(CNN) — As recently as the 1980s, Beijing had only a meager portion of privately-owned restaurants.
Fast forward three decades and the capital of the world’s most food-obsessed country is back on its A-game.
Whether you’re craving artfully carved Peking duck, esoteric regional Chinese recipes or top notch global gastronomy, the city has got you covered, and then some.
The standard menu at The Georg includes around 12 dishes which are all roughly the same price.
Courtesy The Georg
Named after its association with Danish jewelry brand Georg Jensen (there’s a showroom here, but don’t let that put you off), The Georg is a “casual fine-dining” diamond in the rough within the rustic surroundings of Beijing’s hutong alleyways.
A single-page menu sticks to about a dozen dishes, all priced the same and with no course hierarchy, making ordering an easy pleasure.
If even that sounds like work, the “sit back and relax menu” puts your stomach entirely in their very capable hands.
Though it changes regularly, expect dishes like plump langoustine with a slab of foie gras, and beef tartar on a molecule-thin base of comté cheese.
Best of all, The Georg is done with a laid-back, laissez-faire cool that belies the professionalism of the kitchen and front-of-house.
Opera Bombana, a satellite of chef Umberto Bombana’s restaurant empire, opened exactly two decades after the Bergamo native moved to Asia in 1993, and one year after 8½ Otto e Mezzo BOMBANA, his Hong Kong flagship, became the first Italian restaurant outside Italy to be awarded three Michelin stars.
Heading up the Beijing kitchen Marino Antonio, also from Bergamo, whose degustation menus continue the impeccable sourcing and practiced simplicity that is the Bombana trademark. Dishes like linguine tossed with Mont-Saint Michel mussels are a refined delight, and the limoncello soufflé is worth the 20-minute wait.
TRB Forbidden City
TRB Forbidden City serves contemporary European cuisine.
Courtesy TRB Forbidden City
Boasting one of the most coveted locations in the city, the second branch of TRB (Temple Restaurant Beijing) overlooks the moat and east gate of the Forbidden City, with imperial service to match.
The food (contemporary European fine dining skewed toward France) has plenty of caviar, white truffle and old world vintages to part high rollers with their hard-earned renminbi, but there’s also a sub-200 yuan lunch menu for the hoi polloi, which might feature house-made gravlax, a duet of roast lamb, and a perfect chocolate feuilletine for afters.
Whatever the order, charismatic GM and former sommelier Ignace Lecleir takes pains to make every guest feel like a VIP, and the regular arrivals of complimentary amuse bouche ensures nobody leaves unsatisfied.
The menu at Rosewood’s Country Kitchen includes a selection of ‘lost’ recipes from the Qing dynasty.
Courtesy Rosewood Hotel
Most five star hotels stick to the tried-and-tested Cantonese restaurant formula, so props to the excellent Rosewood for Country Kitchen, a fine-dining experience that focuses on the fortifying, typically unrefined cooking of China’s north, the wheat and meat from the Great Wall regions.
Think rib-sticking Shaanxi noodles, classic Peking duck, roasted leg of Inner Mongolian lamb, and an intriguing selection of what the restaurant calls “lost recipes,” dishes from the Qing dynasty that were mislaid or simply forgotten during the austere Mao era. Desserts dare to go a little more global, like the restaurant’s sweet riff on Tianjin’s jianbing savory crepe, served with crushed peanuts and banana sorbet.
Cai Yi Xuan
Li Qiang takes the helm as head chef at Cai Yi Xuan, the Chinese restaurant at Four Seasons Beijing.
Courtesy Cai Yi Xuan – Four Seasons
The artfully retro, tobacco-hued Chinese restaurant at Four Seasons Beijing is infused with a clubby Hong Kong ambience.
Chef Li Qiang works wonders in the kitchen under the tutelage of consultant Tony Lu, who’s Fu He Hui restaurant in Shanghai was awarded a Michelin star in 2016.
His dim sum (lunch only) is a thrilling symphony of taste and texture — he’s obviously not too fazed by the fact that Four Seasons’ Hong Kong eatery Lung King Heen was the first Chinese restaurant to be awarded three Michelin stars. Nor should he be, with dishes like steamed dumping with lobster and sea urchin, which tastes as good as it reads, and keeps the well-heeled regulars coming back for more.
This stylish vegetarian restaurant opposite the Lama Temple is popular with meat-eaters as well as veggies.
Courtesy King’s Joy
The only vegetarian restaurant on this list, King’s Joy is located in a hutong close to Beijing’s still functioning Tibetan Lama Temple.
