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.
You hear mixed things about Bella Napoli. Some people swear by it as their go-to Italian spot, the place you can go to on a weeknight and get reliable staples on the reg. Others seem to think it’s bland, a rip-off, or both.
After a recent visit, I’m pretty much right in the middle. The food itself is OK, some of it pretty good even. The rucola and prosciutto pizza, in particular, was a real winner – great crust, quality toppings. Our salad, with similar ingredients, was just fine, as was an under-seasoned sausage risotto. Fine, but not much better. Hard to be mad at, hard to get excited about.
You can get better Italian than this, without going far – La Vite, which I’ve reviewed before, is a few blocks away, and offers more authentic-feeling and comforting food. You get the feeling they could do better if they wanted, but don't really need to anymore.
Where it gets extra points is the location, which is honestly great and a clue as to how the place still commands a lot of affection despite being one of the oldest Italians in town. Tucked away down an unassuming alley off Changle Lu that gives it just enough of a hidden vibe, it’s hard not to be won over the first time you hang right and wander into an open courtyard and restaurant that looks just like your favorite Italian spot back home. On a Thursday night at 8:30pm it was still busy with tables having a laidback meal and a bottle or two, the contented murmur of a lot of people having a low-stakes good time.
It’s this space, not the food, that makes it worth stopping by. But that still means it’s worth a visit.
Price: RMB 100 – RMB 200 per person
Summary: Italian stalwart that matches a cozy location with decent if uninspiring food. Not the place to be blown away by great cooking, but maybe the place to impress a date that hasn’t been before, or just get a couple pizzas and bottles in with friends when you’re in the neighborhood.
If you’re looking for somewhere new to catch up over a coffee, get some work done, or just chill somewhere that feels like an oasis of calm, Slash Workshop is a place you should hit up. t’s hidden at the very back of a residential compound on Xinhua Lu, sharing a tranquil pocket of Shanghai with a cat café and a friendly local community center. It’s all leafy, hazy, butterflies-fluttering-by-your-head good vibes here. Tranquil. To get there, enter the compound – which at time of writing is being totally torn up by maintenance and construction work – go to the very back, then hang right. Follow that to the end. Get a table on the terrace out back.
This is what you’re coming for – to go somewhere that feels undiscovered and truly relaxed. You’re probably not going for the food and drink. The coffee is fine, if a little on the bland side. The food menu itself is pretty average – the bacon and sausage set is OK, tasty enough but basically a salad with supermarket-quality meat. The standard roast vegetable salad is overdressed, a little wet, and doesn’t contain many roasted vegetables. Portions are a little small for the price, too (RMB 58 and up). They do a burger for RMB 38, which looks OK. Judging by Dianping there are a number of dishes that they only sell a certain amount of per day, which if they’re better than the regular menu could inject a bit of fun into ordering, I guess.
But you’re best off getting lunch beforehand at one of the many great options in this neighborhood and strolling over here for some caffeine and chat after. It’s really hard not to be charmed by this place. That’s why you’re seeing those four green circles at the top of this review, despite the middling food – as purely a café and a space to rock up and let a couple of hours pass you by, it doesn't get much more mellow or atmospheric than this.
Price: RMB 25 – RMB 100
Summary: Leafy, tranquil vibes at this mellow café tucked away in the back of a residential compound. The food and drinks are just OK, but you’re going for the ambience. Perfect place for a lazy afternoon somewhere that feels truly hidden.
Lotus is a sleek, spacious restaurant on Changning Lu serving up the oft-overlooked foods of China’s central Hubei province. It’s got some really nice design flourishes, friendly staff, and reps a little-known regional cuisine that you don’t see getting too much love around here. Some nice window seating too.
Hubei doesn’t come up too often in discussions of Chinese food, maybe because geographically it butts up against the culinary heavyweights Hunan and Chongqing. But the province and particularly its capital city, Wuhan, are well-known for one thing – re gan mian, or “hot dry noodles”. Having spent my first year in China in Wuhan, I’m a little biased, but these noodles – served with a dry peanut butter sauce, a splash of vinegar, and a smattering of tangy Chinese pickles - deserve to be famous. (Sidenote; Wuhan is also known for being a key city when it comes to Chinese punk music, and has some great underground venues – it’s a better city than people say it is).
At Lotus the re gan mian are authentic and insanely addictive, the flavorbomb that they’re supposed to be. They’re a perfect alternative to rice as your staple for the meal and, at RMB 8 a bowl, very cheap (albeit not as cheap as they are back in Wuhan). Order one bowl for each diner.
