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  • When you talk about French food in Shanghai, it won’t be long before you hear the name Le Bec. It’s perhaps one of the best options in town for rich, authentic French bistro food with the ambience to match (not to mention a perfect summer courtyard). It’s split into two, Villa le Bec and the cheaper, more relaxed Bistro 321 Le Bec, which is reviewed here. At around RMB 250 to RMB 350 for a main it isn’t cheap, but it’s well below fine-dining prices and more than worth what you get.

    The place is probably just as well-loved for its design and atmosphere as for its food. It’s set in a villa on photogenic Xinhua Lu, a cozy French bistro that already feels as authentic as any other in town before they’ve even set down the bread basket or asked you to have a sniff of the seasonal white truffle they’d like you to try. It’s small enough to overhear another table’s conversation, homely enough that you won’t mind. It’s a place for dates that you’re trying to impress, or for small groups of friends to stuff themselves to contentment and linger over bottles of wine.

    There are light Asian accents here and there, but it’s mostly classics through and through. Think pâté en croûte, expertly cooked slabs of meat smothered in rich, delicate sauces, and pillowy mashed potatoes so smooth and buttery you want to spread them on toast. On our visit we ordered a light, zippy herb salad to share along with veal slathered with truffle, mushrooms and melted comté cheese with mashed potato on the side and a beef tenderloin, served with onion, more of that mashed potato and a sweet, smoky sauce. All were simply excellent. You get the sense that you’re in safe hands here, that anything you go for will probably be a home run.

     

    Price: RMB 350 – RMB 800 per person

    Summary: Storied bistro serving up perfectly executed French fare in a cozy, picturesque environment. Probably one of your best bets in town for authentic French cuisine in a romantic environment without going for stuffy fine dining.

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  • BOR Eatery is a popular spot serving unique twists on some modern Western tropes, driven by a Danish chef that has built up a bit of a following in Shanghai. It is, or at least was until recently, pretty trendy and you can tell as soon as you walk in. People like this place. I found it bustling and atmospheric, great for a small group of friends to start an evening. Others will find it crowded and loud. But with its sparse Scandinavian design built around an open kitchen, it’s definitely somewhere that strikes you as soon as you walk in.

    Some of their most well-known dishes live up to the hype. The mini hot dogs are a delicious two bite appetizer that comes through with crisp, fresh flavors from the carefully assembled toppings. The burrata wrapped up in prosciutto and bitter radicchio leaves is weird and kind of wonderful. The fresh bread and hot butter is truly excellent, and if nothing else shows a proper attention to detail.

    Go with a group of four or five people and share as many of these shareable plates as you can – they’re the best part. The mains in general are a bit underwhelming after such a stellar introduction. Pork ribs are a little too tough and cling to the bone where you’d rather they fell off gracefully. The hot cured salmon, which some have raved about, was just OK, a little lacking in flavor and a bit one note all by itself.

    Still, a couple of disappointments aside you’re likely to have a great meal at BOR, especially if you order correctly. Though there are more of them popping up these one-off, labor-of-a-chef’s-love restaurants offering genuinely unique menus are still not that common here. This is one that is worth savoring.

     

    Price: RMB 300 – RMB 700 per person

    Summary: Popular, just about worth-the-hype restaurant, featuring a chef-driven menu unique twists on classic Western styles. Atmospheric and bustling, with slick interiors, built around an open kitchen. Great for small groups looking to splash out a little bit

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  • I’m always looking for new Sichuan places, and too often find myself at least a little disappointed. Within the country itself this is one of China’s most popular cuisines, with restaurants serving it throughout any major city. And yet too many of them are toned down for local palates and end up being mediocre. Sichuan Citizen, good as it can be for taking visitors, doesn’t cut if you’re looking for something with the same visceral heat and flavor that you get in Chengdu.

    Ben Lai – or Original Sichuan - is the place that seems to come up most in conversations of where to get the best Sichuan in town, and after trying it once, it’s easy to see why. This is easily one of the best Sichuan joints I’ve visited. It’s not just that the food is spicy – which it certainly is – but that it doesn’t compromise on other flavors too. The cold sliced beef, which will seriously take your head off with chili, is also fresh and invigorating thanks to the quality of the meat and cilantro. Dry noodles are thick with chili oil but balanced and not greasy.

    The menu in general is pleasantly concise, sticking closely to classic Sichuanese favorites. Most of what you’ll get you can be confident is a real part of the cuisine, not just a tacked-on crowd-pleaser. Crowd were couples and small groups of Chinese friends young and old, generally ordering way too much and apparently having a great time. The vibe in general is modern Chinese local spot, cozy and intimate with a just enough thought put into the design to make it feel unique. Service is good, with waiters seemingly aware that with food this hot you’ll need your water glass topped up regularly.

    Only real downside here was the soundtrack. The faint background hum of pumping EDM is kind of off-putting. They should probably sort that.

    Finally, really, it’s spicy though. Be prepared for that when you go.

     

    Price: RMB 80 – RMB 150 per person

    Summary: Chill, intimate modern Chinese restaurant serving up food that has a reputation for being spicy as hell and for being some of the finest Sichuan in the city. Good for couples and small groups that already love this cuisine or want to really get to know it.  

