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Aug 10, 2010 11:49 AM

Recs for non-Mandarin speakers in Beijing

My girlfriend and I will be traveling to Beijing later this month.

Neither of us knows a whit of Mandarin. We've never been to China.

We are, however, reasonably knowledgeable w/r/t food from China by USA standards. Have tasted/understand the different cuisines that come from different provinces, etc.

We're going to be continuing on to Hong Kong later in the trip, so we'd like to save our Cantonese food for that part of the trip.

What I'd love are recs for places with:
(a) enough English that I can order food- doesn't need to be an english menu, but a waiter who speaks English or pictures I can point to would be sufficient
(b) on the nicer side. Doesn't need to be super-pricey, not looking for expense account, but also not looking for hole-in-the-wall. I recognize this might sacrifice some authenticity.
(c) anything interesting. This can be stuff I can't get back in the states: eg, food from Yunnan or Guizhou. Or, something westernized, but creative: For example, "Bei" interests me. I know its in a hotel, I know it has a western chef...but the menu just looks interesting to me. I'm thinking that might be my pricey meal.

Basically, what I'm looking for are mid-priced to maybe slightly more expensive restaurants, that I'll be able to at least have some idea of what I'm ordering, and I'd love to try stuff I can't get outside of Beijing.

FWIW, we're staying at the Fairmont Beijing in Chaoyang- we're willing to travel for good food, but obviously if we're trekking across town it has to be worth it.

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  1. You might want to look into hotel restaurants and/or Beijing styled food.

    My friends said good things about this place:
    Zhengyuan Big Family (Asian Games Village) 大宅门
    Hui Xin North Lane Building3 Chaoyang District, 朝阳区惠新北里3号楼(罗马花园东)
    Performance 19:30-20:30

    1 Reply
    1. re: Ting Ting

      I worry that hotel restaurants are too far on the other end- i.e. not challenging enough.

      what I'm shooting for something that's neither hole-in-the-wall authentic, nor wholly international. Is there no such thing?

    2. Da Dong for peking duck is an obvious choice. South Beauty (俏江南) for Sichuan, 3 Guizhou men for Guizhou, Crescent Moon for Xinjiang, and Dongbei Ren for Northeastern food would fit what you're looking for english/picture menu at mid price points in a decent environment. For Yunnan, you have a ton of choices, as pretty much every decent Yunnan spot in the city offers English menus. My personal favorite right now is Dianke Dianlai, which is located in a courtyard home and doesn't have a menu but is a set menu for RMB98 or RMB198 where you put yourself in the chefs hands and he produces a variety of dishes for you. Other Yunnan spots like Middle 8th and S'Silk Road also fit the bill. I love the history and the stories behind Chengfu Courtyard, another set menu spot where you just choose the price point, as a splurge.

      This should at least offer some ideas.

      10 Replies
      1. re: modernleifeng

        You think Da Dong over Made in China?

        Other than that, those recs seem to be similar to what I'm coming up with looking on beijinger and timeout, which makes me feel better about the quality of their reviews.

        1. re: dzop

          Haha, well in asking for places with an English/picture menu, you're going to get the places that cater to expats and so these are going to be the most popular with foreigners. South Beauty and 3 Guizhou Men are far from the best of their respected cuisine, but are very accessible for foreigners and if, for example, you haven't had a lot of Guizhou food before, you'll come away loving 3 Guizhou Men.

          I definitely would choose Da Dong over Made in China. Da Dong's duck is better in my opinion, but where it wins out is on all the other dishes. Made in China's options beyond duck are pretty simple, whereas Da Dong offers amazing, creative dishes that are very modern Chinese.

          1. re: modernleifeng

            See, I don't necessarily want a place with a picture menu- I want a place where I won't feel like I'm on Mars. If I can fake it with a typed up list of what I want, or if they just understand the word "chicken", that's fine. What I want is somewhere b/w expat and hole in the wall- say, " upscale local". No matter what I try, I get recs that are basically "exapt/tourist trap" or "it will be impossible for you". Surely there must be a middle ground?

