IT'S FRIDAY NIGHT in Beijing; the chill-out music is on low, as are the lights, and the beautiful people are out in force at the capital's latest hot spot, LAN. Part club, part restaurant, part must-see destination for design buffs, it has quickly become the place to get dressed up for when night falls. The cavernous 6,000 sq ft, 200-million yuan project with Philippe Starck-designed interior opened just last month, but is already attracting a selective clientele. The French designer's first project on the mainland has teamed him with Zhang Lan, owner of the South Beauty restaurant chain and a regular on the mainland's list of richest people. Her new venture features 40 private dining rooms, some of which look like Mongolian yurts, lined with tapestries, quilts and lit by crystal chandeliers. Then there's the colonial-style cigar lounge, oyster bar and rococo nightclub area. 'This place is amazing,' says fashion designer Xiu Linlin, sipping her lychee martini at LAN with a group of stylish friends. 'I've never been anywhere like it.' Beijing nightlife was never like this. When night fell in the 1980s, the streets were deserted. Options for visitors were then limited to sanctioned opera and acrobatic shows, and overpriced and underwhelming hotel bars. Or they sought out Frank's Place, the first watering hole to open outside a hotel. The sports bar was demolished in 2004 to make way for hotels targeting the Olympics, but at the time it was an oasis for parched expats. 'There was literally nowhere else to go for a drink,' says its owner Frank Siegel. 'Back then, we only catered to expats and we could only accept FECs [foreign exchange certificates] as payment.' Siegel still runs bars in Beijing, his latest venture being a Texas-style barbecue restaurant. But his clientele nowadays is more diverse. 'It's important that we appeal to as many people as possible; we are in China, after all,' he says. Even a decade ago, Beijingers looked upon the bright lights of Shanghai and Hong Kong with envy. 'In the early 90s, there was the odd bar and karaoke, but that was it,' says club operator Henry Lee. The scene was also very segregated, says Alexandra Pearson, a long-time Beijing resident and owner of Bookworm, a cafe and English-language lending library. But the capital is catching up fast. Lee has opened three clubs in the past eight years. 'Nowadays, you see Chinese and foreigners together and you've got upscale bars, venues for live music, cheap bars, everything,' Pearson says. Driven by expats and well-to-do Chinese youth, its entertainment scene is as lively and varied as other aspects of Beijing life. Each district caters to a different clientele: Wudaokou, which mainly serves students, is cheap and cheerful; the neon and loud music in Sanlitun attracts young expats and those frantically trying to hold on to their youth; the beautiful Houhai area caters to well-to-do Chinese and tourists, and the traditional hutongs of Nan Luo Gu Xiang draw expats who prefer to relax over a cappuccino or glass of wine. Daisy Darvall, a DJ and nightlife editor at listings magazine Time Out, says it's a great time to be in the capital. 'Beijing used to be a few years behind the rest of the world in terms of quality and the range of destinations on offer, but recently it's become more of a scene to be reckoned with.' Big sums are being pumped into setting up exclusive clubs with international DJs. But there's no shortage of places catering to the estimated 50,000 foreign students in the capital to learn Putonghua. That variety is Beijing's strength, says Zhou Xiaoying, a recruitment consultant from Hong Kong on a one-year language course. 'Where else can you start a night at a place where drinks are less than 10 yuan, and then head to a luxurious martini bar a few doors away for a cocktail and dance?' Paul Eldon, a marketing manager for Harrow School who moved from Hong Kong five years ago, has noticed the changes. 'Every few weeks a superclub opens and draws top international DJs,' he says. 'The bar scene in Beijing still has a way to go to compete with Hong Kong, but it's less pretentious here.' Club and restaurant owners know they have to appeal to local and foreign residents. Wang Xiaofei, LAN executive director and Zhang's son, says: 'When we designed LAN, we made sure it contained aspects that would appeal to Chinese guests like private VIP rooms, while other areas like late-night dining were created with foreigners in mind.' But as the looming Olympics fuels new entertainment ventures, it has also snuffed out some older enclaves. The cluster of unpretentious bars in Sanlitun South Street - where parties often ran until dawn - was demolished two years ago. Though attributed to the drive to spruce up the area ahead of 2008, it remains deserted and rubble strewn. But nightlife regulars shrug off such ups and downs as typical of the city. 'There's a real evolutionary feel to Beijing,' says Lee. 'There used to be nothing; then eight years ago, you saw real clubs open, and now we have superclubs along the west of the Worker's Stadium. Eventually they will all get knocked down and we will all start again.' Meanwhile, stylish clubs and bars are mushrooming with a firm eye on the Olympics, when sportswear giants such as Nike and Adidas will be booking venues to host hospitality events. Still, some wonder if the new generation of swank venues are sustainable in a city where the average salary is still about 3,000 yuan. 'I think bar owners will fail if they try to replicate what works in Shanghai here,' says Jim Boyce, who runs a popular website on Beijing nightlife ( www.beijingboyce.com ). 'Locals put a big emphasis on value and don't believe in paying a lot for atmosphere.' At LAN, Wang insists the clientele is ready for venues such as his club. 'Beijing doesn't become an international city by having good roads or office buildings, but by having variety and style, like London or Paris,' he says. His home town is unique and LAN reflects that, he says. 'There is nowhere like this anywhere in the world.'