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Beijing: Restaurants

After their first meal in Beijing, most people find themselves saying, "This is not Chinese food." There's none of the lemon chicken you usually get delivered from the Ho-Ho Gourmet back home, the chicken you do get still has its head, and the sauce doesn't drip from it in gelatinous clumps. The rice comes at the end of the meal unless you ask for it early -- and there are no fortune cookies.

Of all the vertigo first-time visitors experience in Beijing, the worst spins often come from eating. In the past, fear of the food kept many travelers confined to their hotels and a few free-standing Western eateries for sustenance. This is no longer necessary, if it ever was.

Beijing is China's best city for gastronomes. No other Chinese city provides a greater variety of restaurants. Better standards of hygiene have erased the biggest barrier to eating out in the past, making it almost criminal to stay in your hotel. And once you get over the shock of strange flavors, most travelers find the real Chinese food astronomically better than its Western corruption.

Most restaurants in Beijing have very short life spans, creating headaches for guidebook writers and readers. But the volatility is also what makes the city such a wonderful place to eat, as establishments that manage to stick around have generally earned the right to exist.

Beijing has its native cuisine, but it is by no means the dominant one. While there are entire restaurants devoted to producing the city's most famous local dish, Peking roast duck, local diners are fickle and fond of new trends. These sweep through the city like tornadoes through Kansas. A few years ago it was Cultural Revolution nostalgia dishes, then fish and sweet sauces from Shanghai, then yuppified minority food from Yunnan, and now the fiery flavors of Sichuan hold sway. Tomorrow it will be something else. Each leaves its mark on the culinary landscape after it has passed, making it possible for visitors to sample authentic dishes from nearly every corner of the country.

The choices expand well beyond China's borders. Most of Asia and Europe are well represented at close-to-authentic levels. Italian, Russian, French, Indian, and Japanese restaurants are numerous, some of superb quality.

American fast-food outlets are ubiquitous. KFC is the most popular among locals and McDonald's is a close second. Subway, Sizzler, and even A&W are also in the mix. For sandwiches, there are several other choices: Schlotsky's Deli (in the China World Trade Center), and the Kempi Deli (inside the Kempinski Hotel). Among sit-down options are Pizza Hut, T.G.I. Friday's, Henry J. Bean's (in the China World complex), the American-owned Outback Steakhouse, and the Beijing Hard Rock Cafe (check that's Beijing for location details).

Beijing frequently ranks among the most expensive cities in which to dine for business travelers, according to the Corporate Travel Index and other sources of such information. While it is possible to spend a lot of money on food in the city, it is also possible to eat, and eat well, for very little. A typical dinner for two at a relatively upscale Chinese restaurant costs ť80 to ť140 ($11-$19/ţ5.35-ţ9.35), but prices can go much lower with little to no drop in quality.

Main courses in almost every non-Western restaurant are placed in the middle of the table and shared between two or more people. The "meal for two" price estimates in this guide include two individual bowls of rice and between two and four dishes, depending on the size of the portions, which tends to decrease as prices rise.

Credit cards are generally accepted in most restaurants above the moderately priced level. Hotels frequently levy a 15% service charge, but free-standing restaurants seldom do. Tips are not given; waitresses will often come running out into the street to give your money back if you try to leave one.

Restaurants in this guide are a mix of established favorites and newer places creative enough or just plain good enough to survive. Beijing's enthusiasm for the wrecking ball can sometimes take down even the most venerable of eating establishments, but new worthies inevitably rise to fill the gap. Most restaurants of note, especially those that cater to foreign clientele, are located in Chaoyang, but excellent establishments exist all over the city. The most picturesque spot to dine in Beijing is around the Back Lakes, north of Bei Hai Park, an area of well-preserved hutong (narrow lanes) and idyllic man-made lake promenades that is home to several of the city's most compelling eateries.

The price ranges in our reviews reflect the following equivalents, in terms of main courses: Very Expensive ($$$$) = $31 & up; Expensive ($$$) = $19 to $30; Moderate ($$) = $10 to $18; Inexpensive ($) = under $10.

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