            1. re: dzop

              Most of my recommendations wouldn't change, they are popular among the expat set, but also really popular with locals, the only exception might be Chengfu Courtyard which isn't really well known, mainly due to its prices. The expat magazines that you mention do a good job scoping out dianping and other sources to let foreigners know about the best local spots, so their recs tend to be alright.

              I know its simplistic, but this being Beijing, the obvious suggestion is to check out some of the representative offices. I personally prefer Dianke Dianlai to Yunteng (the Yunnan rep office restaurant), but Chuan Ban (Sichuan Rep Office) is much MUCH better than South Beauty. South Beauty is about high end, fancy Sichuan and pays attention to presentation and interior design, Chuan Ban is what you'd expect in a rep office, noisy, not fancy, but also not a hole in the wall. The Guizhou Rep Office is probably Beijing's best Guizhou restaurant, the Xinjiang or Kashgar Rep Office, though both are somewhat out of the way. Crescent Moon serves as a nice in between, as the Xinjiang expat/tourist trap spot would be Afunti or Red Rose. 3 Guizhou Men is really popular among expats/tourists and their food isn't bad, its just dumbed down, not as authentic as you'd get at the Guizhou Rep Office, or even Private Kitchen 44, which might be the middle ground when it comes to Guizhou food.

              All the restaurants I mentioned get a pretty good score (20 or above) on dianping (China's version of zagat/yelp) as well, so I don't think you'd go wrong with any of them.

              1. re: modernleifeng

                The rep offices are indeed very good tip, with a very chowhound spirit. Some of these places even own guest houses w/ restaurant attached.

                However, I suspect the rep offices would be the LAST place where a non-mandarin speaker would be able to comfortably order their meals. Knowing the level of services one gets from the state-owned restaurants, it'd be a shock to me if the affiliated restaurants (food services are not even their mission) are any better.

                I found a DianPing site for these Beijing offices. It is a bit odd for labelling 常州(ChangZhou) rep office for HuaiYang food there. Have you tried?

                1. re: modernleifeng

                  Thank you for your has been an enormous help. I'll be sure to update this thread or post a new thread with my results once I get back in early Sept.

                2. re: dzop

                  I am afraid there is no middle ground. Ordering in a restaurant requires an interaction between diner and wait staff. Chicken is not just chicken, it's how it's done. And it can come in many variations. So if you don't speak the language, you can go to a restaurant catering to tourists, with picture menu where you can just point. Or to a hole in a wall with a very limited menu. Sometimes even at hole in the walls it can be a problem. There are many ways dumplings can be cooked.

                  1. re: PeterL

                    Now, that's just not true. I've had very good luck in countries where I didn't speak a word of the language, but I learned the word for "chicken" and "beef" or how to say, "specialty". And you can get buy really well doing that, as long as you're open to trying whatever they put in front of you. But its facilitated by the restaurant culture in most of the western world being more-or-less constant in each country. When I was in, say, small-town Austria, there were plenty of places I went to where there was a total language barrier, but, like, main dishes are skill a meat and a side. It's sort of hard to screw up.

                    My concern in China is that the restaurant culture is sufficiently different from the US that you cant "fake it". My idea was that, maybe upscale places were more likely to follow recognizable norms such that I could get by ordering, though perhaps without a complete knowledge of what's coming.

                    1. re: dzop

                      It can be hard to "fake" it in China because the menus are often massive and will include 10-12 chicken dishes, 10-12 beef dishes, etc. The key is if you are going to a place that doesn't offer an english/picture menu (and if that's the case, its doubtful they'll have anybody who can speak passable English) to do your research ahead of time and find out the Chinese names of some of the spots most popular dishes.

                      1. re: dzop

                        I am referring specifically to China, as this is the China discussion board, not Austria or any part of Europe. Your second paragraph confirms my point.

            2. I wrote a report here after my visit a couple of years back. I was traveling alone and know no Mandarin. The food is fabulous!