Every year the Beijinger's Reader Restaurant Awards honor the best Beijing's dining venues. But what about the restaurants that don't make it onto the ballot? We know (and we're pretty sure you do too) that there is more to dining in our fair city than the Sanlitun stalwarts, so we gathered a panel of Beijing's most prolific and knowledgeable diners and asked them to reveal the hidden gems and underappreciated stars that keep them going back again and again.
MEET THE PANEL
Independent PR consultant, event planner, and all-round super girl Kristen has been blogging about all aspects of Beijing food and lifestyle on her blog lumdimsum.com since 2009.
TJ's eclectic CV includes chef, blogger (musichef.com), song writer, and much more. Originally from Korea and having grown up in the US, he eventually landed in Beijing and is currently writing a food guide to Seoul for Chinese visitors.
Irwin runs Chinese language travel website yougee.cn and the public WeChat account Go Beijing (gobeijing), which recommends dining deals and news ... all in his spare time.
One of Beijing's most knowledgeable diners, Emily started out her food career as Associate Food Editor for the Beijinger. She is now Dining Editor for Chinese language website dailyvitamin.cn.
Originally hailing from Taiwan, top food blogger Vincent (aka 蛋蛋IN北京) has made a thorough exploration of the Beijing dining scene, earning him more than 150,000 followers on Weibo.
TBJ: You've all been dining out in Beijing for many years. What is your take on the food and restaurant market in Beijing right now?
Emily: The biggest thing for me recently has been downsizing as a result of the government's anti-graft campaign. So we've seen a lot of high-end restaurant brands come out with cheaper, more accessible sub-brands, for example Da Dong has Taste of Dadong, Xinrongji has Rongxiaoguan, Xiao Nanguo has Nanxiaoguan.
Kristen: Beijing is a city of trends. Something will catch on and then so much will come out from that. I've seen the cupcake trend come and go, and also the health food trend with the opening of MOKA Bros' and Tribe, and right now pizza.
Emily: Recently, the other thing has been the rise of private kitchens where you can only book through Weibo or WeChat. A lot of people are doing this in their spare time now.
Kristen: Yes! I went to Stone's Kitchen in Wangjing, they have a sort of organic, farm-to-table concept and the food is great value at RMB 150 a head.
TBJ: Let's get into the real restaurant recommendations. For example, people are always asking me for hot pot recommendations. Where are your favorite places?
Vincent: For hotpot there are three main types, Yunnan mushroom hot pot, traditional Beijing-style hot pot (shuan yangrou) or Sichuan hotpot.
Emily: People who like hotpot are usually really picky about it. For example, Sichuan hotpot should be spicy but not so spicy that it covers the flavor of the other spices and ingredients.
Vincent: My friends from Sichuan say that you can tell whether or not a hotpot place is going to be good as soon as you walk in the door, due to the quality of the spices.
Irwin: I like Hi-La Hot Pot. They have a branch on Xiang'er Hutong and one in Chaoyang Joy City, completely different styles. People go there just to eat their Hi-La spicy fish.
Kristen: A lot of people I spoke to before this said that Xiangtianxia is their favorite for Sichuan hotpot. Their flagship branch is at Tuanjiehu just off the Third Ring Road.
Vincent: Personally, I still like Nanmen (traditional Beijing hot pot) the best, particularly the branch near the south gate of the Temple of Heaven.
TBJ: Speaking of Nanmen, what about traditional Beijing-style restaurants?
Emily: Beijing is different from places like Taiwan or Hong Kong. In Beijing's smaller restaurants, the food might be good but the owners don't care as much about the ingredients or the atmosphere.
Ken (TBJ's photographer and Beijinger): It's to do with culture. Beijing is an imperial city, the residents have seen so many rulers and dynasties come and go that they are much more laid back about small details like food quality. A lot of Beijing restaurateurs would say "If you don't like it, then you don't have to eat it!" They're not rude, just straightforward.
Vincent: Also, it's hard to say exactly what Beijing food is. Is it lao Beijing snacks? Manchurian-style food? Imperial cuisine? Beijing cuisine has adopted so many influences over the years.
Ken: The thing most people would associate with Beijing food is just snacks, shaobing, zhajiangmian, those kinds of things.
Emily: If I was going to recommend just one place it would be Shaguoju (Editor's note: specializing in boiled pork slices - better than it sounds). First-time visitors to Beijing always go there.
TBJ: Where would you go for a big celebration?
