Monday, October 25, 2010

Drinky Drinky

...or: Jenna's Guide To Drinking (Not Partying) in Taipei

aka "Drinking in Taipei for the Older, Quieter, More Bohemian Set"

I've been asked more than once to provide a complementary post to my previously well-received post on where to eat in Taipei, focusing on where to drink in Taipei. After all, what goes better with gorgeous food than good company and good drinks?

I will begin my review with a caveat that this is not a nightlife post - I am by no means telling you where to go out to have fun if you find yourself at loose ends, find a hopping bar scene or dance the night away to a thumping beat.

Quite the opposite, for three reasons:

1.) I'm a bit of a dork, really. I don't like loud, crowded bars. I was young once too (rather than my current ripe old age of 30 - practically a lao tai tai!) and I tried that scene and it didn't work for me. I like making friends in less frazzled settings, and then going out with them to places where we can actually hear each other talk and hear ourselves think over the music. I have a bias towards the comfy student cafes of Gongguan and Shida - while not actively a student now (I will never return to Shida - they can take their ultra-formal newscaster Chinese with "兒兒兒" that nobody in Taiwan actually speaks, pro-KMT propaganda, antiquated teaching methods and Mainland bias and shove it up their...ahem) I have a studenty mentality and thus feel most at home in these places.

2.) Hopping bars have horrible drinks. It's true: can you say that you had the best mojito of your life at Carnegie's, or that Roxy 99 has an amazing beer selection or crafts a fine kamikaze? You cannot. Maybe you think you can, but acknowledging that this may kill me in the comments, I'll come right out and tell you that you're wrong.

3.) The whole point is where to get good drinks, in a setting where you can really socialize - grinding through a meat market is not socializing, at least not for me. Unless it's a real meat market and I just got some great pork cuts and half a chicken from that betel-juice-stained dude with three teeth from Pingdong and then we had a chat in Chaiwanese (Chinese+Taiwanese) about meat.

These are places that contribute to gastronomic pleasure rather than ignore it, and you can actually talk to the person across the table at all of them. If I had to choose between good alcohol and a good place to talk with friends, I chose talking with friends, because hey, I hafta love on Taiwan Beer.

And with that - enjoy!

I categorized my listing by what's offered, with a list of pros and cons of each. You can assume that the prices are all roughly the same (inexpensive if you are OK with Taiwan Beer, about $160-$200 NT per bottle if you're after premium imported beers). I gave links where I could find them.

I want good beer!

Then go to...

Red House (Shida)

About a block closer to Heping Road than Roxy Junior, same side of Shida Road, this little bar is easy to miss. It's in a narrow old house with some outdoor seats (though it's so narrow that the entire place feels "outdoor", honestly) and is on the edge of the famous Foreign Food Street that boasts two Indian restaurants (neither of them spectacular), a lackluster Tibetan place, a good Korean place that's not really Korean but is still tasty, and...more.

Pros: Good Belgian beer selection, funky atmosphere, very intimate, they never play music so loud that you can't talk, and on a night with good weather the balcony seats are fantastic. It looks out over Shida Park where the people who had the pet goose used to hang out, and you see all manner of interesting things going on. Selections include Leffe, the Floris beers, Duchesse de Bourgogne, Malheur, Delerium, various German beers, Barbar, Kwak

Cons: They don't always stock their entire selection of beer (they ran out of Malheur 12 recently which made me very sad), the music isn't always "right" - on the day Obama won the election we went to celebrate and they were playing sad heartbreak music - and the food has gone downhill. We used to like the Thai chicken rolls and the "sha de meat stick" but now, there's really no food worth ordering.

Shake House (Gongguan)

Just down the road from Cafe Odeon, across Wenzhou St. from Cafe Bastille, Shake House has no sign to announce its name. It's very studenty and funky, with a jazz-heavy music selection that sometimes surprises you. The owners clearly love what they do, and the beer selection is pretty good. It's also one of the few places out where the food is (mostly) kind of good. Try the limoncello cake.

Pros: You always know exactly what beer they have because you get it yourself from a fridge, the sandwiches are pretty good if you are down with fried meat, and their french fries, popcorn and spicy tofu are all good deals food-wise. Also, I can't recommend the limoncello cake enough. It is really just great. Easy to talk to friends, wireless stolen from Bastille, and they have an upstairs area that they can open when too full. If you come often you get old-customer service. Decorations are brown, faded, with vintage chairs and terracotta pot light covers. Excellent coffee, which you can get with Bailey's, and other non-alcoholic options. Beers include Tripel Karmeliet, Chimay Blue, Maredsous, Corsendonk, Duvel, Gulden Draak and more.

