A few caveats. Most of these are located in People's Square (Fuzhou Lu) and the Old Shanghai (Yu Garden) area. Be warned:
1. Their signs are often in Chinese
2. Their menus tend not to be particularly English-friendly
3. They usually stop taking orders quite early. Usually, ordering lunch ends at 2pm, and dinner around 8pm or 9pm. Folks gotta rest.
Here's some inroads into old school Shanghai dining. Let's eat!
王宝和 (Wang Bao He)
Serving Since: 1744
Known For: Hairy Crab Dishes
A small wine shop in Shaoxin emigrated to Shanghai, and become not only the “forefather of wine”, but also the “king of hairy crabs” (酒祖宗，蟹大王). The Wang Bao He on Fuzhou Lu has been there since 1936. Take a few minutes walk to Jiujiang Lu, and there’s also a four-star hotel under their name.
You're looking at all kinds of crab dishes from this time-honored brand. From 30rmb crab roe xiao long bao to a 5000rmb crab feast. In late Autumn when hairy crabs taste the best, you might need to book several weeks in advance. The restaurant benefits from Shanghai's long history in seafood. Their traditional crab preparation and cooking methods have been passed down since their opening. They're known for boiling hairy crabs with their secret recipe to flavor the water, rather than the usual steaming method.
There's also a bunch of pastries available to take away if you're not up for dropping 5000rmb. Of course, hairy crab is the main theme. Among which, the xie ke huang (蟹壳黄) and xierou yuebing (蟹肉月饼) are the most popular items. These are filled with crab meat and crab roe, and recognized as “Shanghai classic snacks” -- an award from the Shanghai Restaurants Cuisine Association.
They're quite good. And the aftertaste will remind you what you had for the rest of the day.
Ordering can be a bit difficult if you’re not going with any Chinese speakers. And the service can also be a hit and miss. For a casual meal, Wang Bao He is an affordable choice. Snacks are around 6rmb to 12rmb. As for a proper dinner, you’re looking at 200rmb to 300rmb per head.
杏花楼 (Xing Hua Lou)
Serving Since: 1851
Known for: Mooncakes and Sweets
Originally, Xin Hua Lou was a coffee shop that did Cantonese-style desserts and porridge. Now, it's a huge food empire known for their mooncakes, steam buns, preserved desserts, and most recently, qingtuan with salted egg yolk and pork floss stuffing (咸蛋黄肉松青团).
Xing Hua Lou has chains all over Shanghai and their products can be found on the shelves of supermarkets and convenience stores across the city. Xin Hua Lou's main restaurant is on Fuzhou Lu. It has a more stately facade. Many family gatherings happen here everyday.
Their pastry house on the ground floor is always busy. Their seasonal green dumplings always sells out and their puffy steam buns have been a main breakfast staple for locals for decades.
Upstairs, the dining area is equally bustling and here you'll find Xing Hua Lou’s second identity: Shanghai’s oldest Cantonese restaurant. On the bilingual menu is dim sum, stir-fries, refreshments, Shanghai-style dumplings and hot dishes. Like most casual Cantonese restaurants, the average per head is around 100rmb or less.
上海老饭店 (Shanghai Classic House)
Serving Since: 1875
Known For: Bengbang Cuisine
The name 上海老饭店 literally means "Shanghai old restaurant". This one started out as Rong Shun Guan (荣顺馆), a tiny eatery run by a husband and wife in Old Shanghai. Their excellent cooking techniques quickly won them fame and several knock-offs popped up over the years. They changed their name to "Lao Rong Shun Guan" ("the Old Rong Shun Guan") and, years later, that became just "old restaurant".
The three-story house consists of a few dining areas and a few poetically named private rooms. Kitchens are deployed on each floor, making sure dishes are served as soon as they are made. They've long been recognized as one of the chief purveyors of Shanghai’s traditional Benbang Cuisine ("local cuisine").