TJ: Madame Zhu's Kitchen is a favorite of mine. Every time I go the food is consistent and clean and I like that the private rooms are named after different Beijing streets.
Kristen: I agree, the food is so good! The only problem is that it's in the Vantone Center!
TBJ: I will add Transit. It's handy because they are happy to create menus that are served course-by-course rather than traditional family-style.
TJ: Also Culiang Renjia, the Communist-themed Shandong restaurant.
Irwin: I quite often take people to T-Bazaar in the Trader's Hotel, if only for the jianbing! They actually have a lot of traditional Beijing snacks like majiang tangbing (sesame cakes) plus international dishes like bak kut teh.
TBJ: Where do you go for everyday cheap eats?
Irwin: Ziguangyuan, near Dongdaqiao, is incredibly popular. They have a lot of cheap local snacks and dishes, including really cheap jianbing (RMB 4).
Emily: The first article I ever wrote for the Beijinger was about all the different brands of tanghuoshao in Beijing (Editor's note: Look it up online, it's an excellent article, even five years on!). I tried more than 20, but one of my favorites was Lifayuan at Niujie.
Vincent: I like to go to this place near the south Third Ring Road, called Yingchun Noodles. They serve Zhejiang and Fujian style rice noodles or noodles with seafood. It's hard to get good fresh seafood in Beijing but they do a good job there.
TBJ: TJ, we have to ask, can you recommend any good Korean restaurants?
TJ: Of course, I came prepared (laughs). My recommendations are very different from the Reader Restaurant Awards nominees! Firstly, Benjia, which is a real authentic chain restaurant from Korea - the taste is exactly the same as you would get in Korea. I would also recommend, Zixiamen. My Korean friends and I always go to these places.
Vincent: I second Zixiamen!
TBJ: Vincent, how about Taiwanese food?
Vincent: I could only recommend Shin Yeh. It's an old Taiwanese brand with branches around Asia. Other than that, there's not really much good Taiwanese food in Beijing.
A5-153, Wangjing Youlehui, Guangshun Nandajie, Chaoyang District (18611006642)
HAIDILAO HOT POT ALTERNATIVES
Hi-La Hot Pot
Daily 10.30am-midnight. 112 Xiang‘er Hutong, Dongcheng District (5717 1110)
Xiang Tian Xia
Daily 11am-11pm. 23 Baijiazhuang Dongli, Chaoyang District (6501 0666)
Nanmen Hot Pot (Tiantan branch)
Daily 11am-10pm. 1-2, Bldg 13, Yongnei Dongjie Dongli, Dongcheng District (6701 7030)
BEST FOR A CELEBRATION
Madame Zhu’s Kitchen
Daily 11am-10pm. B1, Bldg D, Vantone Center, 6A Chaoyangmen Waidajie, Chaoyang District (5907 1625)
Daily noon-2pm, 5.30-10pm. N4-36, Taikoo Li North, 19 Sanlitun Lu, Chaoyang District (6417 9090)
Daily 11am-5am. 5 Dongzhimen Neidajie, Dongcheng District (5129 0123-5)
Daily 6am-11pm. 1/F, Traders Hotel Beijing, 1 Jianguomen Waidajie, Chaoyang District (6505 2277 ext. 35)
BEST TRADITIONAL BEIJING
Daily 11am-10pm. 60 Xisi Nandajie, Xicheng District (6602 1126)
BEST HIDDEN GEMS AND CHEAP EATS
27 Dahongmen Lu, Fengtai District (8729 5994)
Daily 10am-10pm. Bldg 2, Dongdaqiao, Chaoyang District (near the intersection of Chaoyangmen Waidajie and Dongdaqiao Lu) (6593 3280)
1 Niujie, Xuanwu District (inside Niujie Muslim Supermarket) (6355 6687)
Benjia (Shuangjing branch)
Daily 11am-2pm, 5-10pm. 1/F, Hesheng Guoji, Area 3, Shuanghuayuan Nanli, Chaoyang District (8776 4746)
Daily 11am-10pm. 501, Bldg 5, Zhongfu Baihuo, 201 Nanhu Dongyuan, Huguang Beijie, Chaoyang District (8478 2323)
Daily 11am-10pm. 4/F Xinzhongguan Shopping Center, 19 Zhongguancun Dajie, Haidian District (8248 6288)
Photos: Ken, courtesy of the Restaurants
Visit the original source and full text: the Beijinger Blog