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[The List]: Chinese Chain Restos

Fresh off the boat? No idea where to get a taste of the local cuisine? Here's a shortlist of places to get you started. You're welcome.
2014-09-18 17:30:37
You'd think it would be easy to find a decent Chinese meal in China, but you'd be wrong—especially in Shanghai. There is a vast sea of dining options to navigate in this city—some of them great, some of them just half-assed tourist traps. And don't even get us started on cleanliness issues. So here is a little public service for some of you Shanghai newbies out there. We've compiled a shortlist of some reliable standards. You're welcome.


Wai Po Jia (外婆家)

Cuisine: Zhejiang

Wai Po Jia got its start 16 years ago in nearby Hangzhou by a former plastics factory worker named Wu Guoping. Since then it has expanded to over 20 cities in China. In Shanghai, the chain has built a sterling reputation for its slick decor, friendly service, and good food—three things you seldom see in the same sentence when describing Shanghai restaurants. Not only that, the place is eminently affordable, making it an extremely popular place to eat. So expect long waits for tables at peak hours. Nevertheless, these guys are such good hosts that they even provide Macintosh computers in the foyer so you can keep yourself amused until your table is ready.

Per Person Average: 60rmb
Specialties: Hongshao Rou(红烧肉), Mapo Doufu(麻婆豆腐), Organic Cauliflower(有机花菜), Tea-Scented Chicken(茶香鸡)

Xiao Nan Guo/Shanghai Min (小南国)

Cuisine: Shanghainese

In 1987 Shanghai native Wang Hui Ming sold her flat shortly after getting married in order to fund the very first Xiao Nan Guo on Beijing Lu. The place was just big enough for five tables. Jump cut to 2014. The place is a Shanghai cuisine institution and now has 80 branches spread between Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Macao. They've even diversified with a restaurant-spa crossover concept on Hongmei Lu. It looks like the brand is growing even more now too. Earlier this year the company announced a partnership with Schussler Creative, the company behind such cheesy concept restaurants as Rainforest Cafe. They're supposed to be opening something called "The Boat House" late next year. We're not sure what exactly that entails. Maybe it'll be like this place, but probably not quite so shitty.

Per Person Average: 170rmb
Specialties: Tofu with Crab Sauce(蟹粉豆腐), Sautéed river shrimp(清炒河虾仁), Hongshao Rou(红烧肉), Drunken Chicken(醉鸡), Steamed Shad(清蒸鲥鱼)

Xibei Youmian Cun (西贝莜面村)

Cuisine: Xibei

Xibei Youmian Cun is one of the more unique chain restaurants you'll fine in China. The specialty here is cuisine from China's Northwestern provinces—a mix of the cuisines of Shanxi and Mongolia. This is hearty cuisine with a focus on meats like mutton and beef. Rather than rice, the staple grains here are oat and corn. Both find there way into seemingly every dish. Look for dishes like their youmian wowo, a honeycomb of steamed wheat noodles that you dip in mutton or mushroom broth. They also do an excellent homemade tofu. To learn more about Xibei Youmain Cun, check out this piece we published a few years back.

Per Person Average: 85rmb
Specialties: Youmian Wowo (莜面窝窝), Roasted Lamb(烤羊棒), Youmian Yuyu (莜面鱼鱼)

South Memory (望湘园)

Cuisine: Hunan

This 12 year-old brand is wildly popular in Shanghai, largely because it's managed to tweak the recipes just enough to suit Shanghai's persnickety tastes. Call it "Hunan light." In other words, if you're a spice junky, South Memory might fall just short of the mark. Still it's a solid option, with an attractive, clean environment, generally good service and value for money. Moreover, English menu descriptions are clear. So you won't have to worry about any nasty surprises arriving at your table. Be sure to arrive before 6pm to avoid long queues.