Flavors in Hubei are generally rich, spicy, and fermented, not too different from those across the border in Hunan. The rest of the menu is rounded out by other Wuhan favorites. These include dou pi – tofu skin laid over sticky rice and chunks of marinated tofu, another snack that you should also order – and braised Wuchang fish, named for a Wuhan district and piled high with diced beansprouts and pork. There’s a ton of flavor on this one, but beware – it’s boney.
In general, this is an expansive menu with a lot of unfamiliar elements on it, but also a good hit-to-miss ratio. In my experience staff have been happy to point you in the right direction, and the recommendation stickers on the menu itself are generally on point. In all, it’s a great spot if you’re looking for a Chinese restaurant that has some nice ambience without breaking the bank, all while serving up unique dishes that you won't find elsewhere.
Price: RMB 150 for two
Summary: A spacious two-floor restaurant in Changning slinging the rich, big-flavor cuisine of Hubei province. Go for the specialty re gan mian – “hot dry noodles” – and stay for the varied array of regional dishes and friendly service. Great for trying out a new cuisine in a nice environment.
On Huaihai Lu, there’s a smart second-floor hotpot restaurant slinging coconut chicken hot pot. It’s apparently a specialty on the island province of Hainan and, perhaps surprisingly, it’s pretty much as good as it sounds.
The vibe is hotpot with a modern makeover, vaguely tropical with lots of wood, tiles, and chains. It looks really nice actually, slicker than your average Hai Di Lao but less consciously fancy than somewhere like Elixir. Great service, too, which makes it good for casual groups or a date if you’re trying to show someone something a bit different.
You start by ordering your coconut water broth, choosing whether you’d like half a chicken or a full one, and build up from there, ordering your various slices of meat, veggie selections, tofu products, whatever. Everything is decent quality. The stars of the show, though, are that broth and that chicken – when they get to know each other over the heat, the result is a kind of savory coconut treat that tastes killer slurped up as a soup.
Shout outs to the sauce / condiment selection as well. These are a bit lighter than your average hotpot joint, and everything fits the flavor really well. Some really nice pickles and chilies in there, as well as some tiny oranges to squeeze in.
It’s a hook; it’s a gimmick. But it’s a fun twist, and the food manages to speak for itself. I went in entirely skeptical and came out convinced by what is essentially hotpot cleaned up and given a whole new flavor profile. It scratches a totally different itch to the spicy, oily stuff – rather than replacing those, it’s more likely to enter your rotation as the spot you go to when you want the warmth and the experience, but maybe not the heaviness. If that makes it sound more like a one-off curio to check out once for the novelty, you should still swing by – I can imagine some people going crazy for this place.
Price: RMB 150 per person
Summary: A smart hot pot restaurant in the iAPM neighborhood specializing in coconut hot pot, cooking a half or full chicken and various other ingredients in a coconut-infused broth. It’s a gimmick that works, and well worth trying if you’re looking for something different or a generally lighter and healthier way to get your hot pot fix. Good vibes and service.
As far as entrances go, Bo Duo Xin Ji’s is pretty great. It’s hidden down an alley off Nanchang Lu, right behind iAPM (you can also enter from Fuxing Lu). It doesn’t get much more downtown than that, but turning the alley and entering the quiet residence compound for dinner is definitely atmospheric. Would be fun for visiting out-of-towners. Once inside, you’ll go up to a spacious second-floor dining room that is usually busy and usually noisy. It feels lived in, like it would’ve been filled with cigarette smoke just a few years back. Clientele skews older and local.
The food itself isn’t quite as impressive. It’s one of those old-school joints with a massive picture menu, hundreds of dishes that make it difficult to pick out the highlights. The roast meats – duck and pork - are a safe bet, as are the cold chicken dishes. Anything that looks like it has green leaves and was sautéed with shrimp sauce will be good. The stir-fried cauliflower that you’ll find at places across the spectrum of Chinese cuisine is here livened up with dried shrimp and tiny chunks of crispy pork fat, which is kind of genius.
If you’re looking for refined and delicate Cantonese, though, this isn’t it. It’s oily, heavy, and the vast menu is a bit hit-and-miss. It’s not bad by any means – I’ve gone plenty of times, by choice – but you’re going more for the vibe and you want to make sure you order the right stuff. On my last visit we ordered an intriguing-sounding fish skin dish, and that… wasn’t cool. The ideal scenario would probably be with a fairly big group of adventurous eaters, so that there’s room for error. Couples that know their way around a menu will have a good time too.
Still, walking down the alley, up into the bustling dining room upstairs, definitely has the potential to be a great start to an evening.
