Shanghai’s oldest restaurants
Making up the city’s original dining scene, these eateries, institutions in their own right, have stood the test of time. The oldest Shanghai restaurants were here long before happy hours and Sunday brunches even began to rumble our taste buds.
All spots, with some catering more to tourists than others, run ‘old-style’ with huge and sometimes inconsistent menus, a smattering of English and perfunctory service (although we're sure a random bubbly server can be found), but are still well worth the visit.
Mei Long Zhen
Dating back from 1938, this spot is easy to miss, hidden down a nondescript lane off Nanjing Xi Lu. And, as legend goes, it gets its name from Ming Dynasty emperor ‘Zhengde,’ who once visited the nearby Meilongzhen village (Shanghai suburb) in disguise.
Over the years, this venue’s popularity grew for diners of all ilks, and at one time was a favorite haunt for the who’s who of Shanghai’s cultural and underground masses.
Specializing in Sichuanese, Yangzhou and "eventually" Shanghainese cuisine respectively, over time its master chefs merged to form a special menu of fusion tastes, long before fusion was even close to cool.
A huge venue with seating for 600 and total of seven dining halls, Mei Long Zhen houses some of the most elaborate décor around (some's a bit over the top, but embrace the kitsch) and a price range to justify any budget from modest RMB 18 dishes to the impress-the-in laws-worthy RMB 1,500 offerings.
Service with a smile? Yes! One of the list’s friendlier places, including the alley guard.
Mei Long Zhen, multiple locations, No. 22, Lane 1081, Nanjing Xi Lu, near Jiangning Lu, 南京西路1081弄22号, 近江宁路, +86 21 6253 5353; reservations recommended
Hong Chang Xing Mutton Hot Pot
Priding itself on offering a completely halal menu, this family-owned restaurant that reportedly opened in 1891 is just one of many older Muslim restaurants located throughout the city. Over the years, it has expanded to three branches and two halal food shops in both Puxi and Pudong.
The menu is huge but reasonably priced, and offers much more than its famous mutton namesake, although its mutton hot pot, if you’re a fan, shouldn’t be missed.
Other favorites include dumplings, traditional shashliks and top seller "Garlic Fragrant Lamb Lei Pai" at just RMB 14.
The other thing of note at Hong Chang Xing? This place sports some of the best and most baffling dish names around including this gem: The Coconut Tree Juice Cooks the Official Swallow. So intriguing –- the name alone should inspire you to give it a try.
Hong Chang Xing Mutton Hot Pot, multiple locations, 10/F, 288 Guangxi Bei Lu, near Nanjing Dong Lu 广西北路288号10楼, 近南京东路, +86 21 6352 9700
Lao Fan Dian
Lao Fan Dian's original location and name, ‘Rongshun,’ dates back to 1875. It has since moved not once but twice (final time in 1965) to its current Fuyou Lu location. Their loyal following hasn't seemed to mind, following them across the city.
Must-eat Shanghainese favorites include Ba Bao Ya (Eight Treasure Stuffed Boneless Duck) and Chef Li Borong’s special croaker dish for a mere RMB 1,080. That better be a good fish.
Along with a big reputation comes a rather spartan, yet traditional décor -– this is a place for serious eaters who can’t be bothered by those distracting aesthetics.
Lao Fan Dian, 242 Fuyou Lu, near Lishui Lu 福佑路242号, 近丽水路, +86 21 6311 1777, www.laofandian.com
Dragon Phoenix , Fairmont Peace Hotel
Built in 1930 and housed in the former Cathay Hotel (now the Peace Hotel), this was just one of Victor Sassoon’s many brainchildren and was evidently the place to be in the Chinese fine-dining scene. And barring its recent three-year sabbatical, little has changed.
Originally stemming from the Sassoon’s private entourage's shared love of local cuisine, like all things Sassoon-related, word spread with connoisseurs the world over who then (willingly) waited a year or more to have the privilege to dine there.
Though not for the budget-conscious, the views (inside and out) alone may justify the tab, and that’s before the first course arrives.
A menu that includes all of the finer tastes of Shanghai, Canton and Sichuan -- including its legendary Sunday dim sum -- are the creations of master chef Gu De Long, who’s worked in the same kitchen for over 40 years. Now that’s what we call employee retention.
Fairmont Peace Hotel, 8/F, 20 Nanjing Dong Lu, near the Bund 南京东路20号8楼, 近外滩, +86 216 323 6896; reservations and smart dress recommended
Starting as a modest rice wine shop way back in 1744, Wang Bao He's restaurant-dish association among the local population is absolutely uncanny. Want crabs? Go to Wang Bao He. No thinking required.
Now a Shanghai legend catering to all things crabby, Wang Bao He and its team of chefs serve up a seemingly endless selection of crab and seafood dishes with hairy crab as its main specialty, meaning fall is by far its busiest season.
All dishes are best washed down with the restaurant's famous Shaoxing wine. If you opt to try dishes prepared with the wine, you'll be in for a treat, the alcohol adds a unique flavor to the crab that's definitely worthy of your taste buds.
Size matters here with owners oh-so-bravely boasting to have "the biggest crabs in town." We'll leave the jokes to you.
Not sure how the original owners would take to the giant, fluorescent crab now adorning the façade, but the throngs of crab-crazy diners packing its halls every night of the week seem little deterred.
Wang Bao He, multiple locations, 603 Fuzhou Lu, near Zhejiang Zhong Lu, 福州路603号, 近浙江中路, +86 21 6322 3673
Gong De Lin (Godly Vegetarian)
Allowing patrons to get up close and personal with God, as in Buddha himself (with altar conveniently nearby), this is not only a veg-head must-visit spot, but a place for anyone who appreciates the greener things in life.
This city-wide favorite haunt with gorgeous décor boasts the title of oldest vegetarian Shanghai restaurant dating back to 1922.
Gong De Lin's massive menu claims over 300 dishes, serving up veggies anyway you could imagine, luring endless veg-crazy fans in over the years, including its share of dignitaries and movie stars.
Ironically, Gong De Lin's imitation meat dishes are its most popular, with one of the all-time favorite dishes being the "Fried Spring ‘Chicken’ with Sesame Oil" (of course, tofu in disguise).
The venue's most die-hard fans claim that even their grannys’ top skills can’t match its infamous vegetable seasoning. A top secret sauce, perhaps?
Gong De Lin, multiple locations, 445 Nanjing Xi Lu, near Chengdu Bei Lu 南京西路445号, 近成都北路, +86 21 6327 0218, www.shgodly.com