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.
To many, Chinese barbecue – or shaokao – is something best enjoyed while sitting on a plastic stool out on the street, after and along with a few cold beers. Hao Jiu Yi Qian (full name Hao Jiu Yi Qian Yang Rou Chuanr) is a chain that aims to recreate that kind of revelry indoor, since most of those outdoor operations have mostly been cleaned up.
That means happy staff, bright lights and music that can come on a little – or way – too strong. It’s not the place for a quiet meal, more the place for a boozy Friday night gathering with friends. Come here if you want to squeeze into a six person booth, down cold pints of cheap Chinese Budweiser, and eat lots of meat on a stick.
Also, every table receives complimentary cans of fresh air from Inner Mongolia, which has a pleasant, vaguely grassy smell. Make of that what you will.
Food: If you’ve ever enjoyed Chinese barbecue before, you’ll know what’s on offer here – various meats, vegetables and more, liberally oiled and seasoned, served on skewers and cooked over coals. Here, it’s prepared at your table, with a machine that manually rotates the skewers constantly until they’re ready, when staff remove them and add them to a rack for you to grab at.
It’s not the same as eating shaokao on the roadside, but it’s the closest you’re going to get downtown, and it has it’s highlights. The quality of the ingredients themselves is good, and the pair of dry seasonings that they hand you in sachets to dump on your plate – one spicy, one not – pack a bunch of flavor. The whole eggplant is a must. Standard pork, beef and lamb skewers are the highlights. As beer snacks, they’re almost as flawless as Japanese yakitori or Korean BBQ. Get the cold edamame to start, which arrive drenched in soy sauve, vinegar, chili and garlic. They’re probably the best I’ve ever had.
Service: Service is clearly something that these guys are trying to do well. Free snacks while you order, attentive staff flipping your skewers and refilling your beers – they’re aiming for a kind of Haidilao-lite, which they generally manage to hit.
Xing Yuan Yuan is a Shanghainese-focused Chinese join on the corner of Panyu and Fahuazhen Lu. It’s nicely decked out with classical Chinese illustrations on the wall which belies its very friendly pricing, but don’t get it twisted – this isn’t really an upmarket place. Rather it’s a classic, at times rowdy neighborhood-favorite kind of place. Its usually busy, portions are huge, and you’re looking at roughly RMB 80 each for a dinner for two, likely with leftovers. Solid Dianping ratings.
Last time I went, there was a group of young adults who burst into song not once but twice in baijiu-addled revelry. whether that sounds the kind of thing that to you makes a restaurant seem homely or a nightmare probably tells you whether this is the kind of place you’ll want to hit up.
With so many Chinese restaurants on every street, it can be hard to tell which ones actually merit a visit with a grueling process of trial and error. In this neighborhood, this on is worth trying.
Food: The menu is largely Shanghainese staples with a smattering of Sichuan dishes at the back and a few bougie, eye-wateringly expensive novelty items like turtle soup. That said, it doesn’t feel like it hues particularly close to one province or cuisine, instead offering reliable Chinese standards that make up for a lack of subtlety with a bunch of flavor. It can be hearty, spicy, anf warming in equal measure. Great for groups, too; portions are huge and everyone’s favorite dish will probably be found somewhere.
Highlights include round ‘cups’ of bread served around a bowl of pickles, which you fill them up with. Oily, spicy, and endlessly satisfying. Others are the simple “beef pot”, hunks of tender beef served in a boiling soup with cabbage and glass noodles, soup of real, funky tofu and aged Chinese ham, and of course hongshao rou. It’s the kind of place that won’t have you seeing fireworks but more than does the job if you’re in the neighborhood. I live nearby, and it’s a regular.
Service: Service is just fine. Staff are often busy, but they’ll keep you topped up with hot water and never seem to forget a dish or mess any orders up. Can’t really ask for more than that when you’re paying less than a hundred per person.
Atmosphere: Quan Er is a smart little beef hotpot restaurant nestled in amongst many on Dingxi Lu. It’s very much a modern hotpot joint, spread over two floors with slick design, big cuts of beef hanging behind the window to the kitchen, and a large window at the front to draw in passersby and let in a lot of natural light. It’s also popular, and likely busy whether you visit for lunch or dinner.
Atmosphere is generally one of calm, languorous hotpot enjoyment rather than the boisterous, boozy, big-group variety. It’s the kind of hotpot you could do as a date, but is probably best suited to a laidback dinner with a small group of friends.
Food: The specialty here is Chaoshan hotpot, a specific variety native to the eponymous area of Guangdong province that is all about beef, beef, beef. The broth is light and transparent, but flavored with beef for a warming, meaty richness. Beef is also the focus of the ingredients that you cook in the broth itself, with a variety of different cuts available. In general, it’s a lot less heavy on oil and spicy than what you probably picture when you think of hotpot, so can be a great option for those who are generally turned off by it.
With dishes like this how good it all is comes entirely down to the quality of the meat, and for the price that’s something that Quan Er delivers. Despite keeping prices relatively average for hot pot – you’re probably looking at RMB 100 to RMB 150 a person – the cuts of beef are plentiful and good quality. The same goes for the veggies and other hotpot staples. It’s a perfect warming winter meal when you’re looking for hotpot but don’t want to kill yourself with spice.
Service: Service is also typical of a modern hotpot place, in that it’s very good – staff are polite and bring along your sauce ingredients and dishes like well-oiled machines.
Atmosphere: Jinxian Lu, a really pleasant little street that runs just one block between South Shaanxi and x, is home to a few high-quality cocktail bars and a few very old, popular hole-in-the-wall Shanghainese spots, each a few doors down from each other. On a recent visit one had numerous groups waiting outside on plastic stools and promised a wait of an hour or more; one had a boss so grumpy that her insistence and what we should and shouldn’t order and where we should and shouldn’t sit drove us from the restaurant. Jin Yuan was the happy medium we settled for, and it proved to be a good choice. It's an old hole in the wall Shanghainese spot slinging homey versions of some of the classics of the cuisine, that feels like it would be good for small groups and more intimate dinners.
Food: The place itself is tiny with four or five tables only, and feels lived in, and that jibes nicely with the very rustic style of cooking – this is Shanghainese food that, though definitely decent, has that home-cooked feel. Highlights were a battered deep-fried fish, crisp without being heavy and sparingly seasoned with a typically Shanghainese sweet, light sauce and excellent jiu xiang cao kou, a ball of tiny green leaves cooked with alcohol that is fresh, crisp and light. They also do a pretty killer hongshao rou. They have menus in Chinese, English and Japanese, and prices are low. Rather than a cult favorite or must-visit, Jin Yuan is more of a pleasant go-to. Cheap, tasty and filling, it’s a solid option for a satisfying no-frills dinner whenever you’re in this part of town.
Service: Jin Yuan is very much a no-frilles kind of place, and service can be brusque, but it's friendly and attentive enough. It might not be five star treatment, but the manager will give you recommendations and keep your cup topped up with hot water. Plus, the place is so small that you won't struggle to get anyone's attention.
A Jiu is an all-you-can eat Japanese hot pot and sukiyaki restaurant, nestled in an alley just off of Wuyi Lu. For RMB 159 per person, you get a pot of one of eight or so flavors of hotpot OR either sweet or salty sukiyaki, a Japanese broth that arrives with a select few vegetables already stewing within. With that comes a full menu of meat, vegetables and appetizers that you can take your pick from. Drinks on top of that are cheap too, with Asahi going for RMB 19 and highballs for RMB 29. Would be good for a group dinner that you didn’t turning a little boozy.
For that price, what you get is a pretty great deal. The meats are good quality – the fatty beef in particular, which we ordered a second plate of – and the broths are just right. The traditional sweet sukiyaki in particular is rich and soothing, the mild flavors of the broth coming through just the right amount. Feels authentic. Cook a slice of meat, dredge it through a bowl of raw egg, and sigh.
The crowd is mostly local young couples and groups having an informal dinner and taking advantage of the deal. The friendly owner and staff, who you’re pretty likely to end up chatting to, says that the place has been open for 12 years and was the first of its kind of in Shanghai. Business has apparently gone a bit downhill since then, but it was still half full at dinner time on a recent Sunday. For a warming winter dinner when you’re trying to stuff yourself to satisfaction, it’s a pretty great spot.
Price: RMB 159 per person, plus drinks
Summary: All-you-can-eat Japanese hot pot and sukiyaki in Changning with a warm, welcoming atmosphere, friendly staff, and good quality food for the price. RMB 159 gets you a pot and all the meat and veggies you can cook on it. Good for groups.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.