Price: RMB 100 – RMB 200 per person
Summary: Popular old Cantonese restaurant hidden down an alley. The food isn’t as impressive as the journey there – it might be a bit oily for some – but you’ll find a large menu with a few highlights, and you could find worse spots for impressing an open-minded visitor. Good for groups.
When I first came to Shanghai a few years back, the old Shanghai Brewery on Hengshan Lu was the spot, at least for me. Actual craft beer, some of the best burgers in town, OK prices, and a real Western chain-pub feel. It was heaven for a new transplant with an “entry-level” salary.
Times have changed though. Craft beer and burgers are everywhere. There’s real competition out there now. It feels like Shanghai Brewery, despite the move to buzzing Donghu Lu, hasn’t quite managed to keep up.
Weirdly, nowadays Shanghai Brewery is a brewery that doesn’t seem to actually brew much beer. They have their own Donghu White IPA on the menu, but other than that you’re looking at macro beers like Stella or locals like Mad Dragon IPA. That last one is pretty good. But it’s a pretty lackluster beer selection, and at a time when you can’t walk down the street in Shanghai without spilling someone’s Saison, that’s not a great look for a place with the word ‘brewery’ right there in the name. You get the sense that it’s busy all the time for its comfortingly generic vibes and central location more than anything else.
As a beer bar, they play it straight down the middle. Lots of space, wooden tables, sports screens, a decent enough street-side terrace. In terms of food, they do the same. It’s bar food. Burgers with toppings like chili or feta cheese and pepperoni, Tex Mex, pizzas, you know the rest.
It doesn’t do anything wrong, but it doesn’t really knock anything out of the park either – everything on the menu (food and drink) you can find better elsewhere. You don’t expect fine dining or inventiveness on a bar menu, but when you take that into account the fact that other comparable venues are really putting the effort in – Liquid Laundry is a 2-minute walk away - the pricing starts to feel a bit aggressive. RMB 98 for a just-OK burger doesn’t really cut it anymore.
Still, those burgers taste pretty good. The nachos too. Inoffensive. When I come here for the trivia nights they host every Wednesday, I’m not mad when I have to grab a bite here. Basically, it’s not something you’d travel to for dinner, but it might be the kind of place that you find yourself three beers deep and in need of some quick grub. Given its location, it’s likely you’ll find yourself in there at some point, and if that’s your situation, I guess you could do worse.
Price: RMB 150 – RMB 200 per person
Summary: Popular, inoffensive craft bar on the buzzing Donghu Lu strip. Slightly lackluster beer selection for somewhere with “Brewery” in the name, and the food is just-above average bar grub, but it’s fine for casual drinks.
Miss Fu in Chengdu is a Sichuan joint specializing in chuan chuan - small, usually spicy skewers delivered your table in a bowl of potent chili oil. Great drinking food, especially if you’re into heat.
The place always seems to have a big queue. Like, at least an hour or two. What you need to do is hit up Dianping and get a number in advance a couple hours before you want to eat. Then, you can get a drink at Stone or The Cannery down the street and roll up 10 minutes before your number is due to come up (that's if you're hitting the Yuyuan Lu branch; there are a few around town).
When you make it in, you’ll be rewarded with addictive spicy skewers and an atmosphere that’s probably the closest to an old-school street-food shaokao spot that you can get while being indoors, spread over three small floors.
You basically pick by the skewer a range of meats, vegetables, tofu, and whatever else you can think of, plus maybe some noodles if you need something a bit more filling. The dan dan mian are solid enough, as are the rice noodles. Everything is pretty cheap per skewer, but you obviously want at least one per-type per-person. Still, you’re not likely to be looking at much more than RMB 100 per head, even with beers (which you’ll definitely want). The menu is all in Chinese.
Beware of the spiciness – there are options starting from No Spice to Minimal Spice and then all the way up, but they seem to be really using the real Chengdu scale here. We went for wei la, third up the list from the bottom, and it was already more than some would be able to handle. If that sounds like fun, then this is the place for you.
It’s very simple food, not much in the way of finesse, but Miss Fu in Chengdu packs a lot of flavor and is a great option for fun, communal dining. Once you finally get a table.
Price: Around RMB 100 per person
Summary: Lively, always packed Sichuan spot specializing in chuan chuan, or spicy skewers. Good for chili junkies, small beer-fueled group dinners, and off-beat date for couples into spicy Chinese food.
Liu Tang Men - formally known as Liu Dao Men - is Sichuan noodles done right. This might sound like a big claim, but as far as noodles go in Shanghai, they really don’t get much better. Especially at this price point.
