So you are in Shanghai. Now what?
The People’s Snacks
Head to People’s Square early to avoid traffic and chaos. Get dropped off at the corner of Huanghe Lu and Fengyang Lu and walk down the popular food street. There won’t yet be a line at Jiajiatangbao (90 Huanghe Lu), so settle down with a hot bowl of egg and seaweed soup and basket of crab roe xiaolongbao. Don’t forget to order sliced ginger on the side. Watch and learn how locals slurp their dumplings, and indulge in one of the most perfect foods in the world. Possibly the most talked about spot in Shanghai, you’ve finally tasted what all the fuss is about, and they weren’t lying.
That was a nice teaser, now walk across the street to Xiaoyangshenjian, the other fabled chain that serves what can be called the bastard brother of XLB, the shenjianbao. Rougher around the edges but just as delicious. Thick, bread-like pork buns are pan-fried and coated in sesame and scallions. The scalding soup inside spells impending disaster for your shirt. This is a tricky one. Slurp out the juices first.
Walk towards the People’s Square subway station and descend the underground walkway onto the famous Nanjing East Road pedestrian street, admire the crowds and take a picture at the top of the walkway steps. Stroll down the avenue and enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells. There is a small food alley on the left side featuring a xiaolongbao spot, a maltang joint (mini Sichuan style hot pot) where locals often stop, and a variety of deep fried kebabs. But just a few steps further is where it gets cool.
Shanghai First Food Store 上海第一食品店 (720 Nanjing East Road) is prominently located in the middle of the Nanjingxi Lu stretch, it is like the Macy’s of Chinese food, where you can find anything your curious culinary heart desires. At the corner where the store is visible, turn left down the side street first. About 50m in, you will see a store with a First Food Store sign above an unassuming doorway. This is the no-nonsense raw ingredient shop where chefs go to find key ingredients, Chinese and foreign. Don’t let the clinical setting with its fluorescent lights and white jacketed cashiers deter you. Tinker around and inquire what the foreign substances in glass cases are. Various rice flours, dried abalone, and sweet rose paste are just a few of the things on offer. Now enter the main department store and into sensory overload. During mid-autumn festival, every mooncake under the sun can be sampled here and sold by weight. Duck tongues, hickory nuts, Big White Rabbit candies; something for everyone. On the second floor are specialty packaged foods from every region in China. Ask to try everything. I dare you to leave empty-handed.
Goodbye bib and hello white gloves. Head to Whampoa Club in the lavish Three on the Bund where you will find what is the most stylish interpretation of Shanghai cuisine in the city. Headed by Chef Yap Poh Weng, dishes are rooted in traditional recipes but elevated with fine ingredients and a contemporary twist. Feast your eyes on the luxurious but clean interiors that like its food, is a 30s throwback with modern sensibilities. The view’s not bad either. Have the tea sommelier recommend a cup from the extensive tea menu and don’t miss the smoked fish. Style and presentation- not tradition- are key here.
The white gloves are still on, so head to Xintiandi for a taste of history at the First Congress of the People’s Communist Party (70 Xinye Rd.) in its original setting. Wander quickly through the cobble stoned plaza past gaping latte-hoisting tourists and thank god you’re not one of them. Stop to check out the old-school kitchens of Shanghai’s Shikumen era in a restored house turned museum. Avoid dining in XTD, but in case of emergencies, branches of DinTaiFung and Crystal Jade may suffice.
Get back to basics with a cab to Lin Long Fang (10 Jianguo Lu), the opposite of opulence but the site of Shanghai’s best xiaolongbao. Feast on baskets of crab roe pork dumplings. I’ve touted its merits sufficiently in “The Essential Guide to Xiaolongbao”, so won’t say more. In this moment, the dumplings are your raison d’être . It’s been worth the chase.
For a further injection of the mixed bag that is Shanghai culture, head to Tianzifang at Taikang Lu. Wander the maze of old lane houses that have been converted to boutiques, galleries and cafes. Some residents still live amongst the shopfronts, which is about the only thing grounding this increasingly gentrified and tourist-happy spot. You’ll find it hard to resist buying mod-art prints, silk scarves and tin mugs, but when you need a pick me up, head to Q’s Coffee (No. 15, Lane 155). These dark roasted beans are sourced from Yunnan, and have a unique, fruity flavour.
Taikang Lu is also a great place to observe Shanghai’s local food culture in motion. You may have noticed by now that every district has its own wet market, with vendors selling in-season produce from seafood and meats to grains and condiments. The one on the main road at Taikang Lu is especially vibrant, perhaps because of its proximity to the high-traffic tourist area. There are monumentally large dried fish and cured meats hanging from the ceiling, and vendors with toothy grins are always happy to chat. Chat with them.
It’s been a long day. Chill out one of the most charming streets in the French Concession at Osteria (226 Jixian Lu). Ask sommelier Ben Cracknell to recommend a glass from their award-winning wine selection. My go-to is a glass of Grace Vineyard Symphony muscat, the gold star in the lineup from China’s leading vineyard located in Shaanxi. Of course, indulge in Osteria’s other claim to faim- impossibly fresh oysters.
