Saturday, 24 May 2008

Eating Out

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how expensive it could be to ‘eat in’ in Shanghai, with the price of a cup of tea at around $5 and a bowl of cereal coming in at $8, you may be attempted to eat out?

In Nanjing we had an enormous choice of cuisine – well enormous as long as you liked Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese or Chinese. Yes you could get some western food at the local 4-5star international hotels, but they all came with international hotel bills! Again moving to Shanghai meant that you could get cuisines from around the world and at variable prices

You have probably heard all the horror stories from friends who have visited China (especially those on business here) about the ‘strange’ and ‘curious’ dishes served up by your local Chinese restaurant. Despite the sparrows tongue, goosefeet and live lobster surprise, (
Chinese restaurants can serve up some great food. The JiaoZi (Dumplings are great), Beijing (formerly known as Peking!) Duck is wonderful and the Spaniel Eyeballs are to die for (only kidding!). However I decided not to compare the costs of eating Chinese in the UK with eating it here in China for two reasons. One it would be unfair, with literally millions of Chinese restaurants in Shanghai mainly serving a not so rich clientele, prices are unbelievably low in most cases – I’m talking 1 pound for 10 courses, and the food is so different that it would be wrong to compare. Yes Chinese food in the UK is an English invention and bares little resemblance to the food cooked here (So I am told by my Chinese friends and colleagues – as I have never had a Chinese in the UK!).

Another option was to compare hotel restaurant prices – after all aren’t Hyatt’s, Hiltons and Marriots the same around the world? As I have stayed and eaten in most of them I would have to agree, however unless you’re on holiday, a business trip or you live in Nanjing you wouldn’t necessarily eat in a hotel. City hotel restaurants are incredibly pretentious and cater for businessmen who have arrived late, meeting places for strangers and for people staying with people they shouldn’t, and cant be seen anywhere else (If you know what I mean!). Not only that I couldn’t get hold of priced menus from hotels in the UK on the Internet – and no one I knew ate in hotels in the UK (Point proved I think?).

So I have resorted to comparing what used to be called honest establishments, serving wholesome honest western food! When I was a child is was the Berni Inn, with a Prawn Cocktail Starter (none of this appetizer business), an 8oz Char grilled (Burned) steak, and Apple Crumble with custard for desert all washed down with a glass of chilled Lambrusco (Not for me of course I was too young!). Places where as a parent you hate going after the 30th visit, but it’s the only place that outwardly encourages you to bring the kids, offers a menu that you can understand, and doesn’t require you to arrange a second mortgage before booking a table.

I would have liked to have picked a menu from the ‘Miller’s Kitchen’ range who seem to have replaced the ‘Berni’ in the UK, but there website didn’t have an online menu with prices, and popping on a plane for 13 hours just to see how much chicken nuggets and chips are, wasn’t really plausible. So I had to rely on what I could get my hands on. Thus I chose Harvester for my UK comparison, with over 150 establishments you’re never too far away from serving yourself!
In Shanghai it was easy to pick a restaurant chain that fitted the bill – there is only one. The strangely named “Blue Frog” restaurant chain – which when you first hear it conjures up images of delicately prepared amphibian dishes, is actually a haven for expatriate families, caught in between the fast food chains of McDonald’s and KFC, Chinese Restaurants and High Class hotel fare. They provide a welcome break, with 7 locations around Shanghai, English-speaking staff, and efficient service offering clean toilets – although they do fill the urinals with ice? Which I have always found strange!

So I have found the restaurants for comparison, all I need now is the food – as you may expect the menus are somewhat different. The choices at the Harvester are enormous in comparison, and restaurants don’t make it easy when they try to make simple food sound exciting – for example what do they mean by feisty prawns or funky Chicken? Did the prawns cause some problems for the chef, or did the chicken arrive in flairs?

So I have had to generalize the menu’s to try and find a balance.

Well the results show that the UK is marginally cheaper (although I didn’t include the price of wine or beer) but of course this isn’t the whole story, as with any major city, you can decide on your budget and find a myriad of restaurants to suit – as long as you like Chinese that is! If it’s an Indian, Mexican, Italian or Thai then be prepared not to find too many bargains.

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