Most of the time, if someone asks what I feel like eating for dinner, the answer is “vegetables, healthy stuff, greens”. It’s not that I don’t love a blow-out, deep-fried, Trimalchian feast. It’s that excess often seems the norm when I’m eating out in Shanghai. Eli Falafel came up the last time I asked for something that wouldn’t make me want to work out for the next 48 hours. I’m glad it did.
I’ve been walking past the place every week or so for months, and making a (promptly forgotten) mental note to go in every time I’ve seen it. The interior is a little more stylish than the exterior, but – and this is really the only gripe I have about the place – the seating situation isn’t great. It’s better for take-out than eating in, but plates are the best way to avoid offending David Attenborough with excessive packaging. We sat at the high counter in the window. It was fine.
The food was not fine. It was great. Wraps are filling and spiced to perfection, with enough garlic to make TanTan automatically uninstall. There seemed to be a couple on a first date there when we visited – a brave choice. The salads are colourful, well-seasoned and veg-heavy. The eponymous falafel were worth going in for alone, especially with their dreamy tahini sauce. I was impressed. For a wrap, salad, falafel and a couple of sodas, we paid 181rmb.
Eli Falafel is a great choice for healthy lunches and dinners. There’s not a huge amount of competition in Shanghai for good Middle Eastern food, but these guys would hold their own anywhere. Veggie or carnivorous, eat-in or take-out, fresh or fried – it’s all good.
It’s annoying because there are plenty of good Korean places in Shanghai with smaller (or non-existent) queues. You’re never more than a short Didi away from a Ben Jia, and there are plenty of options in Koreatown. If you live anywhere near Pak Ga Nae (or Park House, or whatever you decide to do with the Chinese and Korean names on the awnings), though, you’ll probably have noticed the daily and nightly lines outside and been tempted to find out why they’re there.
To save SmSh readers the trouble, I did the queuing so no one else had to. It was particularly irritating that we had to wait even though we’d booked a table (“yes, you’re the third table that will be seated at some point after 8pm”), but at least it’s next to The Rooster, so you can grab a pint and hover at the outside bar while you wait for an available grill.
Once you get inside, there are no surprises (unless it’s your first ever Korean BBQ): sides, sauces and condiments are all standard. So’s the drink selection – there’s the normal array of soju, beer and makgeolli bottles (if you’ve never been before, try some in banana or peach flavour), as well as non-alcoholic options. The main food selections, too, were perfectly mainstream: meat, braised or unbraised; a few fish options; the solitary vegetable platter. So far, so average.
What’s drawing people to this place, then, is either the food quality, the brand or the service. The branding is very 2015: industrial aesthetic with barrel for stools and concrete floors. Service is more hands-on than in most Korean BBQ places, which probably explains why this place is so popular. The staff here do all the technical stuff for you: your meat is grilled, snipped and rearranged for you.
And, thank goodness, the food is actually good. The kimchi-based stuff (kimjijeon, kimchi jjigae… kimchi…) has a punch but also a satisfying richness. I’d also highly recommend the soy-braised fried chicken, and the all-important meats were sliced for us into fatty, juicy, slightly-charred nubs. Food and drinks for five people came to 901rmb.
Pak Ga Nae is a good Korean BBQ place for first-timers, in particular. The food is pretty much “authentic”, with the added bonus of staff who’ll do the cooking for you. Get a beer for the line, sit back and enjoy the anticipation.
Ole Kitchen (As in, ‘ole English’? As in, ‘olé’? Neither seems relevant.) opened its Shaanxi Bei Lu branch a couple of months ago and, from what I’ve seen, trade’s been steady. They have a decent 4.5 stars on Dianping, four of which must have been earned by the lovely staff alone. There’s a potently attentive friendliness to the service; the front-of-house team seem determined to make this place float, even if the kitchen staff don’t seem particularly concerned.
I’m not saying the food’s bad. The charcuterie boards were flying out both times I visited; there’s a focus on contemporary Western Instagram-fare. We ordered two avocado brunches (around 70rmb), which were strangely assembled (untoasted bread in little triangles and processed cheese) but tasted fresh. The juices were also good, and they were doing free-flow teas and coffees.
The renovated dining areas look smart, too. Ole seems best suited for the summer months, when you can while away the hours getting bitten by persistent mozzies on their sunny roof terrace, or sit in one of the huge open windows downstairs.
Ole Kitchen is a good option if you’ve exhausted the Yanping/Wuding area and don’t mind a short walk east. It’s best for casual, fresh brunches and lunches. Sit downstairs for people-watching or upstairs on the terrace for some sun.