The restaurant is itself a temple to the Chinese notion that wellness starts in the stomach. Chef Pan Jianjun, a former disciple of a Buddhist temple in Jiangxi province, is sharing the meat-free cuisine monks have abstained upon for generations, but with a twist of culinary magic that sends flavors into orbit.
Texture, presentation and sourcing take center stage here. Dishes employ vegetables, soy and mushrooms to mimic meaty favorites with remarkable accuracy.
What’s more, It’s a fantastically tranquil dining experience, enhanced with enough leafy plants to kit out a botanical garden, the trill of live harp performances, and even occasional ethereal expulsions of dry ice.
King’s Joy, 2 Wudaoying Hutong, Dongcheng Qu; +86 10 8404 9191
Locals and tourists alike are beginning to get wise to the notion that heritage aside, Beijing’s longstanding duck restaurants (Quanjude, Bianyifang, etc.), can’t cut it with the quality of new scene-stealers like Siji Minfu.
This means crowds and queues, so best aim to eat late unless you want to wait for a table. Peking ducks here are roasted in handsome brick ovens over fruit wood, and supported by hearty, hard-to-fault dishes like gooey kung pao shrimp, cumin-spiced lamb and several clever riffs on Beijing’s traditional sweets.
A home-grown chain, the most gorgeous branch overlooks the Forbidden City’s moat, boasting terrace seating beside the water. What better setting for Beijing’s signature Imperial dish?
Siji Minfu,11 Nanchizi Dajie; +86 10 6526 7369
Though he’s opening a Dadong in a sixth avenue skyscraper in NYC, roast duck maestro Dong Zhenxiang has dialed back the showy style at this, his humblest Beijing restaurant with a menu that very nearly qualifies on the budget end of this list (most dishes are well under 100 RMB).
The petite serving of Peking duck, sans table theater, is just right for date night, and leaves enough room for the excellent supporting dishes. Though mostly Chinese fare, Dadong is a magpie of global recipes — his porcini risotto and mushroom gratin are great fun.
Don’t miss the zha jiang mian, Beijing’s native noodle dish. Too often lackluster, here it’s a delight, akin to a bowl of pasta nonchalantly tossed together by a Tuscan grandma. This kind of effortlessness takes real effort.
Little Dadong, 9 Dongdaqiao Lu;+86 10 8563 1016
Duck de Chine
Father-son chef team Peter and Wilson Lam, founding chefs at Duck de Chine, take great pains imbuing Beijing’s signature dish with two generations of Cantonese cooking smarts. Roasted for 65 minutes over 30-year old date tree wood imported from neighboring Shaanxi, the Peking duck boasts a crisp, lacquered skin more sweet and aromatic than ought to be gastronomically possible.
The duck sauce, moreover, is no humble wheaten paste — it’s made with a guarded formula of medicinal herbs and spices, then swirled together with sesame, peanut paste and crispy fried garlic.
A newer location on Jinbao Jie, with VIP private rooms, is more showy-luxury, but the original Duck de Chine, in a chic, former industrial machine factory compound overlooked by skyscrapers, remains the most compelling location.
Duck de Chine, Courtyard 4, 1949 Hidden City, off Gongrentiyuchang Beilu; +86 10 6521 2221
Lost Heaven uses indigenous recipes and cooking techniques from the Yunnan region.
Courtesy Lost Heaven
Lost Heaven is the last restaurant standing in Qianmen 23, the ravishing former US Legation compound that once promised to be the new hub of Beijing’s fine dining.
The eatery does Yunnan, the food of China’s southwest border region leeching into Myanmar and Laos. This means, to coin a cliché, a tapestry of ethnic tastes from the many minority peoples that call the province’s lakes, mountains and townships home.
Like the region’s diversity, the food at this striking glass cube of a restaurant is unrelentingly abundant, with sour, spicy dishes imbued with wild mountain herbs, mushrooms, Burmese tea leaves, organic chicken, artisanal Xuanwei ham … you get the picture. The best advice is to dine in a big group to eke the maximum pleasure possible out of the menu.
A Japanese izakaya admittedly doesn’t sit too comfortably on this list, and yet there is something comfortingly low-key and inventive about this well-hidden eatery with its loyal following of regulars and vast range of alcoholic drinks, including surprisingly affordable wine.
Chalk-board specials like steamed pork belly with sesame, Japanese monkfish liver, yakitori as toothsome as you’ll find in the alleyways under Ginza station, not to mention playfully simple dishes like a can of sardines in the can and dressed with sun-dried tomatoes and capers, just works, and serves to make Vin Vie a rare reminder that Japan, geographically and culturally, isn’t really too far away.
Vin Vie, 8 Maizijian Jie; +86 10 6508 5517
Sheng Yong Xing
Sheng Yong Xing is known for its roast duck, which is cooked at a high temperature.
