Food is one of the true delights of living in China, and the food scene in Beijing is up there with Shanghai if not Hong Kong. The variation reflects Beijing’s demographic and the economic boom that the city has enjoyed over the past three decades. Millions of Chinese migrants from all over the mainland have moved to Beijing, and thousands of them have opened food-stalls and family restaurants in every district, serving up cuisine from all over China. On the other end, a burgeoning middle and upper class craving international cuisine has spurred a plethora of five-star restaurants. And for expats longing for a cheeseburger, a pitcher of beer and televised football – Beijing has that too. However, seasoned expats tend to acquire a taste for local cuisine, finding it – and the local company – a gratifying experience. If you want it, it’s pretty much all there in Beijing. On any given day, you can sample a few shuijiao (dumplings), dine on world-class Thai cuisine for lunch, and then enjoy preparing your own dinner with imported delights from one of Beijing’s international supermarkets.
While it’s perfectly reasonable to ease your way into a comfort zone with local food you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce, real foodies know that the best restaurants in Beijing are often discovered where you least expect to find them. An exclusive dinner in the CBD or in a five-star hotel is a real treat, but part of the fun of living in Beijing is stumbling across unassuming restaurants in mall food courts or metro stations. And, unlike in most Western countries, some of the best Chinese restaurants are chains. In short, drop any preconceptions about eating out, let your guard down, and, most importantly, dive in with an open mind.
Of course, getting the most out of the Beijing eating experience doesn’t come without its challenges. The major obstacle for expats trying to enjoy authentic Chinese cuisine has long been the indecipherable Chinese menu and wait staff with limited English. Beijing, however, true to form in catering to international visitors, has vastly improved in this regard in recent years mainly because it had to for the 2008 Olympics. Almost all of the listings in this section have English menus. Another issue is food safety. Beijing has significantly improved in this regard as well. On the other hand, be sure to thoroughly wash everything you buy at a wet market and beware of food from casual street vendors.
As in the rest of China, food and eating out is the center of social life in Beijing. Restaurants are where people go to meet up with old friends, take out a date, hold family reunions, and celebrate the clinching of a business deal. This is where Chinese are relaxed, generous and sociable. Strict dining etiquette does not apply to Chinese dining. Meals are generally accompanied by a steady flow of drinks, small talk, and countless toasts to life and happiness. Among large groups, it is common for the host to order several dishes and rice for everybody to share, although one person normally pays the bill – insisting on paying your share can potentially be insulting to the host. As for table manners, almost anything goes in China; slurping soup and dropping some food is not impolite. And you don’t have to eat with chopsticks (though it’s a skill worth mastering), as most mid-range and high-end restaurants provide knives (daozi) and forks (chazi).
Restaurants generally serve lunch between 11am and 2pm and then close for a few hours in the afternoon. Dinner crowds start arriving after 5pm and empty by around 10pm, although there are plenty of small restaurants and popular chains that are open into the wee hours to accommodate late-shift workers and bar crowds. If you plan to dine out during prime dinner hours, it’s best to book ahead. Most high-end and many mid-range international restaurants accept credit cards, but it’s best to bring cash with you. With the exception of high-end international restaurants or in big hotels, tipping is not expected.
Ordering delivery is not as common in Beijing as it is in many Western cities, but it is still available and convenient. Get to know you local noodle and dumpling spots, and ask them Keyi wai mai ma? (Do you deliver?) They will probably be happy to bring a meal to your door for no extra charge. Most pizzas places deliver until late at night. For restaurant delivery, Sherpa’s is a bilingual delivery service that works with over 100 restaurants and is very popular with expats. All you need to do is call (400-600-6209) or go to their website and follow the basic instructions. Their services charges depend on the distance. Isender (400-068-5517) is a similar service that primarily delivers in Chaoyang. Prices for delivery usually begin at RMB 15 and increase by RMB 5-10 by zone.
Discover the latest hot places to eat in drink in Beijing on our Listly list