Major public service announcement for you Gulou hipsters right here. I just found your new go-to, ace-in-the-hole, too-cool-for-Amilal, hutong hidden gem™ secret weapon. It's called SOS and it's so alley, it doesn't even have an address.
Layout is dead simple. Bar in the front, beer fridges in the back, three long tables in between to seat about 40 guests at a time. The atmosphere is the precise definition of what I'm sure someone somewhere has once called "hutong chic": exposed concrete floors, wall, and ceiling meeting in a bunch of Modernist right-angle clusters, painted with the standard blue-green wall stripe that every alleyway cafe north of Gulou Dong Dajie is mandated by zoning law to have. Wall decoration is sparse but well-placed, reflecting the aesthetic tastes of the bar's proprietor, Wang Ziheng.
I've known Ziheng for years, as he's been a regular performer in the weekly Zoomin' Night experimental music series since I started checking into that scene in 2010. At that time he was playing sax in a band called Ice Seller, which I'm mentioning here because, best fuckin' band name, and also this tune is an old favorite:
The vibe at SOS reflects its owner's background. Music is a major part of the experience. The playlist is "Wang Ziheng's brain on shuffle", moving freely between avant-garde Classical, free jazz, Pixies Greatest Hits, obscure Japanese psychedelic rock, and more, and more...
Booze focus at SOS is on higher-end beers. The three fridges in back are loaded with your standard assortment of Heaven-style imports, with the cheaper ones weeded out. Lots of brews with "Artisanal" printed on the label. If you're on a budget, your best bet is bottles of locally-made Panda (30rmb) or Master Gao (35rmb). From there it goes on up to the several-hundred-kuai range, cycling through rarer imports from Belgium, the US, Latin America, India, et al.
There's also a curated selection of top-shelf whiskeys — another zoning requirement for Gulou hutong bars, I think — and some light, finger-food snack selections. We really enjoyed the house-made Sangria (60rmb), which comes in this elegant little beaker and is best enjoyed sitting on SOS's surprisingly quiet rooftop terrace:
just another dazzling Beijing sunset
SOS soft-opened two weeks ago, and is still running in incognito mode for the most part. Ziheng opened it, in classic music-scene-bar-owner fashion, because he was tired of drinking at El Nido. At this writing, it's mostly a word-of-mouth, friends-and-family clientele consisting primarily of underground music scene figureheads, but the space and its staff are warm and welcoming, and I know your'e sick of how crowded Mai, The Other Place, and Amilal can get. New kid on the nameless block, SOS is a perfect alternative to the Gulou alternatives.
SOS is located in a nameless alley immediately west of the intersection of Xiaojingchang Hutong (the one with Noodle Inn and Dali Courtyard) and Gulou Dong Dajie. The sub-alley it's located in isn't even found on Google Maps, really, but you can get pretty close in the listing. Just keep your eyes peeled for these doors, and the SOS sign at the top of this article.