The broth bubbles at each table, steam rising in the air. Families crowd around their designated cauldrons, gleefully scooping up spicy boiled bits of veggies and mutton. There isn't a single open seat, and throngs of customers await tables, the restaurant brimming as much as the hot pots.
This is Haidilao, the esteemed hot pot chain with 36 locations in Beijing, famed for its impeccable service which consistently tops our annual Reader Restaurant Awards for Best Service. And it's much the same again this year, with nominations for Service, Impressing Visitors, Delivery (yes, they can deliver you a hot pot!) and Restaurant of the Year in our 2015 awards – vote here through March 8.
But what is it about Haidilao's service that makes it so special? We aimed to test this out, armed with a long list of contrived requests and odd peccadillos, to see if they could handle us as high-maintenance customers.
As we arrive at Haidilao's Baijiazhuang location (south of Sanlitun, between the Hujialou and Tuanjiehu subway stations) without reservations during Chinese New Year, a waitress hands us a ticket with a waiting number and scurries off to tend to the numerous tables overflowing with customers.
For the next ten minutes, we wait as those servers—often cradling one or two filled-to-the-brim hot pots—scurry past us in order to tend our seated counterparts. The servers that do a have moment to pause for us neither speak English nor make an attempt to find a bilingual to assist.
So far, the Haidilao hype seems unwarranted.
That all changes shortly. A server rushes up and directs us to some stools at the far wall. Squatting on these rickety seats doesn't seem to jibe with the restaurant's ethos, but our gripes are soon silenced by a trio of cheery staff members who dole out decks of cards, Chinese checkers and wu zi qi (五子棋, a Chinese pastime akin to Connect Four).
The servers also hand out individual trays filled with snacks like popcorn and dried peas. This is certainly a cut above most of the hot pot joints we've visited in the past, which might toss a handful of sunflower seeds our way while otherwise ignoring us until a table frees up.
After an hour of waiting that passes quickly thanks to the snacks and games, a waitress invites us to finally have a seat. The server places a fresh Sichuan style cauldron in the gap at the table's center and turns on the heaters underneath. This relatively traditional hardware is nicely juxtaposed by the Haidilao staff's iPad-based menu, which they leave for us to peruse.
The app is quite user-friendly and features some charming animation, but the app is strictly Chinese, without a letter of pinyin, much less English. At this point we decide to test the staff's diligence once again and ask for a bilingual menu. This leads to a bit of conferring between some servers, before one departs and returns, flustered, with an English hard copy several minutes later.
Our next hurdle for the staff: fibbing about a mushroom allergy. Our server is quite helpful about this, pointing out items that we should avoid before leaving us alone to make our decisions.
She then returns and laudably points out that we should opt for half-portions of any veggies we order, seeing as we are only a party of two. We flip through the menu one last time, seeing some items that look interesting such as Salmon Steak Bits, others that look rather downmarket, like Spam, and other items that are just straight-up bizarre—for instance the Whole Pig Brains.
We settle on an order of Hand-cut Lamb (RMB58), Shrimp (RMB48), half an order of Mixed Vegetables that includes cabbage, lettuce and other leafy greens (RMB16), and half an order of Sweet Potato (RMB7). We also opt for some Needle Mushrooms (RMB12), and half an order of a the stouter Pinggu Mushroom (RMB8). The waitress punches the mushroom order in to the iPad without noting our aforementioned "allergy," which she appears to have forgotten about (or she must have figured no one with a real mushroom allergy would be dumb enough to place two orders for them).
While waiting for our order we decide to investigate the condiment bar, which may very well be Haidilao's most impressive feature. Most other hot pot spots simply offer a standard bowl of sesame sauce with some garnish. Haidilao, on the other hand, boasts a condiment bar with more than 20 options, each labelled in Chinese and English, as well as side dishes such as cucumbers and peanuts as well as fresh fruit.
Among our favorites from the condiment bar are the preserved Sichuan pickle, crushed peanut kernels, fermented bean sauce, coriander, flavoured black bean sauce and the fried chili oil.
This all comes at a price, as patrons are charged RMB9 for use of the condiment bar, which seems a bit stingy on Haidilao's part. However the option to return to the bar for endless refills practically quells such gripes.
Back at our table, we pester our waitress a bit more to test her service mettle: asking specifically for 20 napkins (without batting an eye she brings a full box of tissues) and quizzing her about why our hot pot's spicy side is boiling quicker than the mild side (the spicy side has more oil, she says patiently).
As for the dishes we ordered, the meat and the vegetables seemed fresher to us than most other hot pot joints we've visited.
As our vegetables ran low, the waitress returns with a plastic tube of gelatinous shrimp paste. As she unglamorously squeezes blobs of the seafood into both moats of our hotpot, we can't help but note that the squiggly bits looked more like toothpaste than something edible. But before long the shrimp has boiled, bobbing at the broth's surface and swelling to a plump pink. Our waitress gives us two bowls of soybean sauce, which she says is a unique specialty for this restaurant's seafood items, giving the shrimp a nice zip after we dunk each morsel inside.
This is followed by the evening’s most pleasant ritual, and one that adds to Haidilao's reputation for service. A server at another table stretches out some laopai laomian noodles (RMB4). As those patrons watch in awe, the waiter pulls the noodles to the length of a jump rope, before spinning them in an elaborate pattern akin to an Olympic ribbon.
We beckon him and ask for the same routine, which he he aptly provides—a highly entertaining bit of gastronomic gymnastics. After the noodles are thoroughly elongated, the waiter places them in the mild moat of our hot pot. Both chewy strands readily soak up the seasoned broth, resulting in a fitting end to the meal.
We stop by the restrooms before leaving, debating some of the stranger aspects of the restaurant— the fact that it charges a steep RMB68 base price for the base hot pot broth, but then offers a rock bottom bargain for many of its veggies and noodles (bringing our bill to a total of RMB247 for two). Near the washroom doors we notice signs that read "free shoeshine" and "free manicure" which staff members gamely provide after we inquire.
On our way out the door, we leave one last test for the staff: we intentionally leave a stick of pricey lip balm on our table next to some of our discarded napkins as we leave. Unfortunately, the staff doesn't quite pass this hurdle, neglecting to notice and stop us to say we had left it behind. We wait for a few moments and return to say that we had misplaced the item, which the staff admirably helps us look for under the chairs, before one of the servers returns from his greeting counter (which perhaps serves as a lost and found?) with the lip balm.
From there we step out the front door with glistening nails and shiny shoes, not to mention full bellies, marvelling at one of the most uniquely satisfying dining experiences we've had yet in Beijing.
Images: Kyle Mullin
Visit the original source and full text: the Beijinger Blog