Cons: Since wifi is Bastille-stolen, it's fine on laptops but not as good on iPod Touch or mobile wifi devices. No plugs so you need a good battery. Sometimes they play horrible music (the day we came in and they were playing liturgical chants was offputting) but when it's good, it's very good and if you get lucky they'll have the vinyl going (more often they use an iPod). Very Coltrane/Miles Davis-style music usually.

Cafe Odeon (Gongguan)

(Linked below)

Excellent beer selection - the best in Taipei, really. They have everything from Delerium Christmas to Satan Gold to a few boutique American beers. The food is lackluster, though the croque madame/monsieur sandwiches are not bad for the money. Seats are comfy (almost too comfy) and plentiful.

Pros: Plentiful, comfy seats - you can always seat everyone. Excellent beer selection. Friendly staff. Can get really hopping after 9pm on some weekend nights. If you have more than 6 people, have already eaten and want to hang out and drink interesting beer then this is the place for you. I can't even list a sample of their extensive beer selection. It's just huge.

Cons: No wifi - you can steal it with middling luck from Belly Wash next door, food is small in portion and, while not bad, also not great for the money (with the exception of the sandwiches).

Cafe Bastille (with a big "con") - Shida, Gongguan and Xinsheng Road

Snooty as hell and forever earning my ire, I still have to admit that Bastille has a really good beer selection, including some complex brews that are to be analyzed more than enjoyed. The food is atrocious.

Pros: A sleek-yet-funky European cafe feel would make even your visiting mother feel at home, and the beer selection really is good. You can choose from the fridge or pick a bottle off the wall and ask if they have it. Great wifi and usually enough plugs. Seats are comfy.

Cons: SNOTTY! Once I went into the Gongguan branch and there were no seats...OK, fair enough. The girl at the bar gave me the stinkeye ("You're not hip enough to hang out here" is what she thought but did not say) and said "Heh. No seats" and turned away. about a "sorry"? Or an estimate of how long I might need to wait? Blessing in disguise, I went to the cafe behind me and discovered the terminally awesome Shake House.

Oh, and the food is dire. Just don't eat there.

Jolly (Zhongshan, MRT Nanjing E Road)

I love Jolly. Just read my review above. Yay Jolly!

Pros: Excellent, and I do mean excellent, on-site brewed beer. It's really good. All of it. YUM. Food is also amazing, especially the Massaman Curry. They do Thai-style small plates and all of it is excellent, spicy and just...good. Also very easy to get to from Nanjing E. Road MRT. Excellent place to take visiting parents, colleagues, clients etc.. Hopping atmosphere, for good reason. Microbrewed beers include a really excellent stout.

Cons: It's so popular that it's always packed, so on going-out nights you'll want a reservation. A bit expensive, and no (I mean *no*) vegetarian options.

Zabu, Salty Nuts and Rue 216 also have good offerings - will cover them later

I want a great atmosphere with lots of lively talk going on!

Then go to...

Pavilion behind Red House (Ximen, linked below)

Gay bar central, this place has campily named bars like "G-2 Paradise", "Bear Bar" and the now closed "Manu Manu" (now it's "Mudan", with pink molded chairs). On a pleasant weekend night it's lively and fun and the view of Red House can't be beat. On weekends, stop at the artist's market on the other side of the theater. The bars always have great offers going - usually "buy 3 get one free" of whatever beer they've chosen - and there are always seats.

Pros: OUTSIDE! It is so hard to find an outdoor place to drink in Taipei, especially one that's not on a congested road with scooters spewing exhaust driving right by. Special offers are good and the location couldn't be better.

Cons: The beer, especially the special offer stuff, is usually crap (Blue Girl etc.).

Roxy Junior Cafe

You've all heard of it so I'll spare the personal review.

Pros: Despite not having tons of seating, there's always a place to sit, including some outside options. Good deals on Taiwan Beer. Pool available.

Cons: Kind of "meh", a bit cliched, the food is awful (it used to be kind of OK - what gives?) and the beer isn't good. It's just a good choice if you want a place to hang out with friends. Easier to hear others talking when outside.

