Bianshang Café is one of those places to wit, another independently owned and operated java boutique overflowing with wannabe bohemian cute and sustained mainly by friends and friends-of. Meow. That's rough. But let's go through the list together: 1. Young, hopelessly adorable, artsy female owner with a fondness for international travel and self-portraiture. 2. Sofas, cushions, pillows, and the kind of upholstery favoured by cats and those with mild Asberger check. 3. Shelves lined with random books which are arranged according to no discernable logic. 4. Framed Robert Doisneau poster. 5. Exposed timbers, dried floral arrangements, a broken clock, and souvenirs which are too quick to announce their provenance and so on. All of this has been done before (Jiming Café, Hanyan Café, Muma Café, etc.), and in 2014 places like Bianshang Café simply aren't as original or intriguing as they were when both a taste for coffee and café-culture were just beginning to percolate into TeaTown. Some of us remember all too well when C-Straits (nee ShangDao Kafei) and their knock-offs (e.g., Boss Café, West Huancheng Road/Tuyuchang Road) were the only games in town, and we were forced to get our caffeine fix from little packets of Nescafe or cans of Coke. To now have a dozen or so Starbucks and as many or more little café's dotting the Hangzhou cityscape is terrific, if occasionally surreal. Bianshang Café might be as original as a Taylor Swift tune, but we welcome them to the scene.
Price-wise, Bianshang's coffee is right about where it should be: Cappuccino: 35RMB; Americano: 30RMB; Espresso: 25RMB/28RMB (single/double)
They have some single-origin brews on the menu (48-88RMB), and a temping. Pirates of the Caribbean concoction (coffee, Baileys, Kahlua) for 35RMB. Milk teas (22-32RMB), teas-proper by the pot (48-68RMB), and fruit/herbal infusions (58-68RMB) cover the first few leaves of a menu that covers 17 singled-side pages of thick brown cardstock.
We'd not come here for the cocktails, but if you're so inclined Gin Tonic: 48RMB; Mojito: 58RMB ; Long Island Iced Tea: 68RMB
Twenty for a bottle of Bud and thirty for a Corona is, again, the going rate for beers in Hangzhou's indie Café, and one of those might go nicely with one of their many, many dishes -- and this is where things start to get interesting.
Bianshang's menu advertises pastas, risotto, pizza, rice dishes and noodle dishes (36-50RMB), and snacks that include a bacon and egg roll (32RMB) and both club and tuna sandwiches (42RMB). The display case on the ground floor (there are four floors in all) seems most often to be filled with daintyish cupcakes wearing rich, swirly coats of bright-colored frosting and sprinkles (15RMB), but the desert list (10 items) includes cheese cake (32RMB) and tiramisu (38RMB).
All of this is terribly ambitious, and based on our experience with a single cupcake, a cappuccino, and a latte, we suspect that anything that comes out of the kitchen is pretty good no better, no worse. We'll be back throughout January to falsify that hypothesis.
There are, however, a few things about Bianshang Café that would sustain our interest in it even if we didn't live 50 meters away from their front door. To begin with, while lots of the city McBoutique Café's try to give patrons that warm, lived-in feeling, Bianshang actually succeeds in being genuinely cozy. The building of which it is a part, on the east side of Middle Zhongshan Road, clearly has a bit of history to it, and the weathered, seasoned, story-to-tell feel is the real deal.
The owner isn't stingy with the air conditioning, either. We've been there three times, mid- or late-afternoon, and it is exactly was warm as it needs to be --- not sweltering, not chilly, but (as Goldilocks once said) just right. Despite our catty remarks about the books and the prints, the souvenirs, and the yardsale-grade appointments, Bianshang is a very pleasant and hospitable venue, contrived though it may be. This delightful cozy/quiet is not always the case when there are other patrons cackling away or slapping down playing cards as if they were in a noisy saloon; but when it's empty, or when the fellow guests are civilized, Bianshang is damned charming. If Muma Café has the proportions of a villa, Bianshang has those of a narrow four-story attic.
The prices themselves are unlikely to be a specific draw for anyone, but we were thrilled to see that they'll part with a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc for 168RMB, or a bottle of Chilean Merlot for 180RMB. That still might be twice wholesale (or maybe not), but it is a very consumer-friendly mark-up nonetheless. These are unlikely to be great wines, but that's less relevant than the fact that 180RMB wouldn't get you much more than two cocktails at one of Hangzhou's pricier clubs or lounges.
There's not much to attract one specifically to this block (see below), although both Borox Salad and a branch of Wall Street English are further up Middle Zhongshan Road, on the opposite side of the Qingchun Road intersection. But if you're looking for an out-of-the-way place for a quiet (clandestine?) date, or a relaxed natter with close friends, you could do much worse than Bianshang. The little alcove on level two (of four) with a futon mattress on the floor and pillows would be a great place for a nap, and we just might give it a try very soon perhaps after draining a bottle of Merlot and having a sugar-crash after a few cupcakes.
ADDRESS: 530 Middle Zhongshan Road. Bianshang is fifty or fewer meters from the intersection of Qingchun Road and Middle Zhongshan Road. If you've turned right onto Middle Zhongshan Road from Qingchun (doing so will take you by the entrance to Hangzhou's oldest and most infamous disco/KTV, Jinbi Huihuang), Bianshang is on your left (East) side. It is ten meters or so down from a 85-Degree bakery, same side of the street, or if it helps, there is a Kedi convenient store opposite it (West side of Middle Zhongshan Road). The stretch of Middle Zhongshan Road running between Qingchun Road and Pinghai Road is mixed-residential and has a few hardware stores and a mix of low-end boutiques on it and shops punting odd-lots from garment factories and trade companies, but not too much to recommend it. There's a Chuanweiguan (opposite Jinbi Huihuang) on the Middle Zhongshan Road side of the intersection with Qingchun, and at the Pinghai Road corner (also East side of Middle Zhongshan Road) one of the most convenient and least-hurried places to buy railway/high-speed (高铁) tickets in the city. The Wushan Night Market is 100 yards away from the intersection of Pinghai Road and Middle Zhongshan Road.
SMOKING: Yes indeed, because nothing goes better with old wooden structures, dusty books, and plush fabric than cheap butane lighters and glowing Liquns.
WIFI: Yes password on tabletop cards.
WC: One gloriously clean little Western-style privy.
PARKING: Not going to happen, but the flow of people in and out of both Chuanweiguan and Jinbi Huihuang means the intersection of Middle Zhongshan Road and Qingchun Road are not the worst places in the city from which to hail a taxi. Ditto for the Metro Hotel (Middle Zhongshan Road and Pinghai Road).