If there’s one thing we've learned from being in this gig, it's to not get too attached to your favourite bar, restaurant, livehouse or even jianbing cart here in Beijing. Even a copy of our mag from, say, 2016, might make for grim reading, so a stock-take of the 2008's go-to food, drink, arts and nightlife establishments would read more like folklore of a lost, boozy civilisation.
We got on the editorial ouija board to speak with Tom Pattinson, Time Out Beijing's editor at the time of the Olympics, to hear all about the venues that excited, the atmosphere around town, and that time our magazine got banned.
As the games drew closer, Beijing was in the throes of 'a facelift on a scale not seen since the beginning of the Yuan dynasty', Pattinson wrote in our August 2007 issue, and in the following year leading up, a glut of new restaurants, galleries, clubs and high-end hotels arrived on the scene. He describes it to us as a 'sweet spot' and 'one of the best periods in Beijing’s history, as the authorities opened up culturally'.
798's Ullen's Center for Contemporary Art
With the eyes of world turning to the city, and more and more visitors flocking in, the city was starting to become a place to be. Despite previous concerns over the 798 Art District’s future, it 'started to boom', with heavy-hitting galleries UCCA and Pace Beijing opening; elsewhere, new livehouses (including the beloved Mao Livehouse) and a new interest in the city’s music scene saw more big international acts come to play, among them Sonic Youth, and local label Maybe Mars began to make waves.
There was also an unprecedented demand for all things high-end. To cater for the games, a flurry of five-star hotels opened, bringing with them a string of new restaurants, bars and an exciting new dining concept – brunch. Perhaps the biggest name in dining was Qianmen's Maison Boulud (pictured below; closed in 2013), run by celebrated French chef Daniel Boulud, which Pattinson describes as having been the 'only place you'd need a reservation or might actually think about putting a jacket'.
As for the harder stuff, 'people were turning all sorts of places into these awesome clubs'. He reels off a list of nightlife spots that we'd never heard of – Rui Fu (a short-lived lounge next door to what is now Yugong Yishan) and Song Bar among them – though a few familiar names do pop up (Gongti megaclubs Mix and Cargo).
Gulou 'wasn’t much of a thing', though it was the 'beginning of Nanluoguxiang', while over in Sanlitun, 'The Opposite House dominated', with its underground bar Punk (now Jing Yaa Tang) the 'go-to', and the still-standing Mesh another leading light. 'Shitty bar street' also gets an honourable mention.
The exciting new nightlife spirit carried over into the games, as more and more visitors, Hollywood stars, distinguished guests and cashed-up sponsors descended on Beijing, and required worthy receptacles.
'I remember getting smashed with Carlton from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.'
'You'd be out dancing onstage with the Prince of Denmark, and Mike Tyson was in town; you'd be at an after party with David Schwimmer, or in the back of a taxi with two people who’d walked on the moon,' Pattinson, now a London-based writer and producer, tells us. 'I remember getting smashed with Carlton from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.' Over the phone, it sounds like there was some sort of Gatsby-esque roaring noughties vibe going on.
But in the final months before the Olympics, it hadn't all been fun and games, and Time Out Beijing was actually banned from distributing its June 2008 issue – perhaps our restaurant reviews were just too edgy?
Time Out Beijing's June 2008 issue – contraband.
'The media mood had actually become more relaxed in the few years before. We were allowed to interview normal people for the first time, for example,' Pattinson tells us. 'But as the games got closer, there was a bit of a minor panic and restrictions appeared. Officially, the ban was because of licensing and permit issues, but the timing was suspicious.' Normal service resumed the following month.
But beyond the high life of the Olympic era, Pattinson reflects on what was a period of significant change and progress in Beijing and China, notably in the outside world's perceptions. 'The government wanted the opening ceremony to be an announcement of "this is modern China, a force to be reckoned with", and it absolutely worked,' he says.
'Overnight, people's impressions of this old, backward, '70s Communist country, of people on bikes in Mao suits, instantly changed to those of a modern Asian superpower. This was the day the world woke up to China.'