Last Updated October 2018
Eating out is an obsession in Shanghai, a city that reportedly has more than 100,000 restaurants. Most corners of the planet are represented in the city’s food landscape, on top of every regional style of Chinese food one could possibly want, and every budget is catered to, from budget noodles to high-end Cantonese and western fine dining that pushes 1,000 USD per person.
So where to go? The best way to answer the perennial question of where to go is like this: Do you want Chinese or not Chinese?
To generalize, the food of central and southwestern China is spicier than the rest of the country. That includes the provinces of Hunan, Sichuan, and Guizhou, and the city of Chongqing. The spice from Hunan is hot but not “numbing” (no Sichuan peppercorn), the spice from Sichuan is more numbing than spicy, and people from Chongqing like a mixture of the two. Guizhou is often quite spicy but with a sour accent, but it’s kind of a moot point: there are few to no Guizhou restaurants in Shanghai.
This can be a whole host of cuisines, many of which bear little resemblance to each other: the light touch of Cantonese food with its vegetables and seafood; the sweet, boozy cooking of Shanghai; the salty seafood of Ningbo; hearty dumplings and meat from northeastern China, known as Dongbei; pulled noodles and lamb from Henan and Lanzhou; the river food of Hubei; Beijing’s roast duck and opulent imperial cuisine; the tropical, herbal flavors of Yunnan; and the lamb and breads of Xinjiang.
Exploring Chinese food is an endless task and being comprehensive or definitive in a recommendation is almost impossible. That said, there are a few places that are popular day in and day out for their various cuisines. For nice Cantonese and great dim sum, Lei Garden and Seventh Son are among the best. For cheaper, more workaday diner-style Cantonese in a cool retro dining room, there is Cha’s. If you are susceptible to very cool decor, there is nothing like Sense 8, known in Chinese as Yu Ba Xian, and its sensational interiors. For Shanghai, the choices are endless but both Old Jesse and Jianguo 328 are popular with Shanghainese and laowai. Dongbei food is dominated by the Four Seasons Dumpling King. Lanzhou la mian (hand-pulled noodles) is a street-side snack with no big chain to recommend. For roast duck, old-time duck brand Quan Ju De is cheap and serviceable; at Xindalu in the Hyatt on the Bund, it comes with five-star service. Yunnan is best at Lost Heaven for that touristy but romantic vibe; the much cheaper Lotus Eatery is a favorite for locals. Xinjiang food comes in either nouveau environments like Spice Bazaar or Xibo, or in more traditional, down-home places like the Uyghur restaurant and Yershari. For spicy food, your first stop should be the Chongqing chain Yu Xin for a full meal and then Liu Tang Men for proper Sichuan noodles. Round two at either Tiffany blue chain Maurya or insanely spicy Ben Lai. For hot pot, which was perfected in Sichuan, the chain Hai Di Lao sets the standard for over-the-top service and is the best first point of entry. For Hunan, Guyi and Di Shui Dong are go-to’s for a reason.
Dividing the world this way lumps together a lot of disparate restaurant scenes: hundreds of Japanese restaurants catering to residents of western Shanghai; dozen of Korean restaurants in Koreatown; the fine dining temples on the Bund; the stoner-friendly delivery sandwich contingent; neighborhood pizzerias; authentic taco shops; dependable Element Fresh. The options here are extremely varied and hard to sum up, but let’s try. At the more affordable end of the spectrum, there are the popular cafes, restaurants and bakery chains like Baker & Spice, Wagas (who own Baker & Spice, natch), and Element Fresh serving sandwiches, salads, smoothies and the like. These are everyday options. Slightly above that, there are a host of neighborhood restaurants that don’t get much press but still pack them in year after year, like the Italian joints Da Marco and Bella Napoli, French restaurant Le Saleya, and the Mediterranean Mr. Willis. And then you have fine dining. More on that below.
Shanghai has a vibrant community of Japanese and Korean expats that numbers in the tens of thousands, and there is an entire ecosystem of restaurants that cater to them, from Korean tofu joints to Japanese okonomiyaki houses, and everything in between. This world is not covered very well in English media (except SmartShanghai, plug!) and is one of the best places to go exploring for new and unknown restaurants. For Japanese food, the restaurants in Gubei, and particularly along Xianxia Lu, are worth heading to, while Koreatown is centered on Hongquan Lu. Both are about half an hour from People’s Square in a taxi. Closer to downtown, Ben Jia is often considered the best Korean BBQ, while longtime champion Sushi Oyama ($$$!!!) is the best place for raw fish and rice. Read this for a deeper dive into Korean options. Other Japanese options include Ajiya, for grilled beef of all persuasions done at your table, Toriyasu for grilled chicken skewers and cold beer, and Butao for ramen (all three of these places are downtown).
