It has an all-but-hidden hutong location. It offers a fixed set of dishes instead of a menu. It requires advanced reservations.

Despite what the uninitiated may assume, those three features are not flaws, but in fact tenets of Dali Courtyard’s success.

Once again this year Dali has earned a slew of TBJ Reader Restaurant Awards nominations, including Restaurant of the Year, Best Yunnan, Best for a Celebration, Best for Impressing Visitors, Best Outdoor Dining, and Most Romantic.

Let’s take a closer look at that trio of unique features, beginning with the mandatory reservations. Jin Rui, the Zhejiang-born cofounder of this Yunnan restaurant, didn’t adopt that policy because she’s inflexible, or to give Dali an air of exclusivity.

The restaurant’s popularity does contribute to that need for prearranged booking, but only in part. In fact, Jin says the reservations have less to do with guest volume and more to do with the ingredients.

“We want to know how many people are coming before hand. We ship our ingredients from Yunnan twice a week, so we want to know how much to prepare, in order to keep everything fresh,” Jin tells the Beijinger.

Jin has a special reason for sourcing her ingredients from that famed southern Chinese province. She left part of her heart in that sunny locale when her husband, a British expat named Lewis Husain, finished his work contract in Dali city, and the couple moved to Beijing.

Upon opening in 2006, Dali Courtyard became Jin’s nostalgic tribute to her southern second home, and it quickly became one of Beijing’s most popular Yunnan restaurants.

Much of that success can be attributed to the dishes, the most renowned of which may be the richly flavored rubing grilled goat milk cheese. Other popular items include various stir fried wild vegetables, grilled fish and dumplings laced with fiery Yunnan spices.

Many Beijingers may have grown accustomed to encyclopedic menus at most local restaurants, and Jin concedes that Dali's lack of options may be an adjustment for some patrons. But she adds that those customers quickly come to appreciate Dali’s set meals because they serve as an insider’s guide to Yunnan culture.

“We want to show people that aren’t familiar with Yunnan food what is special about it, so we serve our favorite dishes,” she says.

Jin says customers can now choose from three tiers in the set menu: the first costing RMB 150, the second priced at RMB 200 and the third at RMB 300. "The dishes at each level are similar, but what we use to make them is different with each price,” she says. “If you choose a pricier option then you’ll get higher quality ingredients, the differences mostly being in the kinds of fish or mushroom we use. When you pay more, we prepare a more expensive fish for you, for instance.”

She adds that the set menus change regularly, depending on what seasonal ingredients the chefs (who all hail from Yunnan) can order from the shipping agency. This adherence to freshness is also one of the reasons that prompted Dali’s staff to serve set dishes only, rather than a spectrum of options with out of season ingredients.

And while those aspects alone would make for a unique dining experience, Dali Courtyard’s cuisine is nearly rivalled by its decor and its locale. Some naysayers may gripe about its off the beaten path address, nestled deep within the Xiaojingchang Hutong, and away from the more famed nearby Nanluoguxiang and Gulou Dongdajie.

But anyone patient and adventurous enough to navigate the slightly roundabout route will be rewarded by a cozy courtyard that serves as a southern oasis away from Beijing’s hustle and bustle. Jin seems most proud of this feature, as she talks about mixing Beijing and Yunnan decor in an attempt to meld her favorite places into one. “There’s nothing better than eating in the courtyard,” she says, adding: “You can see the sky when you're eating, and sit under the tree. It feels natural, like home, so that you can relax." 

Images: Dali Courtyard

Visit the original source and full text: the Beijinger Blog