Shanghai has China’s best nightlife, bar none. This is a city of money, and money likes to party. The night-time landscape is bursting with options, from hidden speakeasies with cleverly disguised entrances and expansive cocktail lists to flashy super-clubs like Myst and Muse, with expensive international DJs and tables that order cases, not bottles, of champagne. (Peculiar to China is the fact that most of the big Chinese superclubs, throbbing with dance music, actually have dancefloors the size of postage stamps. It’s more about showing off with bottles and models at the table than getting out to groove.) The karaoke chains – Taipei K Party is currently the hottest – start filling up right after work and go late – then early into the next morning, and after-hours clubs such as Downtown and URVC stay open even longer still.
But for those in pursuit of new tastes, the most interesting development of the last five years has been what’s served in those bars and clubs, as the global cocktail renaissance has swept the city, inspiring more than a handful of bartenders who are fanatical about their ice, their glasses and their shaking technique. It wasn’t so long ago that wine purists were aghast at Chinese pouring Sprite into their vintage Bordeaux, and the most popular drink at a club was green tea and Chivas Regal. These days the choices are far better, from clever takes on classic cocktails to drinks that incorporate Chinese ingredients such as ginseng liqueur and tea.
Constellation opened in 2000 – which is forever in Shanghai bar years – and was one of the first to bring the strict and exacting Japanese style of bartending to China. Owner and original bartender Jin Zhonglei, roundly known as Kin-san, showed off his skill with a shaker and his collection of hard-to-find whisky, whiskey and bourbon, years before it became a status symbol for China’s newly rich.
Kin-san was in the right business at the right time, one might say, and he has since expanded his Constellation galaxy with handsome leather-and-wood bars across the city, all named Constellation. (If plotted on a map, the locations look like an upside-down Libra.) The intimate space on Xinle Road remains home base for Shanghai’s drinkers, who call it Constellation #1 and fill its 30-odd seats every night of the week for single malts or classic drinks such as the Moscow Mule: a mix of vodka, ginger beer and lime juice served in a cold copper mug. Kin-san now spends his evenings shuttling around his bar universe, and it’s hard to pin him down at any one location. No matter. His gravity grounds the current crop of bartenders in their dress shirts, vest and ties, and keeps Constellation #1 going just as he intended: serious about its spirits.
The speakeasy trend swept Shanghai a few years ago, installing fancy cocktail bars behind elaborate false fronts. Fake bookshelves, retracting walls and, in one case, a bar whose door is disguised as a vintage Coca-Cola vending machine, started to pop up across the city, adding a faux-illicit thrill to a night out.
Speak Low is the best of the bunch. The bar is spread over the upper floors of a narrow lane house, with no shortage of subterfuge. The entrance is a faux bookshelf at the back of a bartending equipment shop, which leads to a flight of stairs. Here, at the first bar, the drinks are described as ‘New York-style’: classic cocktails and a few famous riffs on them from New York bars, including an Old Fashioned made with maple syrup and bacon, created by Manhattan’s PDT (Please Don’t Tell). To get even further into the game, look for a vintage map of the world. Pressing China will open the door, ushering you to another set of stairs and another bar. Up here is where you’ll find the bar’s namesake cocktail, the Speak Low, a drink that won owner Shingo Gokan an international cocktail competition: a mix of two Bacardi rums, Pedro Ximénez sherry and green tea powder, all in a glass rimmed with kinako, a topping used in Japanese desserts.
Yao Lu mixes an excellent drink. He also mixes a strong drink. The potential downfall (besides the staircase) is that they are always delicious – the quintessential iron fist in a velvet glove. But like a boxer’s corner man, dispensing motivation and advice to keep his charge going, Union’s food menu is a source of resilience and positive reinforcement.
The coach in this show is Austin Hu, a well-known chef in Shanghai who cut his teeth at New York’s Gramercy Tavern. He wisely saw that salted peanuts were not going to cut it: enter the “tacho”, a hybrid of the American tater tot (a fried plug of grated potato) and the Mexican nacho, covered in chilli, melted cheese, sour cream and spring onions, that only gets more beautiful as the night goes on. It’s one of 16 options on the extensive bar food menu, alongside other guilt bombs including a pork meatloaf sandwich with kimchi and bacon on a pretzel bun, or red velvet cake turned into donut holes with cream cheese frosting. Stop in for a drink or two – but beware. By the third round, things start getting fuzzy.
Shanghai’s nightlife moves at the speed of light. The city uses clubs as if they are disposable, discarding most in a matter of months. The latest, hottest spot is The Nest, a collaboration between Grey Goose vodka and one of the city’s biggest club groups. Just off the waterfront, the self-styled “gastro lounge” is part of Rockbund, a major restoration of a historic district that had fallen on hard times. There’s nothing nostalgic here, however. The Nest is a decidedly modern and glamorous thing that morphs from lounge in the early evening to club around midnight. The kitchen and excellent raw bar stay open until the wee hours as well, turning out dishes such as house-smoked salmon with fresh blini and ikura. The bartenders are adept with the classics and can also get creative, while both the drinks and food are far better than they need to be at a place with so much buzz. It’s easy enough to see the bar – it’s under a sprawling light sculpture – but getting to it through the crowds can be a challenge. Book a table, make it dinner and then sit back and watch the city shine.