Nightlife know-how

Updated: 2012-11-02 07:49

By Mark Graham (China Daily)

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Nightlife know-how

Leon Lee reckons you can open up a bar or restaurant in Beijing without being crippled by debt. Mark Graham / For China Daily

An american jack-of-all-trades is helping to bring a touch of New York to Beijing

Few people can boast a more eclectic curriculum vitae than Leon Lee. The Beijing-based American has been a chef, musician, bar proprietor, publicist, journalist, translator, arts-festival promoter and samba-dance-school operator.

Since coming to the city about eight years ago, initially to work with an arts festival, Lee has been a fixture in the capital's nightlife scene. He is best known for being associated with two legendary after-hours institutions, the now-defunct OT lounge, a jazz club, and Apothecary, a New York-style cocktail lounge that was originally launched with American chef Max Levy.

Apothecary is thriving, giving Lee the confidence to launch another New York-style operation recently, this time a New York-style wine bar, Veloce.

The new venture is located in one of the city's most characterful compounds, 1949-The Hidden City, where the former electronics-factory buildings now house bars and restaurants including the renowned Duck de Chine.

Next-door Veloce is a 60-seat bar that specializes in offering interesting or unusual wines, most of them sourced by the sommelier Krishna Hathaway, an American who was once in charge of cellars at the ultra-exclusive Aman resorts.

The bar is firmly aimed at oenophiles, widely traveled locals and resident expatriates willing to pay 350 yuan ($42) and up to ensure they are drinking a decent wine. The bar focuses on lesser-known wines from Italy and the Mediterranean, such as nerello mascelese from Mount Etna in Sicily.

Veloce's location, on the fringes of the main nightlife zone, Sanlitun, ensures plenty of passing trade, particularly on weekends when the area is thronged with thousands of young people.

"It is a really exciting wine list that is very international," Lee says. "We will have a minimum of 65 wines at all times and usually about 15 that can be ordered by the glass."

"Every Friday we will have a wine salon so people can try different styles. We wanted something that was unique and different and interesting.

"In Beijing there is burgeoning diversity in restaurant, bar and nightlife offerings, but there is still a lot of room for everything imaginable, as many niches at all price points are not being filled. It is a place where you can realize dream projects.

"As an entrepreneur, the barrier to entry as far as capital needed to open a restaurant or bar can be rather low. Service standards, business set-up, and pinpointing your target market may be more difficult than in some other markets, but in all, it is rather low risk in the sense that it isn't going to put you in debt for life."

The Californian has a record of launching pioneering nightlife operations in the city, starting with the OT lounge, which operated for only a year, in 2008, but is talked about to this day, particularly among jazz lovers.

"The owner had a bakery there, which was not working, and I was asked to turn it into something else, so I suggested a jazz club," Lee says.

"It allowed me to utilize all my skills; I had to train the bar staff, design the drinks, set prices, curate the music, book the acts, and also promote and market the place."

Music has never been far from Lee's life. One of his first jobs was promoting rock bands in his native California: one group of musicians suggested he join the band, so Lee bought the cheapest instrument he could find, a flute, and quickly learned how to play.

The performing arts have also featured prominently in his time spent in Beijing. An early job was with a festival held in the 798 art zone that involved booking international acts.

Later, Lee founded SambAsia, a school dedicated to training people in the vigorous and colorfully costumed Brazilian dance form and Pentatonic workshop, dedicated to producing music and documentaries, with the China Daily journalist and musicologist Mu Qian.

Three years ago Lee decided the time was right to embark on an entrepreneurial career. Apothecary came about when Lee and Levy decided the time was right for a proper New York-style cocktail bar in the city.

The bar, located in the popular Nali Patio building, has a selection of classic American cocktails such as martinis, sidecars and screwdrivers.

Such is the attention to detail that Apothecary even has its own ice-making machinery where the water is slowly frozen over several days, ensuring that no bubbles appear in the finished cubes.

The Mad Men-style drinking spot is popular with locals and expatriates and has become something of a showcase for visitors of what an international city Beijing has become.

Lee, 40, is hoping that Veloce will likewise prove to be a landmark institution, a sophisticated wine bar equal to anything found in New York, Paris, London or Milan.

In addition to the nightlife operations, Lee is building up a hospitality-industry management company, dedicated to grooming the next generation of waiters, chefs and book-keepers. While working for a time at a lifestyle magazine, Lee developed strong views on what worked and what did not in the restaurant trade, and is now putting that knowledge to work.

"I think China is great because it is a fairly low threshold for you to realize some aspects of your dreams; if you want to do something it is easier to do it than in some developed countries; it is less capital involved."

"But a lot of the processes are more complex and the risks are higher."

China Daily

(China Daily 11/02/2012 page21)