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Restaurant Rock 'n' Roll

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

At Fisherman's Wharf, seven female hostesses, all dressed in figure-hugging red qi paos, greet you as you walk through the outsized revolving doors. "Huanying Guanglin," they chirp, meaning, "We welcome the approach of your brilliance."

This Wal-Mart-sized restaurant in the Yellow Sea port of Tianjin is the biggest in northern China. Its banquet halls, dining areas and 108 private rooms can accommodate 2,500 customers at once. How big is Fisherman's Wharf? Put it this way. It sells a tonne of live seafood a day. The fish tanks are so vast you walk across footbridges to get to the other side. The lobby is flanked with life-sized carved elephants and fake palm trees. The stainless-steel kitchen accommodates 300 chefs. Oh, and the waiters roller-skate from the kitchen to your table to ensure that the food is hot.

The chefs calibrate the fiery woks with foot pedals and stir-fry a dish in less than a minute. At lunch, my guest and I dive into our first dish 10 minutes after we order. Everything was swimming minutes earlier.

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After centuries of deprivation, a new middle class is fuelling the biggest, most creative restaurant boom in China's long and glorious culinary history. This is, after all, a x culture where the obsession with food is so intense that a secure job is known as an "iron rice bowl." The standard mainland greeting isn't "How are you?" but "Have you eaten?"

Restaurants are temples of conspicuous consumption. Yet fierce competition — a classic Keynesian oversupply — has kept prices down here, and ensured that service is obsequious and reservations unnecessary.

"We wanted to build the biggest restaurant in Tianjin, but we wanted the Old Hundred Surnames to have the nerve to walk in," says Zhang Qiuying, 30, the stylish front manager at Fisherman's Wharf, using the affectionate nickname for ordinary people. "We didn't want them to be intimidated."

After three weeks of eating my way through four Chinese cities, I can say that not only are the restaurants affordable, they also offer more exciting cuisine, often better décor, and much better service than many — Chinese or otherwise — in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. The foreign restaurants in China are as varied here as in the most cosmopolitan city — there is Thai, Italian, German, Brazilian, French, Japanese, Indian and Greek. And I don't believe Canada has a North Korean restaurant where the waitresses wear Kim Il-sung badges.

That China now surpasses the West is amazing enough. It becomes incredible when you realize that any mainland Chinese person in their 40s today is a survivor of the famine of the early 1960s, which claimed 20 million lives in the wake of Chairman Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward. Until the late 1980s, you couldn't even buy rice or noodles without ration coupons. The "comrades," as we called the waiters during the Cultural Revolution, dressed like nurses from horror movies, in stained white caps and aprons.

Back then, when I was learning Chinese at Beijing University, I would bicycle for blocks without finding a restaurant. When I finally did find one, I had to guess who might finish first, and plant myself behind that customer, literally breathing down his neck. It was invariably a "he." Women rarely went out, and almost never together.

Menus were chalked on a blackboard, but they were largely fiction. Restaurants closed — I'm not kidding — at meal times, so the comrades could dine in peace. You ate lunch at 10:30 or 11, or not at all. Supper was scarcely better. Most office workers didn't get off until 6 p.m., but restaurants would padlock their doors at 6:30. Anyone still eating inside would be subject to clouds of dust as the comrades swept up.

Today, the hallmarks of the Maoist-era — rudeness, one-note menus, scarcity — are gone. The provincial statistical bureau reports that per-capita annual food spending jumped 17 per cent in Beijing from 1999 to 2002.

During a 10-kilometre taxi ride in Beijing this month, I tried an experiment. Was it possible to drive by a block without encountering a restaurant? It wasn't. I asked the taxi driver if he could think of a single street in Beijing without a restaurant. "Tiananmen Square," he replied, after thinking hard for a moment. (He's wrong. There's a delicious Peking Duck spot on the east side of the square, a KFC outlet on the south side, and several restaurants underneath the square itself.)

Perhaps the prettiest restaurant in Beijing is Tiandi YiJia, or Heaven Earth Restaurant, a block from Tiananmen Square. It's named after the pavilion where Empress Cixi first caught the emperor's eye.

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