Expats arriving in China bring varying degrees of familiarity with Chinese cuisine, from foodies eager to compare the pungent flavors of Sichuan tofu to their favourites in San Francisco to those who have merely sampled the China Buffet. Whichever end of the spectrum you are coming from, you will now have endless opportunities to try some of the world’s best and most interesting dishes from all over the country. When possible, make reservations and be aware that Chinese restaurants are far less likely than their international counterparts to accept plastic. China has a vast number of regional cuisines, which have traditionally been classified according to four styles.
Cuisine from northern China is typically characterised by strong flavors and hearty ingredients, which is a testament to the frigid climate. Pork and lamb are the most common meats, and the carbohydrate staples are noodles and breads rather than rice. The legendary Peking duck arguably holds the esteemed position as China’s most famous dish, and feasting on hotpot with friends and family is an experience not to be missed.
Widely considered the most refined of Chinese cuisines, Cantonese dishes from southeastern China emphasize freshness and lightness, with steaming and stir-frying being the preferred cooking methods. Just about anything edible is fair game, but the most popular items with expats are the Cantonese dim sum–little morsels of shrimp dumplings, barbeque pork crisps, and egg tarts.
Originating in the moist interior of southwestern China, Sichuan cooking generously uses chilies, peppers and garlic. The Sichuan hotpot is a favorite, as are spicy chicken and peanut dishes. Migrants from southwestern China often complain that the local preferences for all things sweet and salty has tarnished their food’s authenticity. Other southwestern cuisines, such as Guizhou, Hunan and Yunnan, tend to be spicy and sour.
Shanghai cuisine is generally sweet, light and oily. Much of its character is derived from adding ginger, sugar and sweet rice wine. Fish and shrimp are considered essential to any respectable meal. The popular “drunken shrimps” are simply live shrimps drowning in wine. And, don’t overlook the classic xiaolong bao, or Shanghai dumpling. These are delicious small buns filled with pork and a gelatinous soup and served with ginger and vinegar.
Fast Food and Street Food
Beijing has plenty of legendary, world-class restaurants, but sometimes the best food is to be found in makeshift street stalls or in shopping mall food courts. You will have to leave the city center, however, as the authorities have shooed away vendors since the 2008 Olympics. The Donghuamen Night Market and the Wangfujing Snack Street are jammed with good vendors, and so are many side streets—just look for billowing plumes of smoke. Beijing’s popular street classics include the crunchy, pancake-like jianbing, which is peddled by tricycle-mounted griddles. The meat-filled roubing, cooked bread filled with finely chopped pork, are filling and fulfilling. A healthier option is the mala tang, a spicy noodle soup with bean curd and veggies. The best of all is the kao yangrou chuan (lamb kabobs), great value for RMB 1. Most of these offerings are hygienic, particularly if they are cooked in front of you, but avoid anything that is served cold.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that every mall, plaza or shopping centre has a food court, which is usually in the basement, but sometimes on the top floor. These are great places to get to know Chinese food. Though not atmospheric, they are clean, have set prices and menus, and are very cheap. Paying can be confusing, as you must buy a plastic debit food card at a central booth to purchase meals.
Quan Ju De
Quan Ju De is Beijing’s most ubiquitous roast duck restaurant, having served up their celebrated birds to the likes of luminaries ranging from Fidel Castro to Richard Nixon. Watch your duck being sliced before your eyes, then roll slivers of the most tender duck imaginable into pancakes with shallots and cucumber. Quan Ju De has venues in visitor hot spots all over town, from Wangfujing to Shunyi. Be sure to reserve in advance at any location.
Shunyi: Building 66, Xi Xing Nan Qu
(010) 6140 8688/6140 8110
Wangfujing: 9 Shuaifuyuan Hutong
(010) 6525 3310
Duck de Chine
Located out of view behind Pacific Century Place in Sanlitun, Duck de Chine is part of the 1949-The Hidden City dining and nightlife complex. The restaurant’s industrial decor creates a relaxed, classy ambiance, while the menu includes both Chinese and French duck traditions, as well as non-duck Chinese dishes. Of course, the classic Peking duck – crisp roast duck to roll in pancakes with plum sauce, spring onion and cucumber – is the highlight. Additional location in Wangfujing.
Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant
Priding itself on the claim that its ducks are leaner than the rest of the duck joints, Da Dong’s two branches more or less bookend the 2km strip between Changhong Qiao and Dongsishitiao. The 160-page menu describes a plethora of duck dishes, vegetable dishes, and soups.
Building 3, Tuanjiehu Beikou
(010) 6582 2892 / 4003 / 4102
Made In China
Despite being located within the Grand Hyatt, Made in China emanates character, with a stylish dark wood and steel structure and ceiling-high shelves stocked with spirits. It specialises in duck, however the Beggar’s Chicken and pork and leek dumplings also come recommended. They offer an excellent wine list.
1/F, Grand Hyatt Hotel, 1 Dongchang’an Jie
Tel: (010) 8518 1234 ext 6024
The Red Capital Club
Red Capital Club, the Maoist-style designed courtyard restaurant that serve revolution-era Beijing cuisine, is a must for newcomers. The Gongbao Shrimp with cashews is highly recommended, but the real draw is the historical atmosphere, which, though a bit kitsch, is certainly illuminating.
