into the local consciousness. To the world outside it may have been 2015, but over in the People’s Republic of Denezuela, it was perpetually 2007.
For a long time I didn’t get the appeal of the place, finding it always populated by aging sports enthusiasts whose faces had exploded. My mistake was timing: I was coming in at sane hours, like lunchtime or 11pm on a Thursday. You needed to hit The Den at a very exact sweet spot. Peak Den was between the clubs closing on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday and the rest of the world getting up and going about its respectable business: say, 4 am – 7 am. This was when the magic happened. There aren’t many bars in Beijing where it feels dangerous to get chummy with the regulars after a certain hour, but The Den firmly ranked as one. For all its friendly aggression, actual fights were rare, though the staff were regularly called upon to remind emotional patrons how to leave. Closing time: You don’t have to go home, but maybe you should, because it’s midday and you’re hitting on barstools and frightening children.
Tributes have been pouring in since the news broke, ranging from pithy (“Wut?”) to prosaic (“Fuck”). What was it about this place that inspired such poetry? What ensured its runner-up success in such categories of the Beijing Cream Bar and Club Awards as Bar Where a Lay is Most Likely Followed by Postcoital Triste, Probably Because You Paid for a Hooker (2nd place, 2012) and Worst Place to Go if You’re Feeling Mildly Suicidal (2nd place, 2012), before stealing the crown at 2013’s ceremony for Most Likely to Encounter a Cockeyed Sot Who Harbors Bad, Bad Intentions?
What was the Definitive Den experience?
Sure, there was the half-price pizza, the five-hour Happy Hour, the football, the fact that it was open. But for many, it was about the people: you’d get the full gamut, and gamut is definitely the word we need here. Tourists would wash up here at 4 am and not believe their luck. Surly Eastern European dancers and Gongti shift workers, Aeroflot crews on layover, aging expats who could remember visiting the Goose & Duck Ranch; Chinese students visiting in the mistaken belief that this was a suitable venue to bring someone you hadn’t slept with yet; visiting scholars; Tier-88 entrepreneurs pressing business cards into the hands of elderly Australian men; borderline schizophrenics; saturnine Germans that arrived at 3 am to watch Munich Bayern battle for the third-place playoffs of the Hofmeister Cup (who drank four pints and spoke to no one); expat sporting societies almost as old as The Den; the entire cast of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet ; angry Russians who’d been exiled from the Russian exile community… all were Denizens.
Because The Den never closed, it invited the most ridiculous benders: Benders seemingly without end, benders that would leave your taste buds numbed for a week. 24 hours in The Den? Child’s play.
Probably the most overplayed aspect of Den life. Sure, in the wee hours, there was usually someone happy to meet your glassy-eyed gaze and steadily hold it; the odd brass; the occasional strumpet or two. But The Den wasn’t exactly the Red Mansion. More a last-chance saloon for Nigerian baby mamas on their way to a sweet retirement gig jacking-off pensioners.
A multipage, pleather-bound tome with a nice heft to it, covering a wide array of, uh, “cuisines,” The Den’s food was part of the venue’s core appeal: No nonsense. Solid. Unpretentious. If you’re down with The Den’s food, then you’re all right with me – you’re OK.
Unlike most restaurants, The Den’s picture menu was unafraid to dramatically lower customers’ expectations with blurred, two-megapixel shots of congealing sauces atop lonely cuts of meat, captioned with unpunctuated, unadorned prose describing the various ingredients. If a menu could be said to have a “voice,” then The Den was Samuel Beckett reading aloud government warnings from a carton of Mongolian filterless cigarettes. Thus, the actual quality of the grub was a consistent surprise. Hits included the pizza, steak, sausages and mash, and, of course, “Eggs Norway,” the classy European breakfast choice for any true international Denizen. On the other hand, the “Lamb donner pitta roll” [sic] was a diplomatic incident waiting to happen. For my final repast on Sunday, I spun the wheel and chose the Corned-Beef Hash with Sweet Peas for the first time. Like a chef on condemned-man’s-last-meal duty, The Den produced something thoroughly digestible that I would, like the venue, never revisit again.
What are your thoughts, Beijing? Be a true Denizen and have no shame while sharing your best (and worst) Den moments. (Feel free to email.) Whatever your story, it’s not gonna beat this:
*The Den will be back, don’t you worry. But for now, if you see a fifty-year-old bleary-eyed British man tottering about and banging on the locked doors of Gung-Ho Pizza at 4 am, give him a hug.