Though the food is expensive and the beer selection is lackluster, we frequently have larger get-togethers at Saints and Sinners because it's lively but not too loud and you can usually get a table because there is plenty of space. Good deals on bad beer.

Pros: In a group you can do pretty well if you all order the beer on special (too bad the beer on special is never good beer), the food is pretty good, the mixed drinks are pretty good if a bit girly, pool is available, and they have something called Texas Iced Tea that's 12 kinds of alcohol served in a glass cowboy boot that they set on fire. That's fun. We always make people drink it on their birthdays. Staff is nice and if you end up drinking too much and having "the boot" on your birthday and puking into a towel dispenser (you know who you are), the staff will bring you water and a chair in the bathroom. Location can't be beat. Music is loud but not so loud that you can't talk.

Ever since The Bed 2 closed, taking its funky velvet couches and hookahs with it, this is the best larger-group option on Anhe Road if you want to avoid the usual meat markets.

Cons: They say that there's no free water after 9pm but that's not true, they'll give you free water if you are drinking (ie, spending money). Sports matches on TV can get loud, and it is a bit "typical" (ie not funky). Music is not interesting - the usual pop stuff.

Alley Cat Huashan (with a big "con" - read on) - Guanghua Market / Zhongxiao Xinsheng - with other branches

Set in the canteen of the old factory at Huashan, the brick building this place is in can't be beat. The beer and drinks are good and of course the pizza and food is all excellent (except for the Japanese green tea pizza dessert, which is meh. Get the tiramisu instead). The bar is spacious so you'll get a seat. Also has a good outside area.

Pros: Finally, a place to get a drink near Guanghua Electronics Mart! Computer nerds (not that I am one of them) unite! The old factory setting is lovely, crumbling and vintage with interesting stuff going on, and all the other good stuff above. Pizza is excellent. Good Erdinger and other German beer options, good tiramisu, you can talk over the music and on a warm night you can sit on the patio. The front is a real restaurant, the back is more like a bar.

Cons: I've been once and friends have been more than once, and every time they overcharge us on the bill and we have to fix it. This is a huge problem which should never happen more than once. If you go, check your bill carefully.

Or just go and drink at Alley Cat at MRT Zhishan or Alley Cat on Songren Road.

Brown Sugar (Xinyi)

Famous place, I don't need to say much about it.

Pros: Good seating, good music, good alcohol, the food we ordered was great, good location in Xinyi where other bars are just too...trendy or loud to bother. Great place to bring parents or clients.

Cons: because it is live music, you can't always talk over it (nor should you - it's good). Kind of expensive.

Cafe Odeon and Jolly are also good options.

I want enough space to seat all my friends!

Then see above: the ones with the best atmosphere tend to also be the ones with enough space for everyone.

I want someplace tiny and intimate, really funky and "too cool for school"!

Then go to...

Zabu (Shida, linked above)

I can't recommend Zabu enough. The beer selection is small but they also have cider, sake and mixed drinks as well as an extensive tea, coffee, smoothie and juice selection. Their food is excellent (the small eats more than the set meals) and Japanese-influenced. I love the baked rice...things - especially the salmon with citrus flavor and green curry cheese. I also love the ochutsuke - rice with stuff (I got salmon) and green tea poured in like a warm, comforting soup. The desserts are small but high quality. They play super cool music, ranging from acoustic to Pink Floyd to electronica (Skinny Puppy, Leftfield, Komytea) to jazz. Wifi and plugs are abundant, service is friendly and you feel like the trendiness is rubbing off on you just by being there, but not in a pretentious way. It's more like a little Japanese bistro - the kind you'd brag about being a regular at to your friends.

Oh, and they have two friendly cats. Yay! Win!

Pros: Everything. Great place to impress a date with funky, boho or razor's-edge-trendy tastes.

Cons: Seats are small and often uncomfortable, closes earlier than I'd like.

China White is just across from The Diner on a lane off of Anhe Road and is another good option in that area. Sleek and white and antiseptically clean, you'll feel like you're in a postmodernist minimalist high end New York cafe. Seats are small but service is friendly, and they have the best mojitos I've had in Taiwan.

Pros: Sleek, modern, great place to impress a date with high-end "Devil Wears Prada" tastes, great mojitos

Cons: it's so cool that it's almost too cool

Witch House (Gongguan)

In a lane off Xinsheng S. Road across from Taipei Gym, a bit north of the other Gongguan Cafes, Witch House has drinks named with single entendres (I won't post them here...too many family members read this), board games you can play stacked in the back and live music on some weekend nights, often by aboriginal music groups. We've been here once and thoroughly enjoyed it, though the live music was a bit slow and free-form and not conducive to conversation.

