I’ve had a lot of opportunities lately to work remotely and find myself hitting the Sanlitun Village area often. Since there are quite a few locations here to sit, eat, and use free wi-fi, I’ve become a frequent visitor to many of them. For those of you looking for the right place to work during the day, I present my very biased and personal reviews of each location. For the record, these are ranked by how often you can find me at one of these locations.
Best of the Best
I probably deserve an award for the amount of time I spend at Blue Frog. It’s not going to fit everyone’s style, but for me, it seems be my destination of choice more often than not. Of all the places I’ve been, their wi-fi connection has been the most reliable, with routers dedicated to each of their two floors. The amount of natural lighting is fantastic, which makes the place feel more open than it actually is. During the day, there are normally enough tables to use, but some are better than others. The big table on the north side is fantastic if you have a group, since the power plugs are built right into it. If you’re hungry, the food here is above-average, even if a tad expensive. However, their lunch special options (around 50RMB) are getting better, thanks to the local competition. If you’re a drinker, unlike me, you’ll find their Happy Hour at 4pm to your liking. The staff here is typically friendly and hard-working, should you have any issues.
The downside is that Blue Frog is not really built for working…it is well…an eating establishment, which makes some tables a bit cumbersome to work from. Worse, the best table is in the smoking section, so you may have to deal with the random cigar-smoking patron from time to time. None of these are Blue Frog’s fault, just an observation. They can control the music volume though. Whoever runs the boards, tends to like the music loud, even when there are only a few customers around. This can be a pain if you’re trying to concentrate or listen to your own music.
Of all the places in the Village, Union Bar and Grille has the strongest reputation for their work environment. For me, it’s pretty solid. The wi-fi is almost as solid as Blue Frog and their offering of unlimited iced-tea is hard to pass up. For some reason, they don’t get as many customers as other places, so it’s usually easy to get one of the better seats here. On a normal day, you’ll notice other remote workers floating around. Some of them have gone so far as to almost set-up a full office. With the way Union is set-up, it’s a perfect place to camp out, but then jump around the corner to another table if you need to have a more private meeting.
Don’t plan on eating here, the food leaves a lot to be desired. The one exception are their desserts, which should be avoided unless you enjoy your waist and wallet taking big hits. Their chocolate cake is awesome, but it’s just too big of a temptation for me to be there daily. As I mentioned, the wi-fi is fairly solid, but I have noticed some problems with the use of iPhone apps that require a network connection; some work and some don’t. I don’t know the cause, just be warned. The staff here is ok, but there a few bad eggs that just don’t seem to care. And if you’re someone like me who needs light, Union might be a bit dark for you. The dark can help keep you focused at times, but when you leave, you suddenly realize that you’ve been working in a cave.
Fisheye is a newcomer to the Village scene, but has definitely made its mark. You’re either going to love or hate this place, I’m not sure there is a middle-ground. As you can tell, I like natural light and these guys have it. With the decor being so “bright”, you’ll definitely feel as though you’re in a cloud at times. The wifi here is also really good. And while there aren’t a lot of power outlets in the wall, the management has realized who its customers are and have brought out some power cables to expand the number of available outlets. The location is smaller than many other Village locations, but it’s laid out fairly well for working. They also have a nice, large table in the center perfect if you need to bring in multiple people to work. And while this may be a personal thing, I like the ratio of seat height to table height better than any other location. And since this is a dedicated coffee-shop, you’ll see they take pride in their use of Ritual Coffee. I’m no coffee expert, but the fact that they give you small cupcake (from Lollipop) with your coffee is a nice touch. It hits the spot for that post-lunch sugar craving I usually have. Fisheye is definitely climbing up the ranks with me, possibly taking over Union.