Their signature dish is ba bao ya (八宝鸭), a “boneless duck with eight foods inside”. It’s basically a big, greasy zongzi wrapped inside an incredibly tender duck. And neither "boneless" nor "eight foods" is technically accurate. The duck is steamed for five hours (in two sessions), stuffed with fillings such as diced chestnut, diced pork and ginkgo seeds. Their take on babaoya is smaller and cheaper (168rmb) than other versions in town. Plenty of seafood on the menu, too. Xiazi dawushen (虾籽大乌参, braised sea cucumbers with shrimp roe) and qingyu tufei (青鱼秃肺, stir fry black carp liver with bamboo shoots) are among the most iconic.
Decent food quality, good service, bilingual menu, and also one of the tidier and more spacious restaurant options in Yu Garden. If you are seeking affordable, authentic Shanghainese flavor, Shanghai Classic House is the place to go.
老正兴 (Lao Zheng Xing)
Serving Since: 1862
Known For: Bengbang cuisine
Two friends from Zhejiang province opened the first Lao Zheng Xing (the original name was 正兴馆 "Zheng Xing Guan") in Shanghai in the 19th century. They did various Benbang cuisines with a Suxi (苏锡, Suzhou and Wuxi) influence. As they grew more well-known, the restaurant attracted politicians and celebrities, and the copycats followed. Hence, the name change. (Sound familiar?) In late 2016, Lao Zheng Xing became one of the only four Shanghainese restaurants that were given a Michelin star. Interestingly enough, they weren't even aware of the nomination and didn't attend the award ceremony.
The menu shares a lot in common with Shanghai Classic House -- pages and pages of seafood, meat, and poultry dishes, with key dishes like ba bao ya, babao lajiang (八宝辣酱, diced chicken, peanuts, pepper etc with spicy, brown sauce), you bao xia (油爆虾, stir-fried shrimps) and caotou quanzi (草头圈子, braised pig intestine on the top of alfalfa sprouts). They've clearly put a bit more effort on presentations and can get a bit over-enthusiastic with the salt shakers.
The second floor of Lao Zheng Xing is available for walk-ins. Lots of red chairs and white tables, lovely traditional lamps hanging from the ceiling, and a large peony flower painting on the wall. Third and and above are for private rooms and VIP rooms. Compared to the restaurants on this list, Lao Zheng Xing is arguably the quietest and tidiest. And the 150rmb-ish average per head is very inexpensive considering the service and food execution.
德兴馆 (De Xing Guan)
Serving Since: 1878
Known For: Noodles
Like many old-school noodle shops in Shanghai, De Xing Guan is a restaurant of Suxi descent and there are many versions of their origin. Some say their noodle recipe came from the chef of Emperor Qianlong, some say it was Qianlong himself who was hooked by the noodle recipe when he discovered it on incognito tour, deciding to bring it back to his kitchen himself.
De Xing Guan has many venues now but the main and most popular one is on Guangdong Lu. It's a two-floor building with black and gold sign -- really easy to spot on the street. The ground floor is more compact. With a few windows outside selling dumplings and pre-made dishes to take away. The second floor is divided into three areas. Where customers can have a bit more room and privacy. De Xing Guan at lunch and dinner time gets super busy. Local elder patrons and nearby white collars all come down here to have a bowl of hot noodle and some authentic Bengbang dishes.
The best-selling noodle has to be the menti erxian mian (焖蹄二鲜面, sliced stewed hoof and pieces of smoked fried fish as the topping). And their seasonal daoyu zhimian (刀鱼汁面, plain noodle with a type of river anchovy) is also a popular item. The food here are very simple and straightforward, served in decent proportions. One can easily spend 30rmb to 40rmb for a quick and filling meal.