Husk is always busy. I’ve now been for dinner there and, although I enjoyed the meal, I still can’t fully fathom why it’s so popular.
The positives: it’s fairly well-located on a small street just off West Nanjing. The interiors are stylish. There’s a ground-floor decked terrace, which is always lively during the summer. The food is fresh, it all tastes good, and there are some brunch/lunch sets on offer.
This place still left me a little cold, though. I have some questions.
Firstly: why is such pedestrian food so expensive? We paid 592rmb for a small Caesar salad (although it wasn’t advertised as such), a stingy seafood plate, half a (dry) roast chicken and some wine. There were no issues with the flavours but there was nothing particularly exciting going on here, and the portions weren't exactly generous.
Secondly: why are there no vegetarian or vegan options on the menu? If you’re looking for a veggie main course, your options are the bread basket, a couple of sides, and perhaps a soup. I understand the concept of supply and demand, but here I am, demanding. Please supply, Husk.
Husk is a classy but distinctively safe restaurant. It’s in a handy location if you’re shopping or working around West Nanjing. Expect well-presented but predictable food, and bring your own sandwich fillings if you’re vegetarian.
I hate queuing. I still haven’t been to RAC, Stack or that coconut bowl smoothie place. I once waited half an hour for one of those toasted marshmallow-topped hot chocolates (from Chocoholic in Old Xuhui), and it was disappointing. This leads to one of the many reasons why I love the Diner in Plaza 66 – it’s always empty.
It doesn’t deserve to be, but – thankfully – it is. I’ve never seen more than two other tables occupied when I’ve been. Diner’s middle-child is up on the gloriously bright top floor, fitted out with exactly the kinds of booths and chrome you’d expect.
The food is ace, unsurprisingly. The pancakes are a ridiculous, bombastic spectacle. The Eggs Benedict are served on cheesy cornbread – an anarchic and delicious upgrade. Pastrami hash is just as good as it sounds; fries are crispily, saltily perfect. And the pumpkin salad. I know it sounds like an unlikely hero, but it’s topped with a godly layer of puffed, deep-fried crispy chillies and salty peanuts. I couldn’t stop eating.
Shakes are great. Food’s great. Service is great. There’s a catch-22 fear in promoting this place (the queues will lengthen if it gets more popular, but it’ll inevitably close if it doesn’t), but I’d rather it lost its exclusivity than vanished altogether. Mains mostly range from 50-150rmb; some are a little pricier than the Shanghai average, but it’s more than worth it.
Diner’s Plaza 66 branch is the perfect pick for an amazing brunch without the crowds. Everything looks and tastes amazing; they’ve hit just the right balance between familiar dishes and fun twists. Please go and buy some pancakes so it stays open forever.
It’s a bit sad about Egg, because apparently they used to have a really good vegan bowl on the menu. They’ve rehashed it now, so it’s hard to order anything without their eponymous ji dan as a feature. You can get the avo toast without parmesan, and it’s pretty good, but it still feels like a lazy vegan option.
They are really good at eggs, though. We tried them in a dense and flaky shaobing with homemade sour plum ketchup, cheese and an undetectable (but advertised) tofu scallion mayo. We had one in a muffin with a slow-braised pork chop. Presumably, there was an eggy presence in the divine milk cereal and white chocolate cookie I ordered. You can even get a Vietnamese-style egg coffee, if the mood takes you, and order anything (possibly even the coffee) with an extra egg on top, cooked any way you flipping like, for 8rmb.
Honestly, there are some egg-free options. The avocado toast (minty!) isn’t egg-topped, and neither are the slow-braised “cloud beans” (hearty!). The coconut iced coffee doesn’t contain egg either, in case you were wondering. In total, for six people, we paid 490rmb – not-at-all-bad pricing for a not-at-all-bad brunch.
Egg is a bright but cozy neighbourhood brunch spot with a mix of classic and more interesting menu options. Prices are on point, and waiting times are fairly average. It’s worth a visit just for the cookies, but you should probably try at least one egg dish too.
I don’t know why Elijah Holland didn’t call Botanik ‘Persephone’ instead. It’s only around during the summer months (May – October), its food seems to come from the heart of Mother Earth herself, and it’s about as difficult to find as a kidnapped goddess.
On that last point, there aren’t any signs to Botanik. In Tianzifang, follow the arrows for The Plump Oyster instead. When you get there, look around for the verdant vertical garden growing out of the staircase wall, and climb up to the rooftop. When your surroundings feel like a particularly charming scene in a bucolic fairytale, you’ve arrived.