Noodle Loft is a popular, classy spot that specialises in perfecting all kinds of noodles, making it an ideal introduction to Shanxi cuisine. Try the youmian kaolaolao, a steamer basket full of shotgun shell-shaped noodles or mao erduo, bits of ear-shaped pasta fried with veggies and meat. You get to choose your own sauce.
Wangjing Lu, 33 Guangshunjie
Din Tai Fung
This legendary dumpling chain was warmly welcomed by Beijing foodies, particularly enthusiasts of xiaolong bao, which are filled with pork, seafood or crabmeat and served with slivers of ginger and light vinegar.
6/F, Shin Kong Place, 87 Jianguo Lu
(010) 6533 1536
Lulu Jiu Jia
A classy option for some outstanding steamers of xiaolong bao, Lulu Jiu Jia is, alas, a luxurious eatery with prices to match its vaunted reputation. If dumplings aren’t your favourite, then opt for the tasty lion’s head meatballs. The atmosphere is glitzy, but friendly.
(010) 6508 0502/5
The growing Middle 8th chain has perfected Yunnan cuisine, and you will get a cultural lesson to boot, as the place is decked out with all things Yunnan. Specialties include smoked bean curd, spicy fish and noodles. Although its not for the weaker pallets, there are milder options on the menu.
CBD: L404A, South Tower, The Place, No. 9 Guanghua Lu
(010) 6587 1431
Sanlitun: Bldg 8, Dong Sanlitun, in an alley next to 3.3 mall
Tel: (010) 6413 0619
In & Out
In & Out is a fresh, airy restaurant with Yunnanese ethnic minority waitstaff and fresh ingredients shipped in directly from the region. The Huzhong black mushrooms are unique, as is the Lijiang black bean jelly. It seems to be packed with local and foreign diners every night.
1 Sanlitun Beixiaojie
(010) 8454 0086 / (010) 6467 5235
Wu Li Xiang Chinese Restaurant
Long windows and Art Deco lamps suit Wu Li Xiang’s Lido location. The courses are clean, healthy and simple, yet pack plenty of flavor and class to bring in diners from all over Beijing. The chefs go easy on the seasoning and don’t use MSG. The dim sum is excellent and the dinner menu warrants some risk-taking for those new to Cantonese cuisine.
Huang Ting spares no expense in its effort recreate a dynasty-era China ambiance, despite being located inside the five-star Peninsula Hotel. However, the cuisine is primarily Cantonese, although it includes dishes from all over China, with the highlight being the dim sum set lunch.
B2/F, The Peninsula Beijing, 8 Jinyu Hutong, Wangfujing Dajie
(010) 8516 2888 ext. 6707
Lei Garden delivers great Cantonese flavors and excellent service. Besides serving reliably good dim sum, Lei Garden offers creatively upscale Cantonese dishes. Try the shaved noodles in lobster bisque served in a bamboo tube. There’s no English dim sum menu, but helpful staff and minimal Chinese will suffice.
(010) 8522 1212
Kong Long Café
Tucked downstairs in the Fortune Plaza Mall, Kong Long Café, owned and run by Hong Kong transplants, is a convincing recreation of a Hong Kong family-style restaurant. However, the draw is what is on the table. The Tofu casserole is highly-recommended, as are the made-to-order dim sum and barbeque stir fry.
B1/F, Fortune Plaza Mall, 7 East Third Ring Rd
(010) 6533 0191
The Horizon Chinese Restaurant
This Cantonese and Sichuan locale draws in the high-end local crowd with its excellent dim sum child-friendly atmosphere in the Kerry Centre. The dark antiques and rather sophisticated atmosphere are designed to give a sound first impression, but the excellent dumplings and all-you-can-eat dim sum lunch brings people back.
1/F, Kerry Hotel, 1 Guanghua Lu, Chaoyang District
(010) 6561 8833 ext. 41
Frequently cited as Beijing’s best Sichuan restaurant, Chuan Ban offers up classics such as shuizhuyu (fish boiled in a spicy, oily broth) and lazi ji (diced chicken buried in chili peppers). Chuan Ban also offers subtler dishes for those who are sensitive to flaming hot food. The dining hall is bright and cheery as is the service.
Mon-Fri 7-9am, 11am-2pm, 5pm-9.30pm; Sat-Sun 7am-10pm
5 Gongyuan Toutiao, Jianguomennei Dajie
(010) 6512 2277 ext. 6101
Spice Spirit offers classic Sichuan dishes, and they are punishingly spicy at all four branches. Spice Spirit offers all of the classics, from mouth-numbing shuizhuyu (fish cooked in peppercorn soup) to the lighter Chili Loves Chicken. The signature dish is the Mala Snails. The style is impressive and upscale, and the beer is imported.
The Village Sanlitun, South block, building 2, 3rd floor
(010) 6413 2908
Haidilao Hot Pot
Famous for the some of the best hot pot in the city—and for lavish hospitality, Haidilao Hot Pot has earned its popularity. You can order half-dishes as well, making it a great place for a snack or light meal. And the service is so exceptional that you can actually get a manicure while you wait for a table! There are additional locations in Haidan and Xidan
A2 Baijiazhuang Lu
(010) 6595 0079, (010) 6595 2982
Find out more about the best restaurants in Beijing on our Listly list: