It is apropos that a hotel with the past of the Raffles Beijing Hotel, which dates back to 1917, would be just a stone's throw from some of Beijing's most historic sites, including the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. It was at a banquet in the hotel, after all, where Chairman Mao Zedong celebrated the inauguration of the People's Republic of China in 1949.
But even before that, the Grand Hotel de Peking, as it was called in its early days, served as a major venue of social contact for Chinese and foreign dignitaries and was the preferred address for gourmet parties, concerts and dances. Over the years diplomats and debutants danced through star-studded nights on the roof terrace overlooking the Forbidden City while celebrities and socialites enjoyed culinary delights under vaulted ceilings.
Since the 1930s the hotel's Writers Bar has been popular with ambassadors and journalists. Located on the ground floor and across from Jaan, Beijing's premier French restaurant, the watering hole honors the many Chinese and foreign literary luminaries who have sailed through the hotel's brass-edged doors. George Bernard Shaw, journalist Edgar Snow, Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore and Chinese novelist Guo Morou are just some of the VIPs to reside at, visit or write about the hotel.
With a capacity of only 33, Writers Bar is intimate yet not cramped thanks to extraordinarily high ceilings and great spacing between tables. Vaulted arches, such as one would expect to find in Italy, and recessed lighting add character, while marble floors, columns and bronze sconces exude elegance. Black-and-white framed photographs hang on the walls and show Mao meeting the chairman of the Foreign Ministry of Poland and his wife in 1959, Premier Zhou Enlai hosting a banquet for Chairman Hu Zhiming of Vietnam and other historic events at the hotel.
A mélange of light snacks are offered in the afternoon, but in the evening the space is transformed into a connoisseur's haven where caviar and oysters complement the wide selection of cocktails and cigars. Cohiba Espléndidos ($54), Cohiba Robustos ($50), Cohiba Siglo VIs ($46), Romeo y Julieta Churchills ($35), Montecristo No. 2s ($34) and Partagas Serie D No. 4s ($28) are among the choices. The menu goes so far as to offer cigar and spirit pairings, including Hennessy Paradis with a Cohiba Robusto ($109), Lagavulin 16 with a Cohiba Siglo IV ($80), Laphroaig 10 with a Montecristo No. 4 ($39), Johnnie Walker Blue Label with a Punch Punch ($51) and Chivas Regal Royal Salute with a Romeo y Julieta No. 3 ($36).
I savor the aroma of two Juan Lopez Selección No. 2s smoked by gentlemen near me as I peruse the extensive cocktail menu in hopes of finding something new to whet my whistle. Crushed and muddled drinks are divided from frozen drinks. I scour the drink menu and despite the fantastic wine selection of more than 100 different offerings -- including 10 reds and eight whites by the glass -- I opt for a Champagne Mojito since it combines two of my favorite beverages. The list of bites, which range from $11 to $23, includes not only fresh oysters and caviar but also mini beef burgers with arugula and mustard, grilled ham and cheese sandwiches with pickles and crispy fries, and pizza. I normally wouldn't pair a Champagne Mojito with a margherita pizza, but that's exactly what I did -- with no regrets. The pizza, with tomato, fresh mozzarella and fresh basil, is the most popular dish at Writers Bar and for good reason. I don't say that lightly as I lived in Italy for two years and am quite picky when it comes to pizza. Not only did eating this one bring back fond memories of my time spent along the Amalfi Coast, but the crust was thin enough to pass muster in Naples.
The only thing missing was music and that's because I visited early in the week. A jazz band entertains on Friday and Saturday nights. Raffles isn't a place for the young and trendy, but instead caters to well-heeled foreign businessmen. A 12-month restoration brought back the grandeur to the 171-room hotel, which reopened on June 27, 2006. A local post office is gone, but in its place is an outpost of Le Cigare, which features cigars from Cuba, Germany and other countries; accessories, including Dunhill cutters; and a tastefully decorated room with a Cognac-colored divan and chairs, storage lockers and Cigar Aficionado for your reading pleasure. Two sanctuaries for cigar lovers under one roof.
Raffles Beijing Hotel
33 East Chang An Avenue
Beijing, People's Republic of China
Phone: (86 10) 6526 3388
Open daily, noon to midnight
Go to Cigar Bar Central.