Ceremony even wows crowds not at stadium

Image: Olympics Opening Ceremony crowd
A crowd watches the Opening Ceremony on a large projection screen in a shopping mall in Sanlitun.Sunny Wu for MSNBC.com

The burritos were steaming out of the kitchen, rounds of Corona buckets and margaritas were being shuttled from the bar to thirsty imbibers and a giant red pepper was decorating the doorway. The scene could have been in any bar in New York's Upper West Side or San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter or Seattle's Belltown.

This bar, however, is in the middle of Sanlitun, in one of the busiest, trendiest nightlife areas in Beijing. The waiters speak little, if any, English — they understand the essential words, which are margarita, Corona and tequila.

The crowd was as international as a United Nations subcommittee. And Friday's Opening Ceremony of the Olympics was being projected on the neighboring building's wall.

This was a fiesta, and China had waited seven years for this moment. All across the city, people who couldn't score tickets to the Opening Ceremony positioned themselves for Beijing's ultimate coming-out party. Crowds gathered around one of the two dozen public viewing areas, families huddled around their televisions and taxi drivers who had to work listened to the radio broadcast.

At Saddle Cantina, it was an amalgamation of different countries and ethnic groups, a scene that would make IOC president Jacques Rogge proud. At one table sat a group of Americans. Across from them, a group from France. Next to the French, a trio of Spaniards. If that wasn't enough, one of the co-owners, Nick Ma, was a Chinese-American who grew up in Ohio.

As the Opening Ceremony started, with an explosion of fireworks, the group cheered. When thousands of synchronized drummers appeared, the crowd fell in silent awe.

"Amazing," said Peggy Akpah, a French national living in Beijing. "I had goose bumps."

"Amazing," said Dani Perry from London.

"Amazing," said Larry Becker of San Francisco.

All told, 10 people answered "amazing" when asked about their initial reaction to the Opening Ceremony.

Despite all the recent handwringing and negativity surrounding China's role as the host of the Olympics, none of it could be found at the Saddle Cantina.

"China has prepared for this for seven years," said Dilya from Tajikistan, which borders China to the West. "They had something to prove and had to show what China was capable of. I'm so happy for them.

"They deserve it, no matter what the West says"

Many in the media had worried — and complained — about the security crackdown on bars and clubs, labeling the Games the "No Fun Olympics." For this night, however, the bars along Sanlitun were buzzing with activity. Even security guards were peering through the windows to catch a glimpse of the spectacle. Any shakedown could wait.

"I want China to have this moment," said John McDonough, an American who's been living in Beijing for two years. "They're up and coming and they will improve."

Down the street from the Saddle Cantina, a crowd gathered at the Adidas store, which was showing the ceremony on their big projection screen. A mix of locals and visitors were mesmerized by the precise choreography, cheering after each performance. And when the procession of nations started, small groups of revelers cheered for their respective countries.

Draped in Spanish flags, a group of Spaniards stood amongst the crowd, soaking in every moment. They were here to cheer on their compatriots and their cousin Jamie Marti Marcos, a fencer who would walk on the track of the Bird's Nest.

"We will celebrate," said Luis Veral about what he would do after the Opening Ceremony. "We will go drink some beers and enjoy the Beijing night."