After dinner, stroll down the street to homestyle Shanghai restaurants Lan Xin (21-6253-3554) or Chun (124 Jinxian Lu 21-6256-0301), directly next door. Ensure you have reservations because with only five or so tables at each, these tickets are tough, and made more impossible after being covered in NYTimes as the best homestyle Shanghainese meal in the world. Chun has no menu, and you are at the mercy of the proprietress, much like a home-cooked meal by your hypothetical Shanghainese grandmother. The dishes are mostly representative of the Shanghai red-braised variety- heavy, saucy, and sweet. Lan Xin has a Chinese menu and you will need some basic Chinese to get by.
Drink It In
You need to spend one night gawking at the hyper light display that is Pudong. You can’t fight the Bund. Start at the Vue, Hyatt’s infamous rooftop bar, and try not to order the bathing suit off the cocktail menu. Hot tubs are for another night. Do take pics of the breathtaking view.
Now bar hop. M1NT (318 Fuzhou Lu)- the ‘not really’ member’s only club, classy but dated Glamour Bar (3 on the Bund)- offshoot of M on the Bund, Lounge 18 (Bund 18), and Bar Rouge (same building) – arguably the most famous club in Shanghai, are all adequate for a taste of Shanghai’s high life. Decked with beautiful foreign models and dripping with Cristal, this is the height of pretentiousness. Soak it in.
So what you were really doing the past three hours was working up an appetite worthy of the midnight feast to come. Enter Mr & Mrs Smith (Bund 18), Paul Pairet’s modern French restaurant, introducing what is Shanghai’s classiest late-night grub until 4 a.m. Tues-Sat. There is a bit of everything on the dizzying menu; steak, seafood, poultry, veggies, each done any number of ways. There’s no point in perusing the whole thing, just dive into the section you’re craving and rest assured the quality of ingredients and skills in the kitchen will not disappoint. You won’t know what to rejoice, the food or the prices. Menu is very good value late night at ~200RMB a person.
To the Rolling Pins
Start your morning with a xiaolongbao making course at the Cooking Workshop. Local Shanghai ayis teach you the basics of rolling the dough, seasoning the meat and just how they get the soup inside. Check website for schedules.
If it happens to be a Friday, head to the Muslim Market (Changde Lu, near Aomen Lu) for a unique look into the vibrant Muslim community of Shanghai, and get carried away by the scent of cumin-rubbed lamb and char-grilled naan bread. Vendors set up carts every Friday by 11 a.m. in anticipation of Jumu’ah, the Islamic Friday Prayer. Most are from Xinjiang, China’s most north-western province, and bring exotic goods back to share with community members in Shanghai. From carpets, to incense, to fruits to -of course- the lamb. Xinjiang lamb is something quite amazing. The secret is apparently in the fat of the tail, which is alternated with chunks of meat on the ubiquitous lamb kebabs peddled on every street corner. A dash of cumin and paprika are essential.
Lunch at the storied M on the Bund. A fixture on the strip since 1999, it oozes timeless style and is located at the top of the historic Nissin Shipping building with views as expansive as its accolades. The rooftop terrace is a good idea in nice weather, as is the excellent value lunch menu. Pavlova dessert is essential.
Because you’ve got to work it off somehow, rent a bike and cycle through the beautiful tree-lined streets of the French Concession. It is Shanghai at its most charming. BOHDI rents bikes by the day, and their helpful staff can provide the best routes. Try to end up at Fu Chun (650 Yuyuan Lu) for a basket of xiaolongbao. You can’t call it a trip to Shanghai without comparing the nuances between each of Jiajia, LinLong, and FuChun. You’re officially a dumpling expert.
The Happiest Hour
Shanghai is the city of happy hour. Most expats don’t do much else besides watch pirated DVDs and drink heavily. So join ‘em for a pint or two at Abbey Road (45 Yueyang Lu), the kitschy Beatles pub. The patio is great in the summer, and although the menu is lacklustre, they’ve got some cheesy Swiss rostis on offer for when you are sufficiently inebriated.
Go to GOGA
One of Shanghai’s best meals a la moment is just next door to Abbey Road at GOGA (1 Yueyang Lu). Roy Yamaguchi-trained chef Brad Turley is a star in Shanghai right now, concerned with feeding real people real food in his new Goga an abbreviation of a certain bridge in San Francisco, his former site of training and inspiration for his colourful flavour profiles. The place is a box and seats maybe 20, and everyone is within conversation-length of the friendly chef in his open kitchen. Let him hook you up with what’s good that day, but make sure you get the lobster rolls.
Eat Hard. Play Hard.
Live jazz heads will appreciate JZ (46 Fuxing Xi Lu) or Cotton Club (1416 Huaihai Zhong Lu) for some decent local acts and occasional out of town performers. Afterwards grab a creative cocktail at lush and intimate el Coctel (47 Yongfu Lu). Dripping with sophistication, the sultry space is the perfect backdrop to a finely crafted cocktail menu with an appreciation with detail. Craft cocktails do come at a price though, and you’ll want to move on after soaking up the atmosphere. Just a few steps away is Shiva (47 Yongfu Lu), a tiny lounge with a chilled out vibe. Do descend into the claustrophobia hat is The Shelter (5 Yongfu Lu), a nightclub converted from former bomb shelter. Definitely one of the coolest live music venues, whose recent one year anniversary saw acts like Das Racist and Dj Mitsu. Pretty bomb.