Elaborately presented but seldom appetizing, dishes cooked in Beijing's much-hyped imperial style are one of the city's biggest scams. Famous imperial restaurants Fang Shan Fanzhuang in Bei Hai Park and Li Jia Cai (Li Family Restaurant) in the Back Lakes area are both set in picturesque surroundings but charge far too much for bad food and are therefore not included in this guide. For a better dining experience in either location, pack a picnic. If you really want to drop a hundred bucks on camel paw and soup made from bird saliva, ask the concierge in your hotel to point the way. If you want to enjoy the cuisine of modern Mandarins, we recommend Chuan Jing Ban and the Yunteng Binguan, the restaurants of the Sichuan and Yunnan provincial governments, respectively.
Dinner on the Lakes, by Candlelight
For roughly ¥400 plus the cost of food, Beijing's ancient roast-meat restaurant Kaorou Ji now arranges what may be the most charming dining experience in the city: a meal for up to eight people served aboard a narrow canopied flat-bottom boat, staffed by a lone oarsman who guides the craft in a gentle arc around the man-made serenity of Qian Hai and Hou Hai. The entire trip takes roughly 2 hours. A little extra money buys live traditional music and the opportunity to float candles in the lakes after dark falls -- a cliché in the making, but who cares? The restaurant is located next to Nuage at Qian Hai Dong Yan 14, and a meal for two costs ¥120 to ¥160; open daily 9am to 2pm and 5 to 9pm. To make boat arrangements, call tel. 010/6612-5717 or 010/6404-2554. Note: Boat-rental prices vary from season to season and will probably increase as time goes on.
Cooking Schools in Beijing
A handful of cooking schools have popped up in Beijing in the past few years that put you right in front of a chopping board and stove. Aside from Black Sesame Kitchen, you may want to try Hutong Cuisine, Dong Mianhua Hutong 15 (tel. 010/8401-4788; www.hutongcuisine.com), or The Hutong, Jiudao Wan Zhong Xiang Hutong 1 (tel. 010/8915-3616; http://thehutong.com/blog). Black Sesame Kitchen's classes are taught by professional Chinese chefs who speak to you through a translator, while Hutong Cuisine offers slightly cheaper classes taught by a home-trained chef. The Hutong offers a range of cuisines, often taught by foreign housewives. Restaurants offering cooking classes include Bei, which offers sushi lessons, and Salt, Jiangtai Xi Lu 9, 1st Floor (tel. 010/6437-8457; www.saltrestaurantbeijing.com), which offers creative continental cuisine classes.
Where to Buy Picnic Supplies
Picnicking is the most neglected tradition among travelers in Beijing, considering the city's wealth of picturesque parks and scenic areas. This was once due to a paucity of the necessary components, but the availability of nearly any food item from anywhere now means there is no excuse.
You can purchase basic groceries and Chinese-style snacks at local markets and the xiaomaibu (little-things-to-buy units) found nearly everywhere. Several fully stocked supermarkets and a handful of smaller grocers now carry imported wine and cheese, pesto sauce, American junk food, Newcastle Brown Ale, and just about anything else you could want, albeit at inflated prices. Supermarket Olé stocks a good selection of foreign items; find them in the China World Trade Center and the basement of the Ginza Mall at the Dongzhi Men metro stop. April Gourmet, opposite On/Off in Sanlitun, has sliced meats, rare Western vegetables, and a full selection of familiar breakfast cereals. Much the same can be found at Jenny Lou's.
Among delis and bakeries, the best is the Kempi Deli (on the first floor of the Lufthansa building; tel. 010/6465-3388, ext. 5741). It offers satisfying crusty-bread sandwiches and a tremendous pastry and fresh baked bread selection that goes for half-price after 9pm. Mrs. Shanen's Bagels (tel. 010/8046-4301) can whip up some mean bagel sandwiches, and if you can't make it to their inconvenient, far-northeast-suburbs location, they'll deliver.
Recommended picnic spots in the city proper include Bei Hai Park, Summer Palace, and Ri Tan Park, as well as Zizhu Yuan Gongyuan (Purple Bamboo Garden), west of Beijing Zoo. Outside Beijing, sections of the Great Wall provide a dramatic spot for an outdoor meal. Also try the Ming and Qing tombs and the Tanzhe and Jietai temples in the western suburbs.
Chinese on the Cheap
Affordable Chinese food is everywhere in Beijing, and not all of the places that provide it are an offense to Western hygiene standards. As with shopping in this city, high prices don't necessarily guarantee high quality in dining, and cheap restaurants often provide better food than expensive ones. Down-market dining also offers the best chance to connect with the average Beijing resident.
Most convenient is a stable of adequately clean Chinese fast-food restaurants, many of which deliberately try to ape their Western counterparts. Menus typically offer simple noodles, baked goods, and stir-fries. Top chains include Yonghe Dawang (with KFC-style sign) and Malan noodle outlets (marked with a Chicago Bulls-style graphic), both with locations throughout the city.
A better option is to visit one of the point-to-choose food courts on the top or bottom floor of almost every large shopping center. These typically feature a dozen or so stalls selling snacks, noodles, or simple precooked selections from different regions. Prices are reasonable, making it easy to sample a wide range. Just point to what looks good. The food court in the basement of the Oriental Plaza, requiring purchase of a card you use to pay for food at each stall, is the most extensive. Others can be found in the China World Mall, the Yaxiu Clothing Market, and Xi Dan Baihuo Shangchang north of the Xi Dan metro stop.
One of the most enjoyable local dining areas in Beijing, the legendary 24-hour food street on Dongzhi Men Nei Dajie known to most as Ghost Street (Gui Jie ; the first Chinese character is a homonym for the Chinese word for ghost and actually refers to a vessel, but most Chinese and foreigners alike refer to it as "Ghost Street" or ""), took a hit from the wrecking ball but is still there in abbreviated form. From the Dong Si Bei Dajie intersection and running east, dozens of small eateries offer hot pot, mala longxia (spicy crayfish), and home-style fare through the lantern-lit night.
Late-night dining is a favorite Beijing pastime, and the most convenient way to experience it is to visit one of the several nightmarkets scattered about the city. This is street food, government regulated but not guaranteed to be clean, so the weak in stomach or courage may want to pass. Gastrointestinal gamble aside, the markets are a vivid and often delicious way to spend an evening.
The markets are typically made up of stalls, jammed side by side, selling all manner of snacks that cost anywhere from ¥.50 to ¥5. Most legendary are the little animals on sticks, a veritable zoo of skewers that includes baby birds and scorpions. Popular markets are on Longfu Si Jie and west of the Beijing Zoo (at the Dongwuyuan Yeshi), but the most celebrated is the Donghua Men nightmarket , just off Wangfujing Dajie opposite the Xin Dong An Plaza.
With a history supposedly dating back to 1655, the Donghua Men was closed during the Cultural Revolution and reopened in 1984. Previously a charming mishmash of independent operators each in their own battered tin shacks, it was "reorganized" in 2000. The stalls are all now a uniform red and white, each with identical twin gas burners. Prices have risen into the ¥10 range and the food has fallen a bit in quality. The payoff is an increase in revenues from foreign tourists.
Below are the most common items you'll find for sale at the stalls.
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.