Alongside the flashy glitz of moneyed Sanlitun, a mecca of consumerism for the city’s wealthiest, Beijing is developing a booming art scene, gorgeous boutiques and heavenly food, often hidden in the Gulou, the neighborhood around the Drum tower in the heart of the old city. The area is gentrifying, and though that has its downside—like rising rents that push out locals—the changes have been piecemeal, and the neighborhood retains its charms while attracting visitors with cocktail lounges, trendy restaurants, and boutique hotels. Converted courtyards and renovated hutong houses have turned into some of the city’s most fashionable hotspots.
Located in a hidden courtyard house once home to the last empress and tucked away in Mao’er hutong, boutique shop Wuhao is filled with curated furniture, jewelry and clothing by Asian and international designers. Nearby is recently opened Ink, a Hong Kong import that stocks cutting-edge menswear. Austria-based architect Thomas Pucher is behind the inventive hutong space, transformed with suspended rails and a gallery, which can showcase new collections and crossover projects with local artists as well as host private parties.
On the hospitality side, bespoke hotels like 3+1 Bedrooms, Temple Hotel and The Orchid have raised the bar for boutique destinations in the city. 3+1 Bedrooms offers cool, minimal interiors, private patios with lush bamboo, and a rooftop terrace with views over Old Beijing. Tucked away down the narrowest of alleyways, the tiny Orchid is the work of a young Hong Kong architect, a Canadian tea expert, and a Tibetan-born Chinese woman, who imbued a derelict old hutong home with style, comfort and luxury.
Temple Hotel is a heady mix of art gallery, restaurant, hotel and cultural curiosity that can’t be quite defined. Built during the Ming Dynasty as an imperial printing house for Buddhist sutras, the complex later became the residence of one of the most important religious authorities of the Qing Emperors—then abruptly transitioned into a TV factory during the Cultural Revolution. It sprawls over a city block just yards away from the fabled Forbidden City. Its latest reincarnation, led by Australian firm Hassell, features an installation by artist James Turrell and works by designer Ingo Maurer within its courtyards and pavilions, not to mention one of the most exciting restaurants in town, TRB. Inside the restaurant, a wall of windows allows diners to gaze into the renovated courtyard. Blending old and new, it has preserved the original stone archway and wooden beams and while adding sleek contemporary furnishings.
A vibrant dining scene is also one of Beijing’s most remarkable and evolving features. China’s capital has recently drawn quite a few international names from the gastronomy world, including Daniel Boulud, Yannick Alleno, and chef Nobu Matsuhisa. The mix got a lot hotter this past winter, when The Courtyard, a venerable restaurant located along the Forbidden City’s moat, was relaunched as Brian McKenna @ The Courtyard. Best known for molecular gastronomy, British-born chef Brian McKenna made his name in the U.K. at Le Poussin at Parkhill and moved to Beijing in 2007. For his first namesake restaurant, McKenna has teamed up with luxury developer Handel Lee, who opened the original Courtyard back in 1997, and hired Graft to revamp the space.
Together they have morphed the space into something more akin to an exclusive private dining room, albeit one without an ounce of pretention. Brian McKenna @ The Courtyard has only nine tables, and offers diners views over the water and old City walls, which are illuminated at night. In contrast to the ancient setting, the sleek interior effortlessly weaves together old and new with ample use of brass and an oversize photography of the Forbidden City occupying most of the restaurant’s back wall.