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[What Remains]: Shanghai's 100-Year-Old Western Restaurant, Deda

History on a Plate: The Origins of Shanghai Cafe Culture and Chinese Western Cuisine
Sep 8, 2021 | 09:00 Wed

There are few things as deeply Shanghainese as the morning coffee scrum at Deda.

“There’s a crowd lined up when we open at 7:30am, especially in winter, and a contest for seats -- though less now as people are more worried about Covid,” describes Lu Xiaozhou, manager of the Nanjing Xi Lu flagship location of the 124 year old café.

“We have a more reliable client base, who come every day.”

The morning sessions are predominantly old Shanghainese men, the dappily-dressed laokele (“Old Color”) who are such a city signature, loudly gossiping in their garrulous Shanghaihua. Lunch and dinner are family affairs, often grandparents bring their grandchildren for the very same Shanghainese-style Western food, or "Haipai Xican", they first enjoyed with their own grandparents. Afternoon coffee is a mixed affair, less rambunctious than the morning and with the well-coiffed Shanghainese aunties showing off their satin qipaos or best pajamas while enjoying a strong brew, often paired with ice cream or condensed milk.

One of Shanghai’s oldest extant restaurants, Deda has relied on these regulars to avoid becoming a tourist trap of fossilized nostalgia. The menu recreates particular imported dishes that seeped into the Shanghainese palate and repertoire from its international community a century ago — popular vernacularized versions of imports like borsch, potato salad with pickles, schnitzel, and spaghetti. Not to mention sweets: the cake and cookie shop by the entrance gets brisk traffic, especially the local classic butterfly cookies, to go or to pair with the coffees.

Deda’s main location on Nanjing Xi Lu and a branch on food street Yunnan Lu both evoke Old Shanghai glamour, but in a less glitzy style: think 1980s Shanghai recalling pre-Art Deco 1920s Shanghai, with mosaic floors and flowery dark wood carvings and comfortably well-worn simple chairs and booths. First established in 1897 as a fresh and cooked meat shop in Hongkou at 177 Tanggu Lu, Deda evolved into a proper restaurant in the 1920s.

The official account says that Deda moved to its second premises on 359 Sichuan Bei Lu, near Nanjing Dong Lu, in 1949 – but a history in Shanghai Star claims that was initially a branch established in July 1946, and the Hongkou original survived into the 1960s.

That account specifies that Deda was first founded by French residents then sold to Chen Ansheng, whose son Chen Guobao left China in 1949 but not before overseeing the Nanjing Lu expansion, which could seat 140. Deda was nationalized in 1949, according to China Daily, coming under management of the Xinghualou Group, and which today oversees most of Shanghai’s top heritage restaurants including Gongdelin, Little Shaoxing, and Xiaojingling. Deda’s café section opened in 1952, and the restaurant also dabbled in experiments like sukiyaki, Suzhou, and Wuxi cuisine. Between 1963 and February 1973, writes Shanghai Star, Deda eschewed Western food entirely and had stints selling noodles, buns, and soup, as a hotel, as a dim sum outlet, and as a factory for paper bags and for packaging medicine.

Between 1986 and 1987, it assumed its current model of a ground floor café and more formal upstairs dining rooms.

The Sichuan Bei Lu site was redeveloped in 2007.

“We got this location,” part of a historic lane that goes deep into the block, “from the group in 2007, renovated it in 2008, and it opened in 2009,” says Lu.

The venue continues the layout of a café and cake shop on the street level, a dining room upstairs — and adding a formal event room on the third floor. The upper levels contain framed pictures from throughout Deda’s storied history, and silver utensils from over the years in frames and display cases.

The Yunnan Lu branch also opened in 2009, on the famous food street dating back to the 1940s but now under threat of demolition – though Xinghualou is maneuvering to maintain Deda and its other properties still there. 

Deda joins a small handful of Haipai Xican holdouts: the more modest Richard’s (Xin Licha), at 196 Guangyuan Xi Lu (with a branch at 2068 Xietu Lu) and the opulent Red House (Hongfanzi) with locations at 845 Huaihai Zhong Lu and 235 Shaanxi Nan Lu.

“Of Hongfangzi, it is not good or bad, just it has lost something,” describes Lu.

“It’s very expensive, more about appearances, like for tourists to Shanghai not local residents,” whereas “Richard’s is more like food you’d make at home.”

Lu also recalls Tian’e Ge, the Swan Pagoda, an old Shanghainese-style Italian restaurant demolished in the 1990s. Haipai Xican cake shops also abound, such as 1920s chain Kaisiling (Katherine’s), and the Park Hotel Bakery. Individual Haipai Xican dishes like borsht and schnitzel can be found on most Shanghainese restaurant menus still, and the breaded, fried schnitzel (zhazhupai) is ubiquitous as a street food, usually served with sticky rice cakes (niangao).

In Deda’s final years on Sichuan Bei Lu, says Lu, it was the haunt of famous Chinese opera stars and fans, from the theater was a few blocks away on Fuzhou Lu. Regulars included Peking Opera singer Wang Peiyu and comedians Wang Rugang and Li Jiusong. In the earlier era, according to Shanghai Star, it also attracted the likes of movie actor Qin Yi, reporter Lin Fang, and Chiang Kaishek’s sons Chiang Weikuo and Chiang Chingkuo.

Lu says the celebrities miss the most important story, which are the regular Shanghainese coming day after day, decade after decade.

“Deda is an old brand, and people come here on dates, or for special occasions, over their whole life.”

Lu describes one couple of regulars who celebrated their 70th anniversary there. Most Shanghainese can recall a family meal or first date at Deda.

Says Lu, “It gives them face. It has a history, a meaning, a memory, that they can pass down. People come for the stories, not just the food.”

“There are lots of Old Shanghai buildings still here, but most people of the area have disappeared now. Deda is a way to enjoy a little bit of history on a plate,” describes Hugues Martin, who maintains the extensive Shanghai history blog Shanghailander.net.

A French national resident in Shanghai since 2004, Martin has been going to Deda several times a year since its reopening for “Luo Song Tang (罗宋汤), the Russian Borscht soup with carrot and cabbage” or afternoon tea and cake.

“Deda is a piece of Old Shanghai that is still hanging around after so many years. It was one of the few places where one could still get western style food a few decades ago. Nowadays, Western food is everywhere but quite different from those old recipes that were carried through time.”

It makes one wonder what of today’s many fusions may survive and adapt a century hence.

For now, Shanghai is a city that loves its coffee, and its coffee shops — now outcrowding hair salons and realtors for urban predominance. Long before Starbucks arrived in 1999, even before KFC coffee sloshed into town in the 1980s, Deda and others like it – including Donghai, Tian’e’ge, Richards, and the recently revived White Horse Café – integrated Eastern European café culture into the Shanghainese lifestyle, to stay.

“Café culture is a specialty of Old Shanghai, particularly handmade coffee, which is now hard to find as machine-made coffee dominates,” says Lu.

“Shanghainese people still like this kind of coffee, even as it’s become rare – it’s the Old Shanghai flavor. Other places in China came later to coffee culture, and their incomes were lower — and Shanghai has always been early to adapt outside cultures. People from the rest of China prefer tea, or hot water. Shanghainese like a caffeine high, and the lifestyle in cafes. The rest of China has gotten café culture from us.”

Lu, himself in his 30s, surmises that, “The old generation likes the old style, lingering over their drinks, while the young have more of a fast culture. Still, anyone, if they have the time, will like the old way.”

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Deda has two locations in Shanghai.  They're both listed right here.

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