On any given day, there are usually a few people from my team, my wife’s team, or a team I work closely with visiting Beijing. When asked about good places to hang out and eat or drink, I always recommend A-Che Cuban Restaurant in Beijing’s embassy district. I have been several times, and go at least once on any trip there.
Now, I don’t normally eat at western places while in China. In fact, I eat mostly Chinese food here in the U.S., since that’s what my wife prefers. But sometimes I need something comfortable and familiar. There are plenty of western-themed restaurants and western chains in Beijing, but they are often so different in taste, presentation, and atmosphere that you don’t really feel at home. A-Che, on the other hand, gets all the details right.
This isn’t to say that A-Che is purely a restaurant for westerners. The restaurant is themed on Che Guevara, the Cuban revolutionary, who is a sort of cult hero in Beijing. One of the big photos on the wall shows Che looking at you down the barrel of a gun. On the streets of Beijing you can find images of Che being used in advertisements for China Mobile, T-Shirts and party fliers. Che is seen as a “non-American” western influence who is “safer” to the ruling class seeking westernizing influence. The elementary school in the government district where many officials send their kids has been known as the “China-Cuba Friendship School” for decades. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the children of America’s ruling class also need a cult hero who is edgy and anti-conservative. So you see plenty of ivy league white kids visiting Beijing proudly wearing their Che T-Shirts, too.
But it’s definitely not a “fake western food for Chinese people” restaurant. Chinese people who visit for the Che mania get authentic western food and western atmosphere. Since it’s located in the district with all of the embassies, about 50% of the customers are foreigners; and the Chinese who seem to be regulars are generally people who deal with foreigners or travel a lot. There is always staff on hand who speak Chinese, English, and Spanish. Only the bartender and chef speak Spanish, the waitstaff speak English and Chinese. The other foreigners who come usually speak English.
Proper western food in Beijing can be hard to find. My daughter is a finicky eater, so I have spent countless hours in random grocery stores looking for milk that tastes the same as here, or sliced cheese singles that taste right, and so on. One of the more faithful chains in China is Pizza Hut (there is one across from A-Che), but even there the food is wrong. She’ll eat the cheese pizza, but only if she’s starved. The chefs at A-Che are Cuban, but the food tastes like any that you’d get at a nice beachside restaurant in Miami or any other Caribbean place in the U.S.
I’ve had the chicken, pork, and lamb chops. It’s good, safe comfort food. I’ve also had the Rapa Vieja and Paella, both good safe choices if you like Cuban food. And as silly as it sounds, my daughter likes A-Che because they have a wide range of foreign staples including the sliced cheese singles.
Again, I’ve gotten drunk on every kind of Chinese liquor, but sometimes you want something that feels like home. The wine choices in the local groceries stores can be truly nasty, and good luck getting anything stronger that tastes comfortable. A-Che has a good selection of western wines and hard liquor, including good tequila and port. They have all of the standard cocktails you’d expect at a Cuban place. They get an A+ for stocking good, familiar western alcohol. The mojitos are OK, but I like the pisco sours better. I don’t think they have a wide selection of western beers on tap.
Upscale restaurants in China often look like huge palaces or mausoleums (even the Pizza Hut looks ostentatiously grandiose) and make you feel like you can’t just kick back and relax. The other end of the spectrum is places that look like fast-food chains, or worse, dives. It’s really hard to find a place that looks like an American upscale restaurant. A-Che has a really warm feel, with bright earthy colors, stucco and tile interior, and solid wood furniture. The table tops are thick slabs of wood, polished glowing and smooth (unless you’ve been to Beijing, you won’t realize how American that feels). The walls are covered with pictures of Che and his friends being idyllic, and with artwork from various artists using bright Gaugin-esque colors and themes. It’s really refreshing to be in a place that isn’t red fabric, gold trim, and black lacquer.
They have music and dancing some nights (I’ve only been there one night during a dancing time, and only a few people were dancing). They sometimes run Cuban music videos and music as well. The atmosphere is usually a mix of large groups of people and couples getting dinner.
With larger groups, I’ve appreciated that they don’t rush us. Normally with large groups, the restaurants have a two-tier system. You either get a private room, and take as long as you want; or you get a big table and get rushed and harried. A-Che is more western, in that you can get 10 people around a big (square!) wood table and socialize while soaking in the environment and art. They have free wi-fi, though I’ve only used it once.
The restaurant is open from 11AM to 1AM. It’s near the embassy district, so I recommend going there if you’re planning to go shopping for foreign staples nearby. It’s also ideal if you’re in town with a large group of people who want to hang out in leisurely western-style comfort. To get there, you can print out the map and give it to the taxi driver.
This is my first review using hReview microformat. I’ll be posting more reviews using this format, so they can be repurposed in other places more easily.