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  • Gong Yi Nong is a Sichuan restaurant up in Hongkou, serving up some classics of the cuisine along with a few deep cuts that you don’t find as often. Their renditions of classics like hui guo rou (twice cooked pork) are solid enough to sate anyone with a Sichuan craving.

    Where they really excel, though, is in their cold dishes. These small plates, great as a round of appetizers, include delicious – and very hot – cold eggplant smother in garlic and chili as well as chilled slices of tender beef, drowning in chili oil and sprinkled with peanuts. Pair these with a bowl of hot rice and you’re set.

    The atmosphere and décor are non-descript, but a cut above your average hole in the wall. You order via iPad, for some reason, so they’re clearly trying to be modern. Everything’s clean, there’s plenty of space, and you don’t feel backed into a corner even during the lunch rush.

    Do you need to travel for this place? Not really when you’ve got a handful of truly stellar Sichuanese spots downtown. But if you’re on the North side looking for some heat, you could do way worse.

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  • Are wontons Shanghai’s most underrated dumpling? I’m going to put it out there and say yes. Classy xiaolongbao get all the respect and dirty shengjianbao are the guilty pleasure, but none feel quite like classic comfort food as a good bowl of wontons.  

    A good bowl of wontons is something that Er Guang Wonton has perfected. It’s a chain with numerous outlets across town – this one is in the new market-style development on Yuyuan Lu, and is thus fresh, clean, and just across the road from The Cannery and Stone Brewing if you want a drink to wash them down.

    The wonton soup is fresh and light and perfect for winter, while those served with vinegar and peanut sauce are on just the right side of indulgent. At less than RMB 20 a bowl, these are some of the most reliable cheap eats in the area. Décor is standard – you get what you pay for – but the seating area outback, in the corridor of the market building, can be kind of fun for people watching.

    Is eating these going to change your life like your first xiaolongbao did? Nah. But will they insert themselves into your monthly dinner rotation? If you’re anything like me, then for sure.

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  • Bar No. 3 is perhaps one of the most underrated cocktail bars in the city. While perennial favorites and award winners Union Trading Company, Speak Low and Sober Company get all the love, Bar No. 3 has been slinging great drinks for a few years now in a way that’s all its own.

    While the drinks here don’t quite reach the giddy heights of the best ones on the menu at those aforementioned acclaimed water holes, they’re served in an atmosphere that’s far cozier. The dim lights and comfortable seating – as well as the generally great design of the space – make Bar No. 3 uniquely inviting and intimate. Great date spot. Great for a small group of friends to talk over a couple of great drinks. It’s not cheap at between RMB 80 and RMB 110 per drink, but you don’t feel like you’re getting stiffed.

    A couple of special mentions. The menu here offers a unique amount of opportunity for exploration and experimentation. The core menu changes seasonally, but the favorites remain permanently in a longer menu of classics. It’s a great way to keep things fresh without needlessly jettisoning great creations. Also, the complimentary bar snacks. So much better than a bowl of peanuts. Try them for yourself.

    In all, Bar No. 3 is somewhere that anyone who likes to explore this city’s cocktail scene definitely has to check out. 

     

     

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  • Circo is the latest offering by the Popolo Group, the people behind Alimentari, Gemma and more, an Italian-flavored café and bar in the kind-of-weird-but-nice-for-a-walk-on-weekends-I-guess complex Columbia Circle. They offer It’s basically Poplolo-does-brunch, so if you like those other venues you’ll find a lot to like here too.

    They keep the menu short and tight, which I like. There are a few egg dishes, a couple of mains, some salads and some sweets (plus miscellaneous cheese boards and bruschetta). The highlights definitely hit. Among those the big winners are the Dianping-famous Truffle Eggs (deep fried and served in a rich sauce) and the beautiful bresaola salad. The burrata, served with fresh warm bread, is also worth checking out. Portions aren't huge, so if you have an appetite its worth getting one or two things to share as well as individual dishes per person. 

    The place itself has a welcoming atmosphere that reminds me of neighborhood Italian cafes in the U.K., with a nice terrace. It has atmosphere during brunch, when there’s soul music on the stereo and the tables both inside and out are full. It has much less during later hours, where they stop serving food and the place, like the rest of Columbia Circle, empties out.

    You have to wonder what kind of business they’ll do in winter, when weather renders the terrace less appealing. Still, for now this is one of the best brunch options in its area.

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  • Yao Ji Da specializes in “big iron pot” cooking, a Dongbei specality that basically means what it sounds like - meat and vegetables of your choice, cooked in a huge pot built into your table.

    The atmosphere is back-alley restaurant meets local cook-out. On a recent Sunday the crowd was families and groups of friends young and old, generally acting as if they were about one bottle of baijiu deep. The staff were brusque but friendly, and uniformly decked out in outfits modelled on the flowery patterns that you usually see on Dongbei restaurant tablecloths. This kind of kitcsch extends to the décor, from the sheaths of corn and chili strewn over wooden beams to the vintage metal mugs they use to serve water.  

