It is a tribute to one of America's most enduring TV shows. A Hollywood invention transformed into real-life hotspots offering fans coffee with a shot of nostalgia. Dubai has one. So did London.
Now, Beijing joins the list of international cities with a replica of Central Perk, the fictional cafe and favorite hangout of characters Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler and Monica from NBC's hit sitcom "Friends."
Located on the sixth floor of an office building in Beijing's Central Business District, the cafe unabashedly embraces its theme. Although a sign outside the shop reads "PISCES Coffee," the Central Perk logo, with its orange-white lettering and duo of coffee cups, is splashed across the storefront window.
Inside, customers can lounge on the characters' beloved orange couch, be served by "Rachels" and "Joeys," drink from the signature oversized coffee mugs and watch old episodes on a giant TV screen.
Central Perk Beijing is the self-funded project of businessman Du Xin. He began watching the sitcom in 2004, the year of its 10th and final season. Going through a tough, romantic break-up at the time, Du was inspired by the show's optimistic message. He hoped to find a coffee shop like Central Perk where he could meet with friends. After failing to find a suitable match, Du decided to open his own.
"I was very touched by the relationships in the show," he said. "By opening this cafe, I hope to offer a place where customers can appreciate and share the characters' trust, friendship and support for one another, no matter what the outside world is like."
To reproduce Central Perk's original set as faithfully as possible, Du collected and studied photos online and worked with designers to customize every piece of furniture. He began the project in November. After five months, the coffee shop was ready for business.
"At first, very few people knew about the place, so the cafe was often empty," Du said. "It took about a month for business to pick up. Once word spread, more and more people came."
Early customers were college students who, like Du, were big fans of the show. After visiting, they publicized the cafe on campus bulletins and online forums. Before long, Du's coffee shop became a viral sensation.
Li Cheng, a student at Capital Normal University, visited after reading about the cafe online.
"The place is a bit cramped but I really like it," Li said. "It's perfect for meeting with a small group of friends."
Liu Ke, a high school friend of Li's, also gave his stamp of approval. "From certain angles, this cafe really looks like the one in the TV show," he said. "I will definitely be coming back."
As its popularity grew, the coffee shop attracted office workers and foreign tourists in addition to its student clientele. Customers affectionately call Du "Gunther," after Central Perk's fictional manager. Unlike his peroxide-blonde, tie-wearing namesake, Du adopts a more casual style, running the cafe in a baseball cap and T-shirt. Despite the differences, he embraces his nickname.
"It's fitting, since I am this cafe's owner and I enjoy serving people," he said. "In my opinion, Gunther's very serious and cool, so I don't mind embodying his persona."
Although Du is the coffee shop's only full-time staff member, he recruited plenty of help after hosting a "Looking for Rachel" event. Named after the "Friends" character who had a brief stint as a Central Perk waitress on the show, the event invited participants to try waitressing for a day. With 400 people registered, Du is going down the list and letting each volunteer have a turn.
Zheng Yahewa, a student at Beijing Jiaotong University, is one of the volunteers. Sporting a "Joey" nametag, she said, "I'm a fan of the show, so my friend and I both decided to participate in the event. Like me, most servers here are college students who are taking time out of their summer break to help out."
The success of his cafe has caught Du by surprise and strengthened his resolve to keep the business open.
"At first, I thought of the café e as a dream, a side hobby, rather than a way to make a living," he said. "I never thought I'd get so much support. I was doing it to fulfill a personal dream. Now I realize how this dream can reach out to other people, so I'm working toward making it even better. I hope to keep running this place for as long as possible."
With the popularity of the "Rachel" event, Du will kick off "Looking for Phoebe" in August. Participants will perform one of Phoebe's signature, humorous songs from the show, as well as an original song of their own. Du also hopes to start a monthly book club.
"The goal is to liven up the place," he said, "and make this cafe truly welcoming and unforgettable."