Per Person Average: 80rmb
Specialties: Fish Head with Two Kinds of Chilies (剁椒双色鱼头), Dry Pot Bull Frog(香锅牛蛙), Torn Pickled Cabbage(手撕包菜)

70s Restaurant (70后饭吧)

Cuisine: Eclectic Chinese

This theme restaurant is suffused with nostalgia of the 1970's. The dining room is decked out in vintage furniture, hardwood and tile floors, lots of exposed brick and there are bits of memorabilia like VW buses and stuff. It's probably not a very accurate rendering of 1970's China, to be honest, but odds are you didn't grow up here then anyway, so either way it'll be lost on you. Nevertheless, the food is pretty good. Ironically, none of it really harks back to 70's food culture. Rather, it's more eclectic and innovative. Think: tofu burgers with condensed milk sauce, or youtiao with pinapples etc. Not all of it is that weird, though. Plenty of comforting home style dishes are available too, like seafood pao fan or steamed eggs and pork.

Per Person Average: 65rmb
Specialties: Seafood Pao Fan (海鲜泡饭), Spicy Chicken (椒麻鸡), Mouth Watering Shrimp (口水虾), Mom's Steamed Eggs and Pork (妈妈的蛋蒸肉)

Haidilao (海底捞)

Cuisine: Hot Pot

Hai Di Lao had humble beginnings as a lowly ma la tang shop in the small Sichuan town of Jianyang. Founder Zhang Yong opened it with only 1000rmb. The investment ultimately paid off handsomely. Today, Hai Di Lao is widely lauded as one of the biggest hot pot brands in China. It's famous for it's ludicrously good service. While you wait for your table attendants will polish your shoes or perform manicures. They've even got bathroom attendants. The food is equally good and reasonably priced as well.

Per Person Average: 110rmb
Specialties: Shrimp Paste(虾滑), Tomato Hot Pot(番茄锅)

Spicy Joint (辛香汇)

Cuisine: Sichuan

Not long after it opened its first store in Shanghai, this Sichuan restaurant became notorious for long queues. Chalk it up to low prices and large portion sizes. They've got both in spades. Purist may carp that the spice levels are a bit low, but if you're new to Sichuan cuisine or have an aversion to excessive chilies, it's a solid choice. Points in its favor: Unlike a lot of these places, Spicy Joint accepts reservations.

Per Person Average: 65rmb
Specialties: Spicy Bullfrog(馋嘴牛蛙), Chicken Pot(钵钵鸡), and Poached Catfish(水煮鲶鱼)

Feng Shou Ri (丰收日)

Cuisine: Ningbo

This family-owned company got its start in the late 90's and is widely regarded as a leader in creative Zhejiang cuisine. The focus here is on Ningbo-style food, so naturally, fresh fish from the East China Sea plays prominently on the menu.

Per Person Average: 120rmb
Specialties: Crab with Scallions (葱油膏蟹, onion oil crab), Cuttlefish in Sour Soup(酸汤墨鱼)、Salt and Pepper Fried Bombay Duck Fish(椒盐龙头烤)

Hen Gaoxing Yujian Ni (很高兴遇见你)

Cuisine: Eclectic Chinese

Named after his recent book by the same name, Hen Gaoxing Yujian Ni ("Nice Meeting You") is a partnership between famous Chinese author, blogger and race car driver Han Han and Alan Yu, who used to run the kitchen at the Shanghai branch of 8 1/2. Opened earlier this year, it quickly became a hit with Shanghai's young upwardly mobile set. Before long it expanded to four branches and two dessert stores. The food pushes the envelope with "nudge, wink" names and daring flavor combos, like Beijing Duck.

Per Person Average: 130rmb
Specialties: "House of Cards" Ribs, "You Haven’t Eaten My Tofu", Beijing Duck Quesadillas, Fried Chicken From the Stars

Tang Gong (唐宫)

Cuisine: Cantonese

Tang Gong's history in the Chinese Mainland goes back to 1997 and is popular for its Hong Kong-style Cantonese cuisine. Atmosphere varies greatly from branch to branch. Some are simple, with plain and open floor plans. Others adhere to a gaudier neo-Shanghai aesthetic. Food quality, however, is pretty much uniform from store to store. Tang Gong is particularly popular for its roasted fowl and Cantonese-style barbecue. Again, at peak hours this place packs up quick. Get there early if you don't want to miss out specialties like roast pigeon.

Per Person Average: 110rmb
Specialties: Roast Pigeon(乳鸽), Shrimp Dumplings(虾饺皇), Durian Puffs(榴莲酥)