    Here’s how it works. You choose your “stew” (really what’s going on here is more of a broil) based on the base, from options like goose to fish to pork to chicken and mushroom. They throw it into a huge smoking crater in the middle of your table to cook for a while. Then, you can optionally select extra veggies or tofu products to add in when you’re part way done with that, kind of like hot pot – the waiter will add some water to the remaining sauce and throw them in for you. The staff take care of the whole cooking process.

    We went with goose, the priciest base at just under RMB 300 and also the place’s specialty. The wait is long – the staff told us that next time we should call ahead to get the ball rolling in advance, and other tables seemed to know this – but we were rewarded with some of the best goose I’ve ever eaten. From neck to feet to huge chunks of breast, it’s all in there and it’s often chopstick-tender. Very rich. So flavorsome. Way, way too much for two of us - each “stew” could probably feed 3-4 people.

    Some won’t find much to love about this place. It’s unrepentantly raucous, they serve big bits of animal rather than pristine cuts of meat, and the food cooking at your table is going to smoke and steam and smell. But if you’re a carnivore that’s up for a bit of adventure, it might be the place for you.  

     

    Price: RMB 100 – RMB 200 per person

    Summary: Rustic chain specializing in “big iron pots” of meat, a Dongbei favorite. Good for a loud atmosphere and stuffing yourself full of stewed meat and/or fish. Go with groups of four or more to make the most out of the huge portions.

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  • Fu Sheng Jiu Guan is a great little restaurant and bar serving up Sichuan food in the Mixpace mall in Changning. Found opposite Yuyintang, at first glance it looks like a Japanese izakaya. Enter, though, and you’ll see groups of young people clinking glasses of Asahi but washing down chili-laden Sichuan dishes. It’s a combination of styles I didn’t know I wanted until I wandered in. Could easily imagine this starting as a group dinner and progressing into something far boozier.

    The menu – all handwritten in Chinese – bounces from classics like mapo doufu and spicy, perfect-for-beer skewers to more off-kilter stuff like tofu with fermented chili dipping sauce and pink lotus root with pickled plums (kind of weird, but a pretty refreshing counterpoint to all the heat). The tofu is great if you love spicy, pungent stuff. As are the cold beef slices, mixing tough fat caps with tender morsels and more (different) chili sauce. Mostly everything that we tried was delicious and packed a respectable amount of heat. You should like it spicy if you come here.

    Shout-out to the decoration too; the walls are covered with vintage Chinese ads and other little pieces of cool kitsch. Lots of character. In general, it's a great addition to a neighborhood that already has plenty of stuff going for it. It’s not often that you find regional Chinese cuisine paired with an atmosphere that you’d like to hang out and drink in after. That’s something this place nails.

     

    Price: RMB 75 – RMB 200 per person

    Summary: Atmospheric restaurant and bar in a Changning basement mall slinging nifty Sichuan food, draft beer and izakaya vibes. Friendly staff, eclectic playlist, lots of chili.

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  • Mokkos 2 in Jing'an is the second iteration of the original Mokkos nearby, a welcoming bar specializing in Japanese shochu run by some very nice owners from Yunnan. I prefer this one, just because it feels a bit more spacious while still keeping that cozy atmosphere and a couple semi-private rooms for groups. It’s laidback, good for a date or a chill drink if you’re looking for a bar with a bit of an offbeat flavor. Soundtrack is pretty much exclusively reggae, which ends up being actually pretty perfect.  

    Shochu is a kind of distilled Japanese spirit usually made from things like sweet potato and clocking in at around 25% ABV. It’s crisp and clean, with a kind of light, earthy flavor. The selection can be kind of intimidating, but if you’re curious and aren’t shy about talking to the bar staff they’ll recommend you something. I like to start with a straight glass of whatever they recommend and follow it up with this soda lemon cocktail thing that they do. They’ve got Japanese draft beer on deck too if you’re feeling a bit more conservative.  

    In all, it’s a place anyone that considers themselves a Level 2 barfly or someone with an affinity for interesting drinks and good vibes should check out. For many that go, it ends up becoming a favorite.

     

    Price: RMB 40 – RMB 60 per drink

    Summary: Hidden gem of a Japanese shochu bar in Jing’an with friendly staff, reggae on the stereo and a huge selection of Japanese spirits. Great atmosphere, nice drinks, something a little bit different.

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SMARTREVIEWS

SmartReviews is SmartShanghai’s crack squad of amateur reviewers, eating their way around the city and writing about it. They have been chosen from a large pool of applicants and given a set of strict guidelines to follow to make sure their reviews are honest, informed and fair to both potential customers and the restaurants themselves.

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  • British

    Michael Russam, from Leeds, England, first arrived in China to live in Wuhan, before coming to Shanghai to work in copywriting and marketing. He is particularly interested in regional Asian cuisines, and when he can, travelling to find them. Other hobbies include debating the merits of Shanghai dive bars and burger deals.
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  • Heatwolves has spent the last ten years exploring Shanghai as a writer, editor and DJ and is now a consultant and strategist for F&B, music, and art projects. You can find him on Instagram at @lovebanguniverse and leaping forward at InkSight Agency.
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