Why you should care
Because old and new coexist better with beer and kitsch.
Beijing is a contradiction. The bright lights of main Yonghegong Street give way, turn by turn, to a slower, almost rural pace. The theme of China’s capital city is juxtaposition of old and new: Shiny modernity cozies up shoulder-to-shoulder with the ancient East.
A short bike ride down winding hutongs from the tranquil Lama Temple finds you happily lost in a maze of side streets, where laundry flaps high above, little kids play card games on doorsteps and unidentifiable meat is skewered on sticks. Here, on Wudaoying Hutong, you will come upon a quaint little hipster dessert and coffee bar with an English sign: Nineteen Days.
Pushing open the door sets off a little welcoming tinkle of bells. Inside, it’s a bit dorm-esque, with retro furniture, an eclectic array of books left behind by patrons, the smell of strong coffee and a black cat in the window. But it’s also bright and cheery: Skylights and large windows turn the space into an indoor terrace. Above a large glass display of pastries and cakes is a fully stocked bar — including a boastful array of craft beers in tones of straw, honey, amber, gold and dark chocolate. I order a light jasmine beer, for 45 yuan renminbi (about $6.50). It’s refreshing and tastes a lot like jasmine tea, but with a tingly kick.
It’s Europe as seen through Chinese eyes, which feels kitsch and endearing, like a love letter to the West.
Just a few months ago the cafe, which opened in 2014, was the newest building in this alleyway by at least 75 years. Recently a glass-and-chrome Kitchen and Co. bar opened next door, making locals a little jittery about the influx of Western-style eateries in this area known as “five camps.” Like other Beijing cafes, Nineteen Days pays homage to Western pop culture, but it misses the mark somewhat. It’s Europe as seen through Chinese eyes, which feels kitsch and endearing, like a love letter to the West.
Still, it draws regulars like Lilley Mei, a student and tour guide, who likes to spend her study periods sitting at the table next to a mural of the Eiffel Tower, although she has never left Beijing. She comes here for her favorite chocolate cake, which she calls “very fashionable.”
The most popular items on the menu, written in Chinese and English script, are European coffees and teas, cakes, crepes and pastries with a distinctly European flavor. However, the biggest draw, according to my server, is the famous durian cheesecake — which he assures me is “very fresh” — for 40 yuan renminbi. If you’re not familiar with the stinky fruit, native to Malaysia and Indonesia, durian is known to smell of rotten onions or cabbage. The cheesecake might be a best-seller here, but I opt for a second drink instead, and order a rose latte from the ever-smiling girl behind the counter. Served with rose petals on top of the foam, the pretty drink tastes like rose water and milk.
And the name, Nineteen Days? One server said it was a secret; another said she didn’t know. With no web presence and an owner living possibly “in Taiwan,” the moniker remains a mystery. Just another endearing quirk of this West-embracing cafe in the middle of a traditional hutong teetering on the edge of change, where old and new still coexist. At least for now.