Food is one of the true delights of living in China, and Shanghai is arguably mainland China’s best city for eating out. You probably didn’t come to Shanghai for the food, but you’ll never forget your eating and dining experiences here. True to Shanghai style, today’s restaurant scene reflects the city’s overall appetite for all international tastes and trends. However, seasoned expats tend to acquire a taste for local cuisine, finding the aromas and flavors – not to mention the local company – a gratifying experience. 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 Shanghai’s international or online supermarkets.
While it’s perfectly reasonable to ease your way into a comfort zone with local food you don’t recognise or can’t pronounce, real foodies know that the best restaurants in Shanghai are often discovered where you least expect to find them. An exclusive dinner overlooking the Bund or within the cultural bubble of Xintiandi is a real treat, but part of the fun of living in Shanghai is stumbling across unassuming restaurants in mall food courts or Metro stations. And, unlike in most Western countries, many 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 Shanghai eating experience doesn’t come without challenges. The major obstacle for expats trying to enjoy authentic Chinese cuisine has long been the indecipherable Chinese menu and waitstaff with
limited English capacity, although Shanghai, true to form in catering to international visitors, has vastly improved in this regard. Almost all of the listings we include have English menus. Another issue is food safety. Shanghai has significantly improved in this regard as well, thanks in part to the build-up to the World Expo in 2010. On the other hand, be sure to thoroughly wash everything you buy at a wet market and be aware that food from casual street vendors may be tasty but not particularly clean.
As in the rest of China, food and eating out is the centre of social life. 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’s common for the host to order several dishes and rice for everybody to share, and one person normally pays the bill – insisting on paying your share can potentially be insulting to the host. As for table manners when dining in local restaurants, almost anything goes in China; slurping soup or dropping some food is not seen as impolite. It is, however, impolite to not cover your mouth while picking your teeth or to take the last morsel of food from a dish without offering it to others first. 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 places empty out by around 10pm, though 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 plastic, but it’s best to bring cash out with you. With the exception of high-end international restaurants or in big hotels, tipping is not expected.
Ordering delivery is as common in Shanghai as in many Western cities, and very convenient. Get to know your local noodle and dumpling spots, and ask them, “Keyi wai mai ma?” (Do you deliver?) They’ll 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 city-wide delivery service that works with over 100 restaurants and is very popular with expats. All you need to do is go to their website and follow the basic instructions. They charge an RMB15-45 fee for the service depending on the distance. Mealbay is a similar service which separates the city into Pudong and Puxi (including Hongqiao and Gubei). Prices for delivery begin at RMB15 and increase by RMB5 for each zone outside the central areas.