If Shanghai’s pandemic playbook read differently, last night would have seen Texan bar owner Yao Lu “celebrating, creating havoc, and piling up laundry bills” at Union Trading Company. Instead, Yao caught the livestream of the awards ceremony for Asia’s 50 Best Bars alone at home.
Some 800 miles away in Guangzhou, Andrew Ho and Bastien Ciocca, cofounders of Hope & Sesame, also tuned in to the awards ceremony but under better circumstances. Seeing as the capital city of South China’s Guangdong province has avoided total lockdown, Ho and Ciocca were able to host a small get-together with industry friends and regular customers.
“We are lucky, but if it weren’t for travel restrictions, we would have liked to attend the ceremony in Bangkok,” comments the partners.
A welcome distraction from the doom and gloom wrought by Covid-19, the ceremony for Asia’s 50 Best Bars, a glittering affair at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, concluded with positive news for China’s bar industry: Fourteen out of the top 50 bars hail from the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan — including both Hope & Sesame and Union Trading Co.
The 50 honorees are:
Crowned champion for the second year in a row, Coa has been heralded for introducing a new category of agave-driven cocktails to its home city of Hong Kong.
Produced by UK media group William Reed Business Media, the ‘50 Best’ lists are comparable to the ‘Academy Awards for gastronomy and mixology.’ While the award model is ever-evolving, Covid completely upended preexisting systems, forcing the organization to pivot in previously unimaginable ways.
In addition to rolling out its 50 Best for Recovery initiative to help restaurants get back on their feet, the group began publicizing an ‘extended list’ of the 51st-100th rankings — a thoughtful gesture that has given the industry more to celebrate during these dire times.
And while the China-based bars included on the list are rightly proud of their hard-earned honors, it’s difficult to argue that the long shadow of Covid lockdowns hasn’t dampened the mood and celebrations a bit.
“A bar is a place to experience the team’s effort, atmosphere and concept,” says Shingo Sasaki, general manager of Sober Company. Instead, the tripartite Shanghai destination — made up of Sober Café, Sober Kitchen, and Sober Society — is a husk of a place at present.
Speak Low, sister speakeasy to Sober Company, is also itching for business as usual. “When things return to normal, our priority shall be resuming our ‘Full-Mood’ series,” shares bar manager Kris Du. “We spent two months preparing for the chef and bartender crossover event but have had to postpone.”
Likewise, the Shanghai lockdown has thrown a wrench in Union Trading Company’s plans. “We were ready to roll out a new spring menu days before Shanghai’s lockdown. It now seems that we will have to start working on our summer menu soon,” laments Yao.
While it’s easy to wallow in misery during Covid, Hope & Sesame proves that limitations can breed creativity. Overseas explorations used to be a key source of inspiration for the team, but they have learned to look at what’s readily available at home.
“We have spent a lot of time looking inwards, as in what’s available in China in terms of produce, techniques, history and people,” explains Ciocca. Ho adds, “Hence, our new line of cocktails using only Chinese spirits, wines, liqueurs, and ingredients.”
Similarly, Yao of Union Trading Company has decided to pursue the possible instead of the impossible. Some might seek solace in the bottom of a bottle when the going gets tough, but not Yao. On the contrary, he has (temporarily) turned teetotaler: “Since the beginning of lockdown, I’ve decided to focus on something that I can control in these uncertain times — wellness and nutrition. I’ve lost 17 lbs so far!”
Cover image of Speak Low (pre-lockdown); all photos courtesy of Asia’s 50 Best
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