The weird thing about Southeast Asian food in China is that it exists at all. Unlike Hong Kong, the Southeast Asian restaurants in Shanghai are not catering to expatriate populations of people from Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam, but are instead focused on the Chinese consumer, many of whom have traveled to Southeast Asia as their first step out of the country and want a reminder of that experience. That goes a long way towards explaining why Southeast Asian food is often so disappointing to those who have been to the region and remember its bold, sharp flavors, only to find them dulled and sweetened here in Shanghai. Nonetheless, once in a while a newcomer will pop up and set things right again for at least a little while. Saigon Mama, a budding Vietnamese chain, and Home Thai, in a mall, are currently the best of the bunch.
Spanish, Italian and French restaurants are by far the most popular with laowai and locals alike and there is an endless list of restaurants that fall into these categories. Among the best are Tomatito for casual fun tapas and its sister restaurant el Willy for a more upscale experience on the Bund; Pirata for a similar tapas vibe from an ex-Willy chef; Le Bec in a villa on a leafy street for upscale French food from a chef who had Michelin stars back in France; and Gemma, Bar Centrale, Seve and Da Marco for Italian food; and La Strada for Italian-style pizzas. Of course, this is a wildly, wildly incomplete list; see our listings for way more.
The cornerstone of civilization! The fount of freedom! The pinnacle of obesity, diabetes and saturated fat… fine, fine American cuisine! China has readily accepted American fast food culture, and there are a number of chains, alongside local brands, vying for the city’s best burger. In the fast food category, there is Carl’s Jr, Fatburger, Burger King, McD’s, The Habit Burger Grill, and more, alongside respectable homegrown brands like Charlie’s, Beef & Liberty, Blue Frog and Fat Cow. Most serve milkshakes. Hell yeah.
Almost run over by a scooter in the street? That was probably someone else’s dinner. Delivery is a massive business in China, and Shanghai has several options. For Western restaurants and an English interface, Sherpa’s, the drivers in orange, is the best choice. If you can navigate a Chinese-language interface, Eleme and Meituan have infinitely more options and cheaper delivery fees, and will practically guarantee you never leave your house for dinner again.
The most romantic tables in Shanghai are along the Bund, and those restaurants are easy to list: Mr. & Mrs. Bund, Hakkasan, M on the Bund, all of Three on the Bund, and el Willy at Bund 22. Downtown, the more upscale places include Tai’an Table (but $$$), Phenix at the Puli Hotel and Villa Le Bec. More down to earth places: Lost Heaven, Commune Social, The Cannery, Scarpetta, Husk, and Colca.
Shanghai loves a good brand, and a stream of international celebrity chefs have poured in over the years trying to capitalize on that, with mixed results. Among the most successful are Jason Atherton’s many restaurants (Hiya, Shanghai Tavern, Commune Social) and Jean Georges Vongeritchen’s two venues, Jean Georges and Mercato.
Starting around 2017, a new wave of chef-driven, smaller venues that are fancier and more creative than the neighborhood joints but not as expensive as the fine dining palaces began to spring up. These include Pelikan, Oxalis, Together, and Apollo, serving creative takes on Northern European, French, French-Korean and South American cuisine, respectively.
The Michelin Guide landed on Shanghai in 2016 with a thud. The little red book has almost nothing to add to Shanghai’s dining knowledge and was widely seen as odd and skewed towards Cantonese restaurants (the theory being that the reviewers were mostly from Hong Kong). Subsequent versions have not restored relevance to the tire company’s tired recommendations. The most charitable thing one could say is that Michelin did lend some international credence to chef Paul Pairet’s Ultraviolet, the only Western restaurant in China to have three stars. Dinner there is a multi-sensory affair for 10 people per night in a hidden location, in a custom-built room with 360-degree projections and scent diffusers. It is really something. And really expensive at 4,000rmb per seat on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and 6,000rmb on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Reservations are made online only, months in advance. Other notable restaurants from the guide include T’ang Court (** Cantonese, lost a star in the 2019 guide), Imperial Treasure (** Cantonese), 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana (** Italian), Yi Long Court (** Cantonese at The Peninsula Hotel), Phenix (* Contemporary, at The Puli Hotel), and Fu He Hui (* Chinese vegetarian).