大富贵 (Da Fu Gui)
Serving Since: 1881
Known For: Snacks and Small Eats
Da Fu Gui, literally means “great affluence”, but it doesn't look that way when you see it. All the same, this is Shanghai’s oldest Huibang Cuisine restaurant -- one of the four original traditions of cuisine. Since World War II, it's been in a few different locations but has now moved back to its original street in Lao Xi Meng. The food has maintained the Hui influences: Shanghainese snacks, dumplings, noodles, and pre-made cold dishes.
The first floor is canteen-style, tending to be a big and messy affair for mealtime. Once the bill is paid, customers need to go to three different windows to fetch their cold dishes, wonton / shengjian, and desserts. It can get slightly out of hand if you’re ordering many items at once. You might also need to squeeze into a small seat, and possibly share a table with some old couples or school kids.
Da Fu Gui provides cheap staples: dumplings and noodles are sold for 10rmb to 26rmb. Quality is passable considering the price. Their xiao hun tun (小馄饨, small wontons) are worth a try.
The second floor (from a different entrance) has a better environment and here you'll find a menu with Bengbang and Huibang dishes. Pricing is similar to local small restaurants -- around 30rmb for veggies, and 150rmb for seafood and meat dishes.
洪长兴 Hong Chang Xing
Serving Since: 1891
Known For: Mutton Hotpot
You can't miss this eye-catching building when you drive past it on Yan'an Elevated Road. Located at Yunnan Nan Lu, a food street that housed many traditional, time-honored shops, Hong Chang Xing is Shanghai’s oldest halal restaurant and a product of the booming Peking opera scene in the olden days. At the very beginning, it was a small bistro catering to the needs of a famous Peking opera crew who were mainly of the Hui ethnic minority. As it grew more popular by selling Hui staples like mutton pancake and dumplings, they added a Northern staple: mutton hotpot.
The mutton they serve is freshly cut, soft and succulent. They use traditional copper pot and coal to heat the water in which just a handful of ingredients are used, like jujube and ginger. The default sauce is peanut-based, with a bit of soybean sauce, and accompanied by small dishes of minced green onion and parsley. If you’re a meat lover who appreciates the original taste, Hong Chang Xing fits the bill. Alongside hotpot, they also have quite a few hot dishes, BBQ, noodles, and rice dishes.
This Yunnan Nan Lu branch is actually their second branch. A room on the ground floor sells pastries and pre-made halal meat dishes. A window at the entrance is where people line up for the 3.5rmb niurou jianbing (牛肉煎包, beef fried buns). Their cong you bing (葱油饼, shallot pancake) and yogurt is also very popular. Hong Chang Xing’s menu is in Chinese only, but it has pictures so shouldn’t be too hard to order. For hotpot, the average price per head is around 150rmb to 200rmb.
沈大成 Shen Da Cheng
Serving Since: 1875
Known For: Desserts
Similar to Xing Hua Lou, Shen Da Cheng is also a big name in Shanghai’s dumpling and snacks world. The founder Shen Ajin named the chain “da cheng” to imply the wide range of Su-style and Shanghainese style sweets and snacks they offer. It really lives up to its name.
Their signature items are four glutinous rice sweet dumplings: shuang niang tuan (双酿团), jintuan (金团), tiao tou gao (条头糕) and qingtuan (青团). Filled with sugary stuffings such as red bean paste, black sesame paste, and soybean powder. Not something that expats are a huge fan of, but I guess Shen Da Cheng couldn’t care less. They'll be here long after we're all gone. They also hopped on the salted egg yolk qingtuan bandwagon recently, although it doesn't take four hours to get one.
Shen Da Cheng’s most famous restaurant is on the crowded Nanjing Dong Lu (just across the street from the old Hong Chang Xing). There’s always a few lines at the takeout windows at any given time selling items that are soft and warm when they comes out, and hard as plastic if you leave them overnight. All priced around 3rmb - 5rmb each. 20rmb - 48.5rmb for boxes.
