Gastronomes never had it so good in Shanghai. With restaurants serving a mind-boggling variety of Chinese cuisine, as well as a wide range of top-notch international fare, Shanghai is arguably mainland China's best city for eating. Beijing boosters will disagree, of course, and it was not always so 15 years ago, but the prosperous 1990s that saw Shanghai once again take to the world stage have reawakened the demand for la bella vita, as seen in the explosion of dining establishments in the last few years. For Shanghai residents, ever-attuned to the latest trends and tastes, eating out and trying new restaurants is now a pastime that rivals shopping.
While some of Shanghai's top restaurants can be found in hotels, there are scores of well-run private establishments that rival if not surpass the quality of hotel food, and usually at lower prices. Significantly improved hygiene standards should also allay any concerns you may have about eating out. Shanghai provides the unusual opportunity of dining one moment in a traditional teahouse and another in a restored colonial mansion; missing out would be a shame.
Don't expect the Chinese food here to taste the same as that at home; expect it to be light years better. While you can eat your way through China by sampling all the regional Chinese restaurants in Shanghai, the emphasis is on Shanghai's own renowned cuisine, commonly referred to as benbang cai. Usually considered a branch of Huaiyang cuisine, Shanghai cooking has traditionally relied on soy sauce, sugar, and oil. The most celebrated Shanghai dish is hairy crab, a freshwater delicacy that reaches its prime every fall. Also popular are any number of "drunken" dishes (crab, chicken) marinated in local Shaoxing wine, and braised meat dishes such as lion's head meatballs and braised pork knuckle. Shanghai dim sum and snacks include a variety of dumplings, headlined by the local favorite xiaolong bao, as well as onion pancakes and leek pies, all of which deserve to be tried.
Those hankering for a taste of home will also find that Shanghai is the most foreign-belly-friendly city in China. From the trendiest Continental cuisine to the most recognizable fast-food chains, there is a staggering range of options guaranteed to take the edge off any homesick cravings. Many Asian and European cuisines are well represented, with Italian, Spanish, French, Japanese, Thai, and Indian cooking of good enough quality to satisfy a discerning overseas palate. World-renowned chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten, David Laris, and Paul Pairet have also chosen to launch their China flagship restaurants here. Where Shanghai particularly excels is in the bold new tastes that are arising from the mix of East and West.
At the other end of the dining scale, the American fast-food chains of McDonald's and KFC are ubiquitous. So are Starbucks, Häagen-Dazs, and Pizza Hut. Subway is in the mix, along with Hooters, and Cold Stone Creamery. Check the local expatriate magazines for location details.
According to the corporate travel index published by Business Travel News, the corporate dining tab in Shanghai in 2010 (said to lag behind London's, but to exceed San Francisco's) averages around $302 per person per day, but most travelers can get by well below that amount. While Shanghai's top international restaurants tend to charge Western prices, you can have an excellent meal for two at a relatively upscale Chinese restaurant for ¥150 to ¥300. Some of the best local foods can be had for less than that. (Prices quoted for a Chinese meal are for two bowls of rice and between two and four dishes.) The key is to mix it up with a combination of local and international dining. If you want to try Shanghai's more famous Western restaurants, consider going at lunchtime, when lunch specials and set menus can cost less than half of what you would spend at dinner. Hotel restaurants frequently levy a 15% service charge, but few private restaurants do. There is no tipping in restaurants, and the waitstaff will usually run after you to return your change.
The Shanghainese love affair with eating has spawned a dizzying number of restaurant openings (and closings) on any given week, a vexing matter not only for restaurant owners, but travel writers as well. What follows is a list of mostly established restaurants (with an emphasis on those outside of the big hotels) that should, barring any unforeseen health-related crisis, still be thriving by the time you read this. Consult the local English-language weeklies for new restaurant listings.
The widest variety of dining options is in the Luwan (French Concession), Jing An, and Xuhui districts. This is also where you'll find some of the most ambient restaurants located inside colonial mansions on large, sprawling estates. With some of the city's top international restaurants and unimprovable views, the Bund is also another prime dining spot.
As well, Shanghai has a number of food streets (meishi jie) lined with Chinese restaurants of every ilk, though not all of them have English menus or English-speaking staff. They are: Huang He Lu, northwest of the Park Hotel (Huangpu); Yunnan Lu, east of Xizang Lu and south of Yan'an Dong Lu (Huangpu); Yuyuan Zhi Lu, northwest of Jing An Temple (Jing An); and Zhapu Lu, north of Suzhou Creek and east of Sichuan Bei Lu (Hongkou). Locals love Shouning Lu, south of Huaihai Lu between the old Chinese city and the French Concession for the restaurants specializing in spicy crawfish (xiaolongxia), and Si Pai Lou Lu in the old Chinese city south of Fangbang Zhong Lu and west of Zhonghua Lu is chock-full of roadside stalls selling all kinds of delicious local foods. Wujiang Lu, just off Nanjing Xi Lu by the Nanjing Xi Lu Metro station (Huangpu), has become a lot more gentrified and upscale with the inclusion of more Western restaurants.
China has a vast number of regional cuisines, which have traditionally been classified according to four main cooking styles. Below is a summary of the four styles and their various sub-branches:
Beijing/Northern -- Beijing or Northern cuisine is typically characterized by strong, robust flavors and hearty ingredients; pork and lamb dominate, the latter also due to the Muslim influence in the northwestern part of the country. Staples are heavy noodles and breads instead of rice. Uighur or Xinjiang cuisine falls under this rubric. Jiaozi, small chunks of meat and vegetables wrapped in dough and boiled, are popular snacks also eaten during the Chinese New Year.
Huaiyang/Shanghai -- Huaiyang cuisine, encompassing the coastal areas of eastern China, and said to require the most skill, aims to preserve the basic flavor of each ingredient in order to achieve balance and freshness. River fish, farm animals, birds, and vegetables feature prominently, and braising and stewing are more common than stir-frying. Red sauces (from soy sauce, sugar, and oil) are popular. Shanghai-, Hangzhou-, Suzhou-, and Yangzhou-style cooking are all minor variations on the same theme.
Cantonese -- Considered the most refined and sophisticated of the cuisines, the emphasis here is on freshness and lightness, with steaming and stir-frying the cooking methods of choice. Seafood dominates, but just about anything edible is fair game -- the Cantonese are known for being the most adventurous eaters. Top hotels all have Cantonese restaurants, which are always the first choice for Chinese if they're trying to impress a guest. Cantonese dim sum, featuring little morsels of food like shrimp dumplings, barbecue pork crisps, and egg tarts, is widely popular.
Sichuan -- Sichuan cooking, born in the damp interior of southwestern China, relies heavily on chilies, peppers, peppercorns, and garlic; spicy and pungent flavors are the result. Popular dishes include gongbao jiding (diced chicken with chili and peanuts) and mapo doufu (spicy tofu with minced pork). Sichuan hot pot (huoguo) is also a favorite. Although popular in Shanghai, Sichuan cooking has seldom made it here intact: The local preference for sweet and salty is readily apparent on many a Sichuan menu in town. Other southwestern cuisines, such as Guizhou and Yunnan, which are themselves subdivided into various ethnic minority cuisines, tend to be spicy and sour.