The New Richard Restaurant is a no-good, very bad, terrible place to eat.
I’ve been three times. Three times, I’ve poked around the potato salad wondering what made it so sweet, cut the steak with the side of my fork, wondering what made it so tender, and broken open la piece de resistance — the German “Hamburg” steak, a properly round ball of ground... stuff and wondered what exactly that stuff is made of.
This would all be an exercise in masochism if not for the history of the place. See, for everything the New Richard Restaurant lacks in food, it makes up for in story. It’s an example of what happens when two cultures collide. It’s like pizza made in the Congo. It’s like spaghetti made in Peru. It’s like... it’s like... letting Shanghainese drive the Western cuisine car for a few minutes, just to see what would happen. I can tell you, they don’t drive on the same side of the road.
The Richard restaurant started out in the 1920s on Fuzhou Lu, a notorious street in those days, with hookers and thieves, serving a legendary chicken curry. (Other sources note that the restaurant at the Astor House hotel was also called the Richard restaurant, though the one I’m talking about makes no reference to that.)
Fast forward to the mid-1980s, and a pretty visionary businessman looked at the landscape and decided what Shanghai needed was a western restaurant — like the ones it had before the war. (There are other dinosaurs with similar stories around, like the Red House, but what calls out to me at the New Richard Restaurant is how local it is.) There were still plenty of people young enough to remember going out to western restaurants for Portuguese chicken, a kind of cream-and-gristly-chicken bombshell, and for seafood smothered in béchamel sauce, not to mention the classics: luo song tang, Shanghai’s famous beet-less borscht, and the pork schnitzel, which comes in four different flavors at New Richard.
It’s easy to imagine how it came about, really. The owner at the time went searching for western dishes, but the only place he could find them was in the past, and so this time capsule of a restaurant was born. I wasn’t here in the 1980s, at the height of its fame — a friend of mine’s parents went on one of their first dates during that period — but it doesn’t feel like much has changed. The waitresses are way past the age when they’d be playing with WeChat, as is much of the clientele. The opening hours — they close at 8pm — are another hint at who the customers are.
And this is one of the most surprising things about the New Richard Restaurant — at lunch, the place fills up with 20 and 30-somethings working nearby, contentedly chowing down on strangely tender steaks, and single lamb chops served in ice cream sundae cups. In an age when Shanghai’s western cuisine is at peak variety and peak quality, there is still a hardcore contingent of people who like their Western cuisine thoroughly mixed up, sweetened, and served back to them through the prism of a Shanghainese cook's eye. It’s the epitome of hai-pai, the classic blending of East and West that Shanghai made famous, and for that, the New Richard Restaurant can’t be beat.
The New Richard Restaurant is at 196 Guangyun Lu, near Tianping Lu.