I will say though if you like the variety of coffee options you find at a place like Starbucks, then Fisheye may not be for you. Their drink list is fairly limited. I’m listing that as a personal weakness, although the management here may be reducing their options on purpose. And as I said, you may just hate the color scheme here. I know some that just refuse to walk in this place with me due to over-use of white and blue. And even though I like the chair-table height ratio, I have to admit their seats are a bit uncomfortable after a while. And lastly, they use a registration system for their wi-fi that while not as annoying as some, still adds one little extra step to the process. It’s forgivable, as long as they don’t make it more complicated in the future.
This sandwich, soup, and salad place is also a growing favorite of mine primarily due to their reasonable lunch options. It’s just too easy to grab a bite here and then settle down into some work. Of all the places, I think this one really tried to cater to the afternoon Village worker. The wi-fi works, the food options are there, and the tables are arranged in such a way to make working for groups and individuals easier. Even the design of the place, which is kind of bare, seems to tuned in to working. I’m starting to see more and more remote workers camp out over here. I suspect the networking possibilities here will begin to exceed Union’s soon.
The main problem I have with this place will hopefully get ironed out over time. Other than the managers, the staff just lacks any real engagement with the customer. I’ve seen them botch up quite a few orders over the past few months and generally don’t go out of their way to make their customers happy. I’m not even going to let myself start my “why can’t I switch my Coke for an iced tea” rant here…
Best to Avoid
I know what you’re saying, “How could I put Starbucks in a list of places to avoid?” Well, it’s simple. The place is a foot-traffic monster that makes it difficult to stay focused, much less find a seat conducive to working. And if you do find a place to sit, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a power outlet to use, which means you’ll be constantly worried more about your battery conservation than your work. And even when you get all set-up, you’ll need to go through a ridiculous wi-fi registration process that requires you to put in your mobile phone number to get a password. That’s right, good luck travelers without Chinese mobile numbers! And then once you get online, you’ll discover it’s slow…molasses slow. If you’re a frequent VPN user, you’ll find yourself borderline insane by the quality of their connection. There have also been a few instances where their connection didn’t work with Apple products, which is almost a cardinal sin if you see what the majority of expats are carrying nowadays. Overall, it’s just not worth it.
But on a positive note, it is Starbucks. So if you’re looking for a place to do a meeting where you can get a cup of coffee that reasonably meets your expectations, then why not come here? And of all the places in the Village, it’s prime people watching territory, which makes for a great diversion when you do actually need a break from your work. Sadly though, these just aren’t enough for me to consistently visit.
I don’t really want to knock on Element Fresh, I enjoy their food and the general atmosphere of their restaurant. It’s a great place to grab a meal with friends. However, this is not a working environment place. The wi-fi is almost as bad as Starbucks and they also suffer from a lack of power outlets. It’s not their fault, I know. They’re just being a restaurant…and that’s ok. It’s just not a place I can recommend for working.
COLD STONE CREAMERY
Now how awesome is an ice cream shop for a working environment? Well, it’s pretty awesome if you actually want some ice cream. They even have wi-fi! Well…I mean…they have wi-fi when someone remembers to turn it on and get it working properly. Most of the time I can’t find it and even when I do, it’s hardly usable. I find myself stealing wi-fi from Olas restaurant next to it. I’d really love to work here one day, but they need to get the basics right first.
Needs More Investigation
I just recently re-discovered this place. I’ve always enjoyed their food, especially the salads. I’ll have to do some afternoon camp outs here and report back on this one. They do have wi-fi, so it looks promising. I just hope they fix their nice, but wobbly tables.
I’ve honestly only been here once. I’ve heard good things about it, but primarily from Chinese friends, which could be indication of the clientele. That’s not a bad thing, but if you’re looking for more foreign expats, this may not be the right place.
I only know about this place due to the guys I’ve been working with over at Let’s Powwow. That’s right, a location-based startup who enjoys going to Sweetmap…get it, get it?!? Anyway, I need try this place a bit more before I can give it a real review. It could be a potential contender, despite their overly “sweet” decorations.