We started with some cocktails, which showcase the focus of the restaurant. Everything is based around foraged ingredients, and the flavours are bold: from truffley and mushroom-infused to sharp coconut. They also have a great wine selection, including some natural and orange wines, and bar staff so friendly I almost expected hand-woven bracelets and hugs with the bill.
At the table, there was a folded menu for the evening with its own little Botanik wax seal. It was long. Seventeen courses long. The menu changes every week or so, and I’m not going to spoil the surprises, but there was some beautiful cooking. The mushroom and jujube charcuterie made us both laugh out loud because it was just so good. The sprouted coconut heart with black garlic was unreal – smokey, soft and comforting. And the ice cream. My goodness. It involved bay leaf, bee pollen and buffalo milk, and it was one of the best moments of my year.
There are so many lovely little touches at Botanik. Until you speak to the chefs, it’s hard to imagine how this tiny, rustic open kitchen is turning out things like delicate, cheesey cracker “shells” for its razor clam course, or the lightest little peach jelly with Thai basil seeds. It makes sense when they come over to introduce the food, though. The whole team is committed to Holland’s magical vision, and they’re delivering it to their twenty guests each evening with finesse. The tasting menu is 688rmb per head; with drinks, we paid around 2600rmb for two.
Botanik is a magical little rooftop garden serving gorgeous, pretty, clever food. If you can’t get a dinner reservation this summer, go along for some of their idiosyncratic cocktails anyway, and set a reminder to book early when they (hopefully) reopen next May. It’s more than worth the effort.
Cactus is a Mexican restaurant most notable for its weeknight “value” deals, which aren’t even particularly great value. When I visited, for example, it was “Taco Thursday” – any taco for 10rmb. Tacos are tiny. Most Mexican places in the city wouldn’t charge you more than 30rmb for two, even when they’re not on offer and they’re filled with foie gras. Less than tempting.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a single vegetarian taco. Not a solitary spicy mushroom option. Pretty much the only veggie option on the whole menu is a taco salad, which was just a crisped tortilla bowl filled with iceberg lettuce, peppers, onions and tomatoes. The meat and fish options were okay as drink-accompanying canapés, but nothing to shout about.
Unsurprisingly, they also have drinks offers. On a Wednesday, it’s “Teachers’ Night”, which means free drinks for teachers for two hours. I don’t know about you all, laowai laoshi fam, but my Thursday timetable is terrible. I’d rather not risk the bad-tequila double-hangover I got from drinking there last time. Happy Hour also gets you margaritas for around 30rmb. They’re okay.
One of the only positive things about the experience was that they agreed to order in a cake for our friend’s birthday. It’s pretty unusual for a restaurant not to offer a birthday incentive on the house, though; we paid them 180rmb for the privilege. We ate as a big group and everyone ordered a lot of tacos, but – for my sad taco salad and three margaritas – I paid 135rmb.
Cactus is too far north of the laowai fun zone to really bring in big numbers. They’re trying hard with the nightly deals, but the food isn’t good enough to travel for. It’s okay for a couple of margaritas and snacks if you’re in the area.
Full disclosure: I visited Miss Fu in Chengdu (she isn’t, FYI; she's definitely in Shanghai) after a beer festival, which might have meant that I enjoyed the food more. I’d go back sober anytime, though, because it’s great and fun and cheap and fast and spicy as hell.
There’s an English menu (helpful!) on which you use your little Miss Fu pencil to label each item with how many you want, like a gluttonous IKEA trip. We ordered a ridiculous amount and finished almost everything.
First, you choose which broth you’d like your skewers to be served in. There are four different heat levels, plus some other flavours. We went with the medium, which was about right.
Next, choose your skewers. Rule #34 of Chinese restaurants applies here: if you can imagine it on a skewer (and it’s legal to eat), you can probably get it – from tripe to seafood rolls to meat-coated, meat-stuffed meatballs. There’s also a good range of veggie options; the pumpkin, mushrooms and beancurd were all good.
I know the skewers are normally the centerpiece, but the sides were the best part for me. The dumplings, drowned in chili oil and scattered with sesame and peanuts, were bomb. The topped noodles and crispy-fried, cumin-spiced pork were also great.
The service is pretty quick, too. In total, we paid 491rmb for four people, but we ordered enough food and beer to feed a small battalion – and get them pretty drunk, too, especially if they’d already been to a beer festival. Oop.
Miss Fu in Chengdu has several branches across the city, and it’s easy to see why they’re so popular. Its format means that dinner is endlessly customizable – perfect for group dinners. Go for the skewers, but don’t miss the dumpling and noodle sides.
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.