World ? Asia ? China ? Shanghai

Shanghai: Restaurants

Gastronomes never had it so good in Shanghai. With restaurants serving a mind-boggling variety of Chinese cuisines, as well as a wide range of top-notch international fare, Shanghai is arguably mainland China's best city for eating. Beijing boosters will disagree, of course, and it was not always so a decade, even 5 years ago, but the prosperous 1990s that saw Shanghai once again take to the world stage have reawakened the demand for la bella vita, as seen in the explosion of dining establishments in the last few years. For Shanghai residents, ever attuned to the latest trends and tastes, eating out and trying new restaurants is now a pastime rivaling shopping.

For the tourist, this means you no longer have to stick to safe hotel dining. While some of Shanghai's top restaurants can be found in hotels, there are scores of well-run private establishments that rival if not surpass the quality of hotel food, and usually at lower prices. Significantly improved hygiene standards should also allay any concerns you may have of eating out. Shanghai offers the unusual opportunity of dining one moment in a traditional teahouse and another in a restored colonial mansion; missing out would be a shame.

Don't expect the Chinese food here to taste the same as that at home; expect it to be light years better. While you can eat your way through China by sampling all the regional Chinese restaurants in Shanghai, the emphasis is on Shanghai's own renowned cuisine, commonly referred to as benbang cai. Usually considered a branch of Huaiyang cuisine, Shanghai cooking has traditionally relied on soy sauce, sugar, and oil. The most celebrated Shanghai dish is hairy crab, a freshwater delicacy that reaches its prime every fall. Also popular are any number of "drunken" dishes (crab, chicken) marinated in local Shaoxing wine, and braised meat dishes such as Lion's Head Meatballs and braised pork knuckle. Shanghai dim sum and snacks include a variety of dumplings, headlined by the local favorite xiaolong bao, as well as onion pancakes and leek pies, all of which deserve to be tried.

Those hankering for a taste of home will also find that Shanghai is the most foreign-belly-friendly city in China. From the trendiest Continental cuisine to the most recognizable fast-food chains, there is a staggering range of options guaranteed to take the edge off any homesick cravings. Many Asian and European cuisines are well represented, with Italian, Spanish, French, Japanese, Thai, and Indian cuisines of good enough quality to satisfy a discerning overseas palate. World-renowned chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten, David Laris, and Jacques and Laurent Pourcel have also chosen to launch their China flagship restaurants here. Where Shanghai particularly excels is in the bold new tastes that are arising from the mix of East and West.

At the other end of the dining scale, the American fast-food chains of McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken are ubiquitous. So are Starbucks, Haagen-Dazs, and Pizza Hut. Subway is in the mix, and Tony Roma's and the Hard Rock Cafe have been longtime Shanghai residents. Even California Pizza Kitchen and Hooters have checked in, the latter with two branches. Check the local expatriate magazines for location details.

According to the corporate travel index published by Business Travel News, the corporate dining tab in Shanghai (said to lag behind London's but to exceed San Francisco's) averages around $110 per person per day, but most travelers can get by well below that amount. While Shanghai's top international restaurants tend to charge Western prices, you can have an excellent meal for two at a relatively upscale Chinese restaurant for ť100 to ť200 ($13-$25). Some of the best local foods can be had for less than that. (Prices quoted for a Chinese meal are for two bowls of rice and between two and four dishes.) The key is to mix it up with a combination of local and international dining. If you want to try Shanghai's more famous Western restaurants, consider going at lunchtime, when lunch specials and set menus can cost less than half of what you would spend at dinner. Hotel restaurants frequently levy a 15% service charge, but few private restaurants do. There is no tipping in restaurants, and the waitstaff will usually run after you to return your change.

The Shanghainese love affair with eating has spawned a dizzying number of restaurant openings (and closings) on any given week, a vexing matter not only for restaurant owners, but travel writers as well. What follows is a list of mostly established restaurants (with an emphasis on those outside of the big hotels) that should, barring any unforeseen health-related crisis (like SARS), still be thriving by the time you read this. Consult the local English-language weeklies for new restaurant listings.

The widest variety of dining options is in the Luwan (French Concession), Jing An, and Xuhui districts. This is also where you'll find some of the most ambient restaurants located inside colonial mansions on large sprawling estates. With some of the city's top international restaurants and unimprovable views, the Bund is also another prime dining spot.

As well, Shanghai has five food streets (meishi jie) lined with Chinese restaurants of every ilk, though few of them have English menus or English-speaking staff. They are: Huang He Lu, northwest of the Park Hotel (Huangpu); Wujiang Lu, just off Nanjing Xi Lu by the Shimen Yi Lu Metro station (Huangpu); Yunnan Lu, east of Xizang Lu and south of Yan'an Dong Lu (Huangpu); Yuyuan Zhi Lu, northwest of Jing An Temple (Jing An); and Zhapu Lu, north of Suzhou Creek and east of Sichuan Bei Lu (Hongkou).

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