When I first moved to Beijing in 2000, I approached each meal with caution. Menus were a minefield -- dishes with beautiful, literary names would arrive at the table in the form of duck tongues, fungus, and offal. Chefs, after being deprived of basic staples for decades, were newly liberated to douse dishes with as much oil and MSG as they wanted. During my first Sichuanese meal, I bit into a Sichuan peppercorn, which numbed my mouth like a shot of Novocain at a dentist's office.
Thankfully, the dining scene in Beijing -- along with my taste buds -- have changed dramatically in the past decade. I've gradually come to appreciate all kinds of new textures and flavors after living in Beijing for the past nine years; meanwhile, the dining scene has become more sophisticated and upscale. (If you're interested in reading more about my eating adventures, you can pick up my food memoir, Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China.)
As the capital of China and a growing international city, Beijing these days offers a huge range of cuisines to satisfy a wide range of budgets, whether you want to spend ¥5 or ¥5,000 -- and whether you're craving dim sum, Persian cuisine, or world-class French fare. A typical dinner for two at a nice restaurant costs under ¥200, but prices can go much lower with little to no drop in quality.
Plenty of hole-in-the-wall eateries still exist, which serve top-notch home-style Chinese cuisine, as well, and I recommend you visit these places in addition to dining at the city's more celebrated restaurants. Hygiene standards are improving, and so long as you take care to eat hot dishes that have just come off the wok, it's unlikely that you'll get sick. (Though it's always a good idea to make sure your Hepatitis A shots are up-to-date.)
Beijing has a few local dishes that are worth trying: dumplings, hot pot, and Peking duck. While these mainstays remain popular, it seems that every few years, a new "hot" regional cuisine trend sweeps the city. A decade ago, it was Cultural Revolution nostalgia dishes, then yuppified minority food from Yunnan, and now it's fiery Sichuanese dishes served in upscale dining rooms. Each leaves its mark on the culinary landscape after it has passed, making it possible for visitors to sample authentic dishes from nearly every corner of the country.
You don't need to feel guilty about eating non-Chinese cuisine in Beijing these days -- there's much more to choose from other than McDonald's and KFC. (And, actually, KFC serves a pretty decent Peking duck wrap.) Vietnamese cuisine has become very trendy, along with upscale French cuisine, Spanish tapas, and Japanese sushi bars. And if you're feeling like a homesick American, there is always Subway, Sizzler, and even Outback Steakhouse.
Main courses in almost every non-Western restaurant are placed in the middle of the table and shared between two or more people. The "meal for two" price estimates in this chapter include two individual bowls of rice and between two and four dishes, depending on the size of the portions, which tends to decrease as prices rise.
Credit cards are generally accepted in most restaurants above the moderately priced level. Hotels frequently levy a 15% service charge, but free-standing restaurants seldom do. Tips are not necessary; waitresses will often come running out into the street to give your money back if you try to leave one.
Restaurants in this section are a mix of established favorites and new, exciting restaurants mostly located in the core of the city. Beijing's enthusiasm for the wrecking ball can sometimes take down even the most venerable of eating establishments, but new worthies inevitably rise to fill the gap. Most restaurants that cater to foreign clientele are located in Chaoyang, but excellent establishments exist all over the city. The most picturesque spot to dine in Beijing is around the Back Lakes, north of Bei Hai Park, an area of well-preserved hutong (narrow lanes) and idyllic man-made lake promenades that is home to several of the city's most compelling eateries.
The price ranges in the reviews reflect the following equivalents, in terms of price per person: Very Expensive ($$$$) = ¥400 and up; Expensive ($$$) = ¥200-¥400; Moderate ($$) = ¥100-¥200; Inexpensive ($) = under ¥100.
China has between 4 and 10 seminal cooking styles, depending on whom you ask, but regional permutations, minority contributions, and specialty cuisines like Buddhist-influenced vegetarian and medicinal dishes push the number into the dozens. Most of these have at least passed through Beijing since privately owned restaurants really took off in the 1980s. Below are summaries of the most consistently popular styles, as well as the cuisines du jour, which may or may not be around the next time you visit:
Beijing -- This ill-defined cuisine was influenced over the centuries by the different eating habits of successive rulers. Emphasis is on lamb and pork, with strong, salty, and sometimes musky flavors. Staples are heavy noodles and breads rather than rice. Jiaozi, little morsels of meat and vegetables wrapped in dough and usually boiled, are a favorite local snack.
Cantonese -- The most famous Chinese cooking style, Cantonese tends to be light and crisp, with pleasing combinations of salty and sweet, elaborate presentations, and a fondness for rare animal ingredients at the high end. As with Sichuanese food, real Cantonese puts its American version to shame. It's available in swanky and proletarian permutations.
Home-Style (Jiachang Cai) -- The most pervasive style in Beijing, home-style food consists of simplified dishes from a variety of regions, primarily Sichuan. It is cheap, fast, and gloriously filling, with straightforward flavors that run the gamut. This is the Chinese equivalent of down-home American cooking, but far healthier and more colorful.
Huaiyang -- This ancient style from the lower reaches of the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang) is celebrated for delicate knife work and light, slightly sweet fish dishes. Vegetarian dishes often make interesting use of fruit. The tendency here is to braise and stew rather than stir-fry.
Shanghai -- These richly sweet, oil-heavy dishes are no longer as trendy as they were a few years ago, but are still easy to find. Shanghainese food tends to be more expensive than fare from Sichuan or Beijing, but affordable Shanghai-style snack shops dot the city. Best are the varieties of baozi, or bread dumplings.
Sichuan -- The most popular of the pure cuisines in Beijing, real Sichuanese is far more flavorful than the "Szechuan" food found in the United States. Main ingredients are vividly hot peppers, numbing black peppercorns, and garlic, as found in classics like gongbao jiding (diced chicken with chilies and peanuts). Spicy Sichuan-style hot pot is the city's best interactive food experience.
Southern Minority -- Cuisine and rare ingredients from Naxi-dominated regions of Yunnan Province are especially fashionable, but Hakka, Dai, Miao, and other ethnic traditions are also well represented. This is some of the city's most interesting food right now, but also its most inconsistent and overpriced.
Uighur -- Uighur cooking is the more distinctive of Beijing's two Muslim styles (the other being Hui), with origins in remote Xinjiang Province. The cuisine is heavy on lamb and chicken and is justly adored for its variety of thick noodles in spiced tomato-based sauces. Uighurs produce the city's favorite street snack: yangrou chuan, roasted lamb skewers with cumin and chili powder.
Vegetarian -- An increasingly diverse style, the Beijing version of vegetarian cuisine is moving away from its previous obsession with soy- and taro-based fake meat dishes. Decor and quality vary from restaurant to restaurant, but none allows smoking or booze.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.