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Mainland China's Top Overall Restaurants

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If a list were created for the top overall (food,service, ambiance) Chinese restaurants (restaurants serving any cuisine with origins in China) in all of mainland China, what restaurants would come out on top?
Despite being the fourth largest nation on the planet, the task isn't as difficult as it might at first seem as most of the top overall restaurants are found in only a few cities (Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, maybe Hangzhou, Shenzhen).

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  1. Why can't a hole-in-the-wall or a tent in the middle of nowhere have great food, ambience or service?

    1. The food I've eaten in Beijing or other cities on the east coast doesn't compare with what I've had in Chengdu, at even moderately good restaurants. If you are excluding Sichuan - perhaps you need to take a trip there...?!
      Also, from what perspective are you going to evaluate service and atmosphere?
      Steve also has a good point.

      1. I think it's nearly impossible to find the best of anything in China. I'm not even sure how you figure it's the 4th largest nation. Are you counting just land mass? It's the most populated nation by far and has the most varied cooking. People can't even agree which restaurant has the best soup dumpling but you think it's easy to pick the best Chinese restaurant? I can' even identify the best Chinese restaurant in DC because there's not one restaurant in which I have sampled everything yet.

        11 Replies
        1. re: Ericandblueboy

          Certainly, a tent in the middle of nowhere could be a top restaurant if it had superb food, excellent service, and by the middle of nowhere you meant a beautiful natural setting. A hole-in-the wall might have excellent food, and good service, but by its label would not have great overall ambience, even if it was homely.
          Sorry, I guess by best overall I was refering to a fine dining experience, which there is not a lot of in China (including in SIchuan, where I have been).
          China is notorious for terrible restaurant service even in fine dining establishments (maybe because noone tips), so I think when thinking over the whole picture that encompasses a fine dining experience, there are not so many restaurants that would make this a difficult task.
          In dining guides-Michelin, Zagats - all different types of cuisines are rated together in a single city, so it shouldn't matter whether it be a Sichuan or a Shanghainese restaurant; if both have delicious food, but the Shanghainese had better service and ambience, than the Shanghainese restaurant would be the better OVERALL restaurant. In Chengdu, a certain restaurant might rate high for food, but what about the overall experience, most of the restaurants that served superb food (some of the best I have ever had) had an ugly banquest or cafeteria style dining hall, and lazy, inattentive service staff.
          Of course I meant land mass, that would have a greater affect on finding the best restaurants than population.
          For example: I would put FU1088 on a list of China's top overall restaurants - they might serve the best example of Shanghainese cuisine in the Shanghai, the setting is in a beautiful converted mansion, and the service is more attentive than the majority of restaurants I've been to in China (service is almost always the biggest weakness here).

          1. re: hafnerd

            I had one of the ten best restaurant experiences of my life (which includes meals in most North American culinary capitals, Kyoto, other cities in Jiangnan and Beijing, Paris, London, and Athens) at Fu 1088. Magic. Must be the best fine dining bargain in the world.

            1. re: hafnerd

              China is notorious for terrible restaurant service even in fine dining establishments (maybe because noone tips),

              ----------------------

              Oh I would absolutely and strongly disagree with this statement. I have had all levels of service while in China, with some of the best overall service I have experienced anywhere. If you count HK as part of China, it's not even a point of discussion. There is no equal to the Hong Kong style service at it's best.

              1. re: PeterL

                My experience is the same as PeterL's.

                1. re: buttertart

                  I'm with Peter nd buttertrart on this, language is often a problem and can be a struggle but attitude and service ethic has always impressed me.

                2. re: PeterL

                  I think "Mainland" China excludes HK as its in a category of its own and it hasn't suffered from the communist era where service was a joke. While the state owned shops are a thing of the past, those that remember service in the 80s know exactly why there are many restaurants, even a few high end ones, that just don't understand the concept. As with the quote, another major issue is the lack of tipping causing the wait staff to have little incentive to work hard. That said, in my experience, when spending over RMB500/person for a meal, the service is typically amazing.

                  1. re: PeterL

                    I also found that statement strange. I've had excellent as well as terrible service here on the mainland, though I haven't eaten widely outside Sichuan.

                    1. re: pepper_mil

                      Mainland China does not include Hong Kong. I who has lived and travelled, and continue to live, in China for sometime, share this sentiment with many a friend. Maybe it depends on the service of the country you come from, but atleast in comparison with New York, where I come from, service is always the one glaring issue at even the most high-end restaurants on the mainland.
                      As I have mentioned on other postings, maybe the Chowhound-China board is mainly the home of tourists, but I don't know how you could spend any period of time here and not find the majority of service experiences to be mediocre at best, rarely (almost never) have I been wowed by a waiters knowledge of a menu or ability to gain confidence in the diner. I can accept mediocre service at restaurants where the food is the only draw, but not at those that are selling themselves as fine dining experiences, whether they speak English or not (I can speak Chinese).

                      1. re: hafnerd

                        By excellent service I mean a good spirit of hospitality, ability to explain the menu, cooking methods, and flavours and make recommendations based on more thought than 'foreigners can't eat spicy food'. I also think the service is key to enjoying a restaurant, especially if most of the menu is new to me (and it usually is).

                        That said, the standards for good service are a little different in China, right? Most help wanted ads for servers that I see have height (tall) and age (young) requirements, and are pretty specific about attractiveness. Also, I would think the money in a Chinese restaurant would be in business entertaining, where ordering is mostly done ahead and doesn't involve the staff who are taking care of your table when you arrive.

                        Anyway, reading your other posts I think we've probably just had different experiences eating here. Chengdu is swimming in freshwater fish.

                        1. re: hafnerd

                          I don't think everyne needs to state their bona fides, I assume that there is a good mix on here of "tourists" and those living in China.

                          I'd really be interested at what high end restaurants did you find the service lacking? With that, I'd also like to figure out what is defined as "high end dining", is it anywhere over RMB500/person? RMB1,000/person?

                          I agree that solely speaking English doesn't equal good service, but at most high end restaurants, at least in the major cities (ie Beijing/Shanghai/Shenzhen), the staff is incredibly professional and often goes above and beyond. In principle, consistently good service here (I live in Beijing, but in the 1st tier cities) can be a problem, part of it is history, part of it is tipping (or lack thereof), but a big part of it is that its hard finding good servers that speak both English and Chinese (and sometimes Cantonese, Japanese, and/or French as well) and its hard to keep them, especially with how people move so fluidly from restaurant to restaurant. Training staff takes time and, if you do a good job training them, you'll have to deal with them regularly being poached and then training new people.

                          I used to eat out everyday, now its more like 3-5 times a week and in the last 3 months, at places where I'd expect staff to know better, I've only had 3 bad experiences I can think of, one was a minor issue at Da Dong, one was at Capital M (where it seemed that it took 3 people to serve everything and the music didn't fit the environment, but its still early days there), and the other was at Fat Duck, a hotel restaurant that isn't exactly high end, but where I'd expect more.

                          The list of spots where I've had good experiences would be far longer. Of course, this is only talking about the more expensive spots. I don't know, I tend to find service to be good at the tiny places that are RMB50 or less per person or the high end places that are RMB500+, but its in the RMB100-300/person spots that I tend to have the most problems.

                      2. re: PeterL

                        and there's no language barrier, I'm Chinese American born in China.

                  2. Food and Wine does this every year, though because of the "and Wine" part, they focus a lot on a place's wine list in the ratings, which leads to a lot of hotel spots on the list.

                    In Beijing, I'd put Da Dong, Chengfu Courtyard, and possibly Tian Di Yi Jia, Na Jia Xiao Guan (for private rooms only), and Hua Jia Yi Yuan on the list.

                    5 Replies
                    1. re: modernleifeng

                      Why not Made in China?
                      Speaking of hotel restaurants, Xindalu (also in Shanghai) is one of the best restaurants I've been to in China. In the Hyatt on the Bund, they are famous for their roast duck, but the real reason to go is the inventive take on Zhejiang and Jiangsu cuisine, the food is superb, making use of good ingredients and good fish ( its very, very hard to get served good freshwater fish in Chinese restaurants in China). The service is also the best I've had in China, though the starkness of the dining room is a bit overwhelming (still, a better example of post-modern design than Shintori and People's 7, and much better food).

                      1. re: hafnerd

                        Made in China is overrated, that's why. I grudgingly admit they do a fine duck, but much of the other menu items are mediocre and designed for tourists. As a caveat, this would definitely be an issue for any list of the "top overall restaurants", is it based on Chinese or expat tastes, because these tend to differ heavily as expectations are different re the food. Hotel restaurants tend to present dishes for the masses (of guests) and in doing so, almost always lose the real flavors they want to present, that's the case, to me, of Made in China.

                        Anything would be better than People 7's version of design, one thing, that place had to be incredibly cheap to "design", don't renovate at all, just leave the interior as grey concrete, then turn all the lights off, except for one over each table and leave it on dim, then place a candle in the middle to create a "mood"...

                        I think in Shanghai too many of the better Chinese chefs are cooking at "private kitchen" spots and that hurts the general dining scene.

                        1. re: modernleifeng

                          Thank you for your assessment of Made in China, in which I was quite disappointed - the duck was good, but we received maybe 1/2 of the meat and skin from the half we ordered (and I know how much to expect from a duck, having eaten many of them). Was not blown away by the other dishes either. We had better food by far in the restaurant in our hotel (the "Beijing Hotel" really the 花桥 大厦 Hua Qiao Da Xia - Overseas Chinese Residence - on Wangfujing Jie) than we did at Made in China.

                          1. re: buttertart

                            I think the Huaqiao goes by Prime Hotel in English, at least it used to. Not a bad hotel considering the price and location, some rooms even have decent Forbidden City views. I can't talk about the food there, though...

                            1. re: modernleifeng

                              That's right, advertised on CTrip as the Beijung Prime Hotel. It is very comfortable. And the food - and service incidentally -in the Chinese restaurant (a somewhat odd mix of Hunan and Guangzhou items) is more than respectable.

                    2. I've never been, but this place in Chengdu called Yu Jia Chu Fang looks unreal: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/st.... Anyone been?

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: sg_foodie

                        yes-we were there in March 2009 ; the meal of at least 24 courses was stunning in beauty and taste. My friend Diane Drey is organizing a two week cooking program in Chengdu in March 2010 which will include a dinner at Family Yu's restaurant. if interested see www.cookingschoolinchina.com and join us

                      2. Shanghai and Beijing both have their share of fine, western dining spots, though too often than not they disappoint. T8 was mediocre at best, the kind of place that wouldn't be able to survive in a London or New York, while Jean Georges is utterly disappointing if you've eaten at any of his other restaurants before. I think when it comes to high end western cuisine, Beijing outdoes Shanghai, though at the midrange, Shanghai has a lot more/better options. That said, probably my best high end western meals in China were in the days that Pairet was at Jade on 36, I'll have to try his new restaurant. Then again, this thread's supposed to be about top overall Chinese restaurants and none of these spots are.

                        9 Replies
                        1. re: modernleifeng

                          Have you been to Maison Boulud in Beijing? How does Daniel Boulud's attempt to bring New York fine dining to China compare with Jean Georges'? One obvious difference between the New York Daniel menu and the Beijing menu from looking at the website, is that the main Chinese menu is a la carte. It's the same with Jean Georges.

                          1. re: hafnerd

                            I was about to ask the same question! I've heard good things about Maison Boulud Beijing but wondered how they stacked up against top French restaurants in Shanghai.

                            1. re: hafnerd

                              I've been to Boulud (Beijing) a number of times, though I've yet to go to any of his other restaurants (guess I need to get back to the States), and it is above and beyond any western restaurant I've been to in China (except Pairat when he was at Jade on 36, I've heard the same as ChowLover that Jade has seriously gone down hill since he left, and I definitely intend on trying his new restaurant next time I head south). From service to food to decor, everything is smooth, creating an excellent experience. I've had service issues at times at Jean Georges and also the food has often been a letdown, but I haven't been there for nearly 2 years, so things could have changed.

                              As I said, I think Beijing has a number of great western restaurants that would compare favorably to those in Shanghai (and more coming soon), I think the big difference is in the RMB250-500 range where Beijing western spots often fail while Shanghai has some decent spots.

                            2. re: ChowLover132

                              I loved the lamb pie at T8 - simply exquisite!

                              Whampoa Club's disappointed a lot of people, but it remained one of my fave dining spots in Shanghai. Fell in love with it from my first visit years ago, and first impressions are hard to change.
                              I didn't feel the same way about Fu1088, but perhaps I went there with unrealistically high expectations after reading all those glowing accounts by other CHs. But my Shanghainese & Beijinese guests were suitably impressed by the food & service.

                              1. re: klyeoh

                                I love T8 few years ago when got often biz trip there.

                                I have not try Fu 1088. Heard many good things about them. Been to Old Jesse and Chun. May not be the best in service or amiance, but most Shanghainese dishes were all welldone. Whampoa Club just overated.

                                If I have to choose overall best Chinese restaurant overall in Shanghai, for my limited experienced there will be Xindalu. Service, ambiance and food.

                                I will be posting there fulltime for 1 year soon. WIll try to find out more

                              2. re: ChowLover132

                                I have to break in here to comment on Whampoa Club. I ate here a few years ago on my first trip to Shanghai and I am not sure if it was the worst service of any restaurant I tried, but it was really quite poor. The place was far from full, yet not once did anyone ask how I was enjoying my meal, refill my water glass, change the ashtray, etc etc. Perhaps they were thrown by a single female, foreign diner, but the overall experience here, especially considering the price, was truly disappointing for me. I am looking forward very much to Fu 1088, Xindalu and Ji Shi--all recs from this board-- on my return.

                                1. re: erica

                                  Will you be on your own? At Fu 1088 not sure how they handle single diners - it's several dining rooms in different rooms of a house. They may put you in a boudoir by yourself. We (2) were all alone. It was very nice and extremely romantic!

                                  1. re: buttertart

                                    Thanks, Buttertart. This time I will be with two friends, so no more presiding over tables for 12 all by my lonesome, which was the case every night of my last two trips to Asia!! In one restaurant in Hanoi, I was given a private room with staff to myself!

                                    1. re: erica

                                      I want to go back soon too...sigh