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Restaurant Rock 'n' Roll

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Heaven Earth is built in traditional courtyard-home style on the edge of the Forbidden City, on Nan Chi Zi, a street that once housed the emperor's male relatives, who were barred from spending the night within the confines of the imperial palace. By day, the sunlight streams through skylights, filtered through pale yellow silk umbrellas suspended from the ceiling. By night, the stone floors and goldfish pond provide a serene setting for the slender waitresses in high-collared black silk gowns.

My guests and I chose mostly home-style dishes: three-cup chicken in a casserole; spicy ma po bean curd; and winter cabbage poached in an intense chicken broth. We decided our one exotic dish would be sautéed footpad of camel with Chinese herbs. It was better than it sounds, but not as good as the chicken. Camel-coloured, aromatic slivers of footpad, tossed with shredded celery and garlic, had a chewiness reminiscent of cooked clams. But only the eight-year-old boy with us spat it out.

Heaven Earth charges 32 yuan, or $5, for individual lidded cups of green tea — more than for spicy ma po bean curd. It also serves flutes of Veuve Clicquot, at $20 each. In addition to foreign businesses, including erstwhile opium-trading firms, the restaurant attracts nouveau riche Chinese.

But even an affordable restaurant such as Beijing's Big Chinese Pear offers tanks of live seafood, authentic Peking Duck with handmade paper-thin pancakes and what I can only call a French fry tower, an obelisk of delicate pommes pailles. Its signature dish is deep-fried, breaded crisp pears stuffed with sweet bean paste.

My guest at Big Chinese Pear was a friend who is a maid. A regular customer, she warned me that the pears were nan chi — awful. Instead, we shared a refreshing salad of blanched shredded Chinese celery tossed with sesame oil and chilis, followed by tiny meatballs cooked in broth with napa cabbage. As we ate, my friend pointed out the amenities: air conditioning and, for each diner, a sealed packet containing disposable chopsticks, moistened cloth finger towels and a carved toothpick. Our meal for two cost 28 yuan, or $4.65, less than a cup of tea at Heaven Earth.

The cornucopia of choice has changed cooking habits too. "I never cook at home," says Dai Qing, 64, an environmental activist who spent several years in prison after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. "I don't want to waste time. The food is good and cheap in basic restaurants."

Today, restaurant staff no longer rudely chant, "Mei you" — "Don't have." Instead, the comrade, now called a server, stands patiently beside the table while you peruse the 20 or 30 illustrated pages of the menu. In Shanghai, I watched in amazement as two young women in a faux 1930s teahouse discussed at length with their waiter how fresh the ingredients were, whether something was steamed or poached. It put Parisians to shame.

At Big Chinese Pear, I couldn't help eavesdropping as an irate customer shouted for 10 minutes at the dining-room manager. The customer had found a hair in her food. The offending item had been whisked away and a replacement brought, but the customer wanted a discount. When the manager politely refused, the customer kept shouting. In Mao's day, the comrades would have shouted back, and perhaps even come to blows.

With so much competition, restaurants are thinking outside the lunchbox to lure customers. In Tianjin, one restaurant doubles as a private museum. Yue Wei Xian is crammed with more than 3,000 items, including mounted elk heads and genuine treasures such as a ninth-century stone sculpture. A plaque outside proclaims that it has made the Guinness Book of World Records as the restaurant with the most archeological relics.

Like Shanghai, Tianjin was a so-called treaty port, forcibly opened to foreign trade after China's defeat in the 19th-century Opium Wars. Yue occupies an Italianate four-storey mansion once owned by a famous opera star named Ma Lianliang. The owner, Zhang Lianzhi, an inveterate collector who has Canadian citizenship, told me that he wanted to share his art.

As my guests, three local residents, ordered starters of diced cucumber in aged vinegar, our server, Shang Junjiang, entered the order in his dian cai bao — an "ordering food treasure," a Chinese version of a Palm Pilot. As we selected each dish, the order went directly to the kitchen, with a copy transmitted to the cashier. When I told him I had seen them using the same devices at Fisherman's Wharf, Shang grimaced. He used to work there, but the roller-skating did him in.

"I can skate," he said, "but not with a big tureen of soup. If you drop one dish, they dock you one month's pay. The first day, I had two collisions with other waiters. I quit."

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