UNLIMITED DRAFT BEER ON TAP. Imagine your local eat-all-you-like buffet announcing such a thing on the menu. How the queues would stretch down the high street. In the UK, the very existence of such a place would be a scientific impossibility, a rip in the fabric of the time-space continuum. The beer would be gone in literally minutes.
Tucked underground at Xidan (Sheedan), Beijing’s popular shopping area, is a vast restaurant space with room for at least a couple of hundred people, sitting at long tables, and surrounded on all four sides by piles of really good food and the aforementioned (not bad) lager on tap. It’s like being in some sort of Roald Dahl book. Or the Yellow Submarine. Or that scene from Magical Mystery Tour, where the aunty is fed buckets of spaghetti (if you made it that far through the movie).
Anyway….you pay your 40 kwai (slang for Yuan) – about £4 – and sit down. Your get an individual hotpot (traditionally you share one in the middle of the table). Then you go get your raw vegetables, tofu, meat, seafood (all fresh) and several beers. Hotpot is a Northern Chinese / Mongolian thing, a continuously cooking pot of soup, flavoured in various ways. You put your vegetables , tofu and meat in bit by bit, and eat it as it cooks, dipping it in a peanut, garlic and coriander sauce. It’s very sociable, you can’t scoff your food quickly and bugger off. Bloody hell, it’s good. By the time you’ve eaten, you’re hungry again, a sure sign that you have indeed entered a new dimension. It feels like you could sit there eating forever, enjoying the surroundings of this strange new universe, with the occasional visit to the loo.
Hang on.. I think I might have talked about hotpot already……
There is a drinking culture here, but it’s nothing like back home. There are very few pubs and bars, they are all concentrated in one or two nightlife areas. No one makes a point of attending these buffet restaurants with the sole intent of guzzling the bar. Maybe I’m pointing out the obvious (again). You just couldn’t run this kind of thing in England.
Anyway, me and a bunch of (mostly Western) friends are going to go there quite soon. I hope our behaviour doesn’t make them change their ‘unlimited beer’ policy. Maybe they’ll just ban foreigners instead.