Food is one of the true attractions of China; eating might not be the reason you came, but it will be one thing you remember. And Shanghai can make a convincing claim to be China’s culinary capital. Upmarket restaurants starring celebrity chefs open every few months, while the diversity and quality of everyday, white-collar eateries is superb.
The Chinese obsess about food: the Mandarin for “how are you?” – ni chi fan ma – literally translates as “have you eaten yet?” Accordingly, they have created one of the world’s great cuisines. Each region boasts its own delicious specialities, which you’ll be able to find somewhere in Shanghai – but don’t overlook city’s own distinctive style.
Taken from the Rough Guide to Shanghai, these are six of the best restaurants to eat Shanghainese, and the dishes you should order at each one.
Shanghai Ren Jia
The Chinese like their restaurants rènào (hot and noisy), and this is a good example, a huge, bustling chain restaurant with a cheap and cheery atmosphere and interesting twists on standard Shanghainese fare. It’s best to come in a large group so you can order and share multiple dishes.
What to order Try the drunken shrimps if you’re brave enough. These critters come to the table live and soaked in booze – you pull off their heads and eat them while they twitch. Roasted pig’s trotter is another house speciality.
141 Yunnan Nan Lu
Billing itself the “king of crabs and ancestor of wine”, this local staple has been around for over two hundred years. It’s famous for its crab dishes, particularly the local speciality, hairy crabs (known as mitten crabs in the west), a grey freshwater crustacean harvested in in its breeding season from October to December.
What to order Hairy crabs: prise the shell off and you’ll find delicious white meat inside, and, if it’s a female, maybe the highly prized orange roe.
603 Fuzhou Lu
Old-fashioned Chinese-style dining – bright and noisy and with big tables; the waitresses expect you to call for their attention, so hardly suitable for a date, but it’s fun for a group. Adventurous diners might wish to sample the blood soup or chicken feet.
What to order Xiao Shaoxing is famous in Shanghai for its “drunken chicken” (the meat is steeped in rice wine).
118 Yunnan Nan Lu
Drunken chicken © Theerawan/Shutterstock
Xinjishi (Jesse Restaurant)
The in-the-know spot where the stylish set get their down-to-earth home-style cooking. The decor is a bit tatty but there’s nothing at all wrong with the tasty and reasonably priced dishes. It’s spawned a chain, but none of the new branches are nearly as good
What to order Go for the soy-braised pork, pickled eggplant, crab-flavoured tofu – all local faves.
41 Tianping Lu
This intimate neighbourhood restaurant is a smart place to eat Shanghainese; it’s warm, relaxed and inexpensive, and the Taiwanese owner is attentive. The expansive menu features all the local classics, too, and eating here shouldn’t cost more than ¥100 per person. You’ll need to reserve ahead.
What to order The choice dishes are yellow croakers with scallions and deep-fried duck leg.
328 Jianguo Xi Lu
© Said M/Shutterstock
The little restaurants lining Shanghai’s food streets and markets are great places to get down with the locals. You won’t find many English menus so just point at whatever your neighbour is having, or the critter slithering round the bucket. The most popular with visitors is the area around Yuyuan Bazaar, which has plenty of venerable dumpling shops, but for a more local experience, head to Huanghe Lu, due north of People’s Park – in particular the section north of Beijing Xi Lu – where you’ll find a large concentration of restaurants and vendors, many of them open 24 hours.
What to order Yang’s Fried Dumplings and Jia Jia Tang Bao have great reputations for, respectively, dumplings and xiaolong bao, delicious parcels filled with pork and a gelatinous soup.
Top image: Assortment of different types of asian traditional food in Shanghai © Tsuguliev/Shutterstock