The dan dan mian, a Sichuan classic, is delicious – toothsome noodles covered with spiced minced pork, chili oil, and crushed peanuts – but it’s snack size. You should get them, but you can also grab a plate of Yibin Burning Noodles for a full-size portion of something pretty similar. The Chongqing Advanced Noodles (or wanza mian) are also a treat, and a little less dry, coming through with a topping of minced pork and chickpeas. Mix it up and its magic, the chickpeas disintegrating and creating a thick, almost creamy sauce. Most options will set you back between RMB 25 and RMB 40, can come vegetarian if requested, and have customizable spice levels. They're also often available either dry or with soup.
There are a few side dishes available, like crispy fried pork, sauteed green veggies, and wontons. Good for if you're going for a bit of a bigger meal.
It helps a lot that the atmosphere matches the food. It’s a laidback spot with an interesting music selection. On sunny days, the owner – who Smart Shanghai themselves call “an aging rocker from Chengdu” - is likely to be sat outside the entrance with his dog, banging on a hang drum. Good vibes.
This a great regular option if you’re in the neighborhood, but these noodles are also worth travelling for. If you have any interest at all in Sichuan cuisine, or just noodles in general, you really should stop by.
Price: RMB 30 – RMB 60 per person
Summary: A smart neighborhood noodle spot serving up classic Sichuan noodles as well as a selection of side dishes. Friendly owners, laidback café vibes, and killer noodles. Good either for a quick lunch or more languorous dinner.
You’ve probably passed by Dong Jing Ye Shu a bunch of times, heading down Fumin Lu on the way to Donghu, Julu, or one of the of bars and restaurants in between. They serve up a full range of Shanghainese favorites along with a couple of other greatest hits dishes that you’ll find on a lot of other menus around town. Go for the Shanghai stuff. A lot of people say that they don’t like Shanghainese cuisine’s sweetness and light touch, but this place does it really well.
The place itself feels mid-range and old-school, like a fancy old dining room that has been allowed to age a little bit. It has some charm, some atmosphere, and a crowd. Definitely more of a round tables, big group sort of spot.
A few of the dishes really stand out, like rich minced crab over scrambled egg whites, drunken chicken (or zui ji) cooked in yellow wine and served cold, and a hongshao (or dongpo?) pork that is probably one of the best I’ve had in town. The jiu xiang cao tou, “grass tips” cooked in alcohol, was great too.
Despite slinging local cuisine, this is something different from your average foreigner-friendly Chinese place. Good to try out if you’re getting a little tired of Dongbei, Sichuan, or whatever Yunnan place you and your crew go to every other week. If you’re intermediate with Chinese food and/or the Chinese language, I’d venture that it’d be a decent place to take an adventurous out-of-towner that wants to sample something really local, too.
Price: RMB 150 per person
Summary: An old-school dining room serving up a good-to-great menu of mostly Shanghainese classics, in a killer downtown location. Excellent option for a group dinner before hitting one of the many, many bars in the neighborhood.
It’s not often that I find myself dropping RMB 80 on a bowl of noodles. It’d be plain wrong of me to say that these dishes aren’t worth spending money on, but Shanghai has such a smorgasbord of great value, epically delicious bowls that I’ve never really found the need to.
But what do you know – recently I sat down to a meal for four, spent RMB 100 per person on noodles and a couple of shared sides, and left feeling pretty great about it. Even weirder, it was at an anonymous chain store on the top floor of iAPM. The place is literally a counter-top kitchen with food court-style seating around it, so its light on atmosphere – and will be anathema to those that hate dining in malls on principle – but hey, service is quick and it’s easy to get in and out.
The noodles that convinced me are the lightly spicy bowl of dry beef noodles, sprinkled with shavings of thinly shaved high-grade beef and smothered in thick sesame sauce, with a runny poached egg to break apart and stir in. Man, these things. So rich, so hearty, so addictive. Loved them. Also have a lot of good things to say about the spicy stinky tofu noodles that one of my dining partners had. All the noodles had this great toothsome, al dente texture that I really liked.
A lot of people wouldn’t bother coming here when there’s an Ippudo Ramen downstairs and so much great, affordable Chinese food elsewhere in the neighborhood around this mall. Fair enough. I’m not trying to eat here every day. But, it’s something different and something delicious - I’ll be back.
Price: RMB 80 – RMB 100 per person
Summary: Pricy but solid noodle bar on the top floor of iAPM serving up bougie mian, food court-style. There’s no atmosphere and you’ll pay a premium, but ingredients are quality and the flavor is there. Worth stopping by to try out their beef and sesame sauce noodles.
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.