Despite being famous for their sweets. Shen Da Cheng also makes excellent crab roe xiao long bao, xiao hun tun and liang mian huang (两面黄, fried noodle nest with shrimp or pork toppings). These are considered must-tries. Noodles are around 20rmb to 48rmb, fast food, and hot dishes are also inexpensive. The restaurant menu is only partially translated but also have pictures.
春风松月楼 (Chun Feng Son Yue Lou)
Serving Since: 1910
Known for: Vegetarian Cuisine
Shanghai’s oldest vegetarian restaurant used to be quite a thing among Buddhists. Song Yue Lou was at first located in City God Temple of Shanghai, and then reopened in the same area after WWII. The owner used to be an apprentice of another well-received vegetarian restaurant in the Old Shanghai area, as there were quite a few famous ones at that time. Among its peers from the same time period, Song Yue Lou is the only one that survived into the 21st century.
The place is clearly no longer popular. It's worn-out and dirty, and new customers, especially ones from a Western background might get confused by the mock-meat menu. Xiao long bao, for example, has a stuffing made with the mixture of mashed potato, pea, and corn. The second floor serves various "meat" and "seafood" dishes, all using soybean, kongjac or tofu to mimic the texture of flesh. The taste in some of the dishes leaves much to be desired.
The dishes look shiny and vibrant. I guess they can hardly not achieve that when soaked in translucent oil. Maybe the owner considers oil the main source of fat for vegetarians?
The ground floor is relatively busier. All kinds of surreal-looking dim sum, noodle, dumplings, and desserts are on offer. Priced around 15rmb or so. Their cai bao (菜包, veggie steam bun) and hai tang gao (海棠糕, a baked, caramel-covered pastry filled with red bean paste) sell out fast; 3rmb and 5rmb for each. As for the service, that depends on your luck.
老半斋 Lao Ban Zhai
Known for: Snacks and Small Eats
A Huaiyang style restaurant, Lao Ban Zhai was opened by a few Yangzhou bankers at the turn of the last century. Originally by a tea house plus a restaurant, when it was assumed by the state in 1949, the place was converted into something more proletarian and canteen-like. The cheap price and convenient location have made Lao Ban Zhai a quick breakfast and lunch option. Their daoyu zhimian is dubbed “Shanghai’s no.1 plain noodle”, and only available in March and April. Their yaorou (肴肉, the Chinese version of head cheese) is also considered one of the best in town.
Quite recently, the daoyu zhimian has attracted a bit more attention. As the fish they use is a type of wild anchovy that lives in Yangtze river during a short period of time in Spring. Rumor has it that the government intends to prohibit fishing said anchovy, and this might be the last year daoyu zhimian is available. Obviously, after the news came out, lots of people are looking to eat the 32rmb bowl of endangered fish noodle, even though it comes in a plain, starch-heavy fish broth.
Notice the bits and pieces of over-cooked shallot in the noodle? I was told by the waitress that they were there because the chef didn't bother switching to a cleaner ladle.
Appreciate the honesty, I guess.
An interesting side story: Last year in September, footage of Lao Ban Zhai's bad service and staff playing cell phone games were captured by a Japanese media, who were doing a story on “zero-star customer rating” restaurants in town. Zero-star as in "taste, environment, and service" -- none of it is satisfying. Lao Ban Zhan was forced to shut down for five days to get their act together. On our visit, the service was certainly improved.
Despite their longevity, the future is still uncertain for a lot of these restaurants on this list in modern Shanghai. Changes are coming rapidly to China and nowhere is this more evident that in the restaurants scene. They've been forced to change with the times. At the end of 2016, as a response to the criticisms and complaints from both media and customers, five time-honored brands including Lao Ban Zhai, Hong Chang Xing, and Sheng Da Cheng released an announcements and promises to improve their services and to standardize business regulations. On our visits, a lot of the time it seemed like they needed to work on keeping that promise. For now though there's still plenty of options to dine old school in Shanghai. The next oh say, 20 or 30 years might be interesting for these places though, as the next generation supplants this one.