Most expats in Beijing have a favorite local neighborhood restaurant. Where I work, we have a place around the corner called The Green Umbrellas. Well, that's not really the name of the restaurant, but it's the unofficial name that a couple of colleagues and I christened the place when we discovered it ten years ago. It opened in the summer of 2000 at the beginning of Beijing's 'outdoor dining' craze, which has now become a summertime feature of many restaurants. This new place had a nice veranda with outdoor tables and big green umbrellas. To distinguish it from the other places in the area, we just started calling it The Green Umbrellas, and the name stuck (for us laowai, anyway).
The Green Umbrellas is a fairly typical neighborhood 'jiachang cai' (family style) restaurant — big round tables, a five-pound menu filled with glossy photos of all the dishes, a haze of cigarette smoke, and way too many wait staff. But the food is delicious, and that is what has kept us patronizing the place for ten years.
Whenever I have guests in town, I make sure to have at least one meal at The Green Umbrellas, and without exception, my guests tell me that the food eaten there was the best of their trip.
And that is why I was in The Green Umbrellas last night. Some friends had been visiting for a few days and wanted to eat there last night one more time before heading back to the States today. Since I never deny the wishes of my guests and never pass up a chance to eat at the Green Umbrellas, off we went.
Because last night was Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, the place was packed–mostly with young men drinking way too much beer and rice wine. At one table there were a few shirtless men displaying some very nasty tattoos. That, perhaps, should have been a tip-off that trouble was in the air.
We ordered the usual (gongbao jiding and ganbian doujiao — kungpao chicken and spicy green beans) and settled in, grateful for our seat right next to the door with it's access to a bit more fresh air.
We hadn't been eating long when the rumble broke out–over what we'll never know, but given the amount of alcohol that was being consumed, the what most likely has no relevance. Within seconds, the twenty or so diners at two big tables were going after each other. It was like something out of an Wild West movie — a saloon fight scene with fists, bottles, plates, and chairs being thrown. I kept waiting for someone to be hit over the head with a beer bottle and the words WHAM!! and POW!! to magically appear in the air.
Given that our table was right next to the door, we knew that the melee would eventually come our way, so, grabbing our backpacks, and keeping our heads down to avoid the flying saucers we fled the scene.
My friend ran as fast as she could to the street, but my curiosity got the better of me and I stopped on the veranda to watch the progress of the rumble through the window. I watched long enough to see one of the combatants land on our table — right in the gongbao jiding that I had been eating seconds earlier — then pick up the chair I had been sitting in and throw it across the room.
With our dinner obviously over, and the rumble now spilling onto the veranda, we high-tailed it out of there. I'll go back this afternoon to pay for the meal.
A full moon and alcohol obviously don't mix!