Pros: Good music, interesting drinks, games!

Cons: on live music nights it may be packed, there's a cover on those nights, and it's hard to tell if the music will be to your liking (also, hard to talk to friends over it, not that that is polite in such a small venue).

Rue 216 (Zhongxiao Dunhua)

With the ambiance of a classy French bistro, this is the ideal place to bring your culture-shocking parents who are wondering why you didn't just move to Europe but came out here to visit you anyway because they love you. The food is good (portions are French-sized though) and the cook is a trained chef, which means it's about a thousand times better than the microwaved BS that passes for food at Bastille. Small but good beer selection, intimate atmosphere, very friendly service.

Pros: All of the above. Also, friendly English-speaking service. Beers include lots of European selection, including Westmalle.

Cons: It's impossible to find - there are two places in the area with similar addresses and they're both in the confusing lanes between Zhongxiao, Dunhua and Renai. Have a good map handy if heading here for the first time.

Salty Nuts (Shida) - may be called Salt and Pepper - I can never remember

Funky and studenty and across the lane from the only good, authentic Korean restaurant in Taipei, this place looks like it's full of budding novelists and musicians. You can kick back with your low-rent, academically-inclined self over one of their many beers. Definitely get the "Hot Brownie" - a pile of delicious hot brownie with ice cream. Yum! Among the best desserts in Taipei. They have Lindemann's fruit beers, a hops-laden beer and other standard Belgian options.

Popular with travelers and young English teachers, this place has a few good "small eats" if you are feeling peckish, a small beer selection, decent mixed drinks, great location in Shilin if you are in the area, and good atmosphere. Very young-and-proud-of-it.

Pros: Good choice if you are in north Taipei, the food is pretty decent (though doesn't approach Rue 216 or Zabu standards), good atmosphere, very easy to sit and chat with friends, and there are non-alcoholic drink options

Cons: kind of expensive, beer selection is not stellar

I want a funktacular old school place that looks a little down-at-heel, with jazz and dim lighting!

Then go to...

Shake House (above)

Salty Nuts (above)

Red House Shida (above)

Zabu (above)

I want good alcohol and good food!

Then go to...

Zabu (above)

Rue 216 (above)

Brown Sugar (above) - appetizer style food only

Bread, Soup, Chocolate Belgian Beer Cafe (MRT SYS Memorial Hall in that little street with all the cafes - exit 2 I think)

This place is more a bakery/cafe than bar, but they do have a small but quality selection of Belgian beers, tasty looking food that we didn't try, and really excellent desserts that we did try. A great place to go for dessert and drinks if you've just been to the deservedly famous Harbin Restaurant nearby.

Pros: Good dessert and beer. Great location near the MRT.

Cons: isn't really a beer "cafe" - just a bakery with good beer options. They have some of the usual as well as Lucifer beer, which is actually not that good. They close kinda early.

Jolly (above)

Faust (MRT SYS Memorial Hall - on Ren Ai directly across from SYS Memorial, next to Cafe de France)

Actually a pizza restaurant but they do two things and two things only: pizza and beer. The beer is Faust brand German beer and is affordable and excellent.

Pros: Outside seating is great, awesome beer for a good price, amazing, non-oily thin crust pizza that is just to die for.

Cons: Indoor seating is not as good - when outside you feel like it could be a place to drink and relax. Inside it feels like what it is: a pizza restaurant. eat here anyway.

Honestly, I'm all about the good (non-beer) drinks.

Zabu (above)

Good mixed drinks and non-beer selection

Jolly (above)

The beer is great and they do have a full bar.

China White (above)

Best mojitos in Taipei

Addendum though I don't know the name of the place: in Shinkong Mitsukoshi Xinyi, I can't even remember which building, there is a German restaurant that also has some really good beer on offer. It's a restaurant, not a cafe/bar, but you can totally go and just have beer and good chocolate cake.

The weather is actually nice (for once) and we want to sit outside!

Then go to...

Lumiere (Gongguan)

Owned by, and around the corner from, Cafe Odeon, this cafe focuses more on tea and coffee but there is a small selection of wine and beer available.

Pros: great terrace for sitting outside, with plugs and wifi! Plugs and wifi inside and out, lots of seats, never full. Food is not "good" but if you are there and find you are starving but don't want to leave, it's not atrocious.

Cons: beer selection minimal, seats not really comfortable, tables tend to wobble

Red House Shida (above)

Roxy Junior Cafe (above)

Mountain Tea House (Maokong)
Take the Gondola to Maokong Station, exit and turn left, walk past the initial development and first group of teahouses, through a more forested area and you will come across another group of teahouses including this one (same structure as Redwood - 紅木 -Tea House but upstairs...upstairs turn left and go all the way up to the balcony).

You weren't expecting that, were you? Hahaaaa, I surprise again!

Yes, this is a teahouse, and yes, they specialize in tea...but the balcony is outside, the view is spectacular and they DO have Taiwan Beer in large bottles. So you can theoretically come up here just to drink a few Taiwan Beers and enjoy the view.

Pros: Amazing view, outside terrace, cute dog, inside is also attractive if it gets cold, food is great (get the lemon diced chicken, the mountain pig, the three cup mushroom, the sweet potato leaves, the "hong shao" tofu...all of it really delicious).

Cons: yes, it's a teahouse. But they have beer! I swear!

I will also add, grudgingly, Vino Vino to this list. The food is kind of atrocious (I actually liked the salmon fried rice I had the one time I ate there, but the set meal was a joke and nobody else who's been there and told me about it has liked it) but they have a brilliant wooden balcony looking out over the most interesting part of Shida Road and their house wine is not bad at all. Just don't eat there - eat elsewhere and come here afterwards for a bottle of house wine.

Faust (above)

Alley Cat - Huashan, Zhishan or Songren Road. Yongkang Street location has no outdoor seating.

Places I have heard good things about but haven't had the chance to try yet:

- Taiwan Beer Factory (I know, it's a tragedy that I haven't been here yet)
- Artist's Village - there's a bar here
- Insomnia (Shida - near My Sweetie Pie and Grandma Nitti's)
- Cafe La Boheme (on Wenzhou Street closer to Xinhai)
- Le Ble D'Or (microbrewery that I have heard a lot about and never been able to find - need to try harder)
- Belly Wash (next to Cafe Odeon in Gongguan, looks funky)
- That grungy student place down the road from Shida's MTC - the one next above the traditional medicine shop in that row of old shophouses.
- the bar down by Taipei Water Museum (if it's still there) - looks like it's got a huge outdoor seating area

Anyone who has been to these is very welcome to let me know in the comments and I'll check them out - I keep planning to!

I Grudgingly Accept That This Place Has Good Beer:

It's just that when we went it was all old paunchy dorky white guys dancing with local girls wearing glitter bikini tops and cowboy hats and it made me so sad because that's not my scene at all - I actively avoid that stuff. So it's too bad that their beer and cider are pretty good.

Places that should have good drinking options but, as far as I can see, don't:

- Taipei Main Station
- Zhongshan
- Yongkang Street
- Shilin Night Market / Jiantan

Tianmu: I am sure there are great places to go out in Tianmu. It's just that I live on the other end of the city so I've never really felt the pull of trying to find them. I live a bit south of Gongguan so chances to go out in Tianmu are few and far between.

If you have a good suggestion for the kinds of places I've listed above in Tianmu or the above "unknown" locations, please do leave them in the comments. I am always open to suggestions!

Soon: a list of places to drink coffee, tea or other refreshments that is not alcohol-focused as a whole (I'll cover Cafe Goethe, People Say which I've just discovered is actually called "Drop", Black Bean Coffee and a few others).


Kevin said...

Zero comments??? What the 'ell? Thanks for putting this together. I'm at Carnegie's at the moment wanting to inflict pain on the sot next to me and the person who told me they had 150 beers here. That's true if you put a decimal point after 5. This blows, though I'll grant kudos to them on the burger. Heading to Odeon in 10. I've one more beery night here so if you would be interested in a beer, tweet @KevinRevolinski or see for email or FB!

Kevin said...

Zero comments?? What the 'ell? Thanks for rounding this up. I'm sitting at Carnegie's wanting to inflict pain/curses on the sot next to me and the person who told me they had 150 beers. That'd be right with a decimal point. This place blows, though I'll grant they make a damn nice burger. I'm off to Odeon. In town for one more beery night and would love to meet you and your husband for a beer. Cat too if It's into that sort of thing. Tweet @KevinRevolinski or check my site for email, FB if you're free and thirsty.