Courtesy Sheng Yong Xing
Newly opened in 2017, this sophisticated duck roaster is a bona-fide head turner set within a beautifully partitioned space and with elegant service to match.
The standard ducks here, roasted at a higher temperature than tradition dictates, are some of the finest in town (which also means the world, possibly).
Upgrade to the fancy option and enjoy extra culinary flourishes like shards of crisp duck skin topped with fish roe, a wonderfully rich combination.
Duck aside, the menu is encyclopedic, taking in a diverse gamut of Chinese fare from Shandong to Sichuan. Another standout feature is how good and affordable the wine list is, here — a relative rarity at a Peking duck restaurant.
Sheng Yong Xing, 5 Xindong Lu; +86 10 6464 0968
Bellagio stays open until the early hours, so its a great stop for a late night bite.
Still serving long after you should be in bed, this established chain, set stylishly between Beijing’s glitziest nightclubs, serves top notch Taiwanese fare and mountainous desserts to a loyal clientele of loaded fuerdai (wealthy second-generation Chinese).
Said customers park their BMWs, Audis and Mercedes outside and squeeze around tables to gorge on sanbeiji (three cup chicken), tofu cooked in a clay pot, XO mushrooms, an excellent range of Fujian fare including seafood and soups, Chongqing-style laziji (chicken stir-fried with chillis) and those much-loved desserts.
Most famous is the fresh mango with condensed milk and a tower of shaved ice, looking likely to topple over at any second.
Bellagio, 6 Gongrentiyuchang Xilu; +86 10 6551 3533
First opened in 1994, and now spreading across China (and the world), this raucously fun Sichuan chain serves some of the best hot pot, yuan-for-yuan in Beijing.
Quick foodie lesson — hot pot, like Japan’s shabu-shabu, involves diners cooking strips of thinly sliced raw lamb and beef, along with a range of non-meaty ingredients, by scalding them in a cauldron of intensely flavored soup.
The service at Haidilao goes the extra mile with free drinks refills and snacks, and even a complimentary mani-pedi, shoe shine and fruit plate for diners waiting to be seated.
Not to mention the super fun sauce bar where you get to mix up your perfect post-dunking accompaniment from a vast array of ingredients. Don’t miss the spectacle of the tableside hand-pulled noodles — it’s a Haidilao institution.
Haidilao, 2 Baijiazhuang Lu; +86 10 6595 2982
To say this place is an institution doesn’t come close to the veneration locals harbor for Jubaoyuan, a Muslim shuan yangrou mutton hot pot joint on Ox Street, in Beijing’s once salubrious southern reaches.
The faithful queue nightly for the finest halal Inner Mongolian lamb and beef, cut molecule-thin and ready to be dunked into scalding soup, along with a bewildering array of raw veggies, tofu, ‘shrooms and more.
It even has its own butchers, so you can rest assured on the provenance of your prime cuts, or just come for a slab of something to take home.
A winner at winter, eaters sit around traditional, charcoal-burning bronze guo, eating by dunk-and-dip as the soup bubbles merrily away. Be sure to order an extra basket of shaobing, crisp, sesame-infused bread pucks, to take home.
Jubaoyuan, 1 Niu Jie Xili; +86 10 8354 560
A close-knit family of Sichuan exiles started their burgeoning restaurant empire with a tiny, one room hutong restaurant back in 2010, where diners queued out the door (they still do) for obscenely affordable fare like xiangguo — near-bottomless bowls of chicken (ji), shrimp (xia) or pork ribs (paigu) amid a witches brew of vegetables, whole spices and a whole lot of chilli peppers; and huiguorou — smoky, “twice-cooked” Sichuan pork rump sliced thin and served with veggies, crispy fried dough pieces and, yep, more chillies.
The best location is their second, on Jiaodaokou Nandajie: slightly larger (grab the upstairs private room if you can), where diners cram jovially on to bench tables for their Sichuan spice fix.
Zhang Mama, 76 Jiaodaokou Nandajie
Hunan cuisine, a regional style that competes with Sichuan for China’s spiciest, is given a contemporary makeover at this stylishly observed restaurant, a relative outlier in Beijing’s less visited west (the original Dashilan location, sadly, had to close).
Their petite range of braised dishes, permeated with the one-two punch of aromatic smoked pork belly and the sour spice of pickled chillis, are markedly less oily or salty than your common-or-garden Hunan, while being just as moreishly addictive.
The duojiaoyutou, a common Hunan dish of steamed taro, is done to simple perfection here, while their intriguingly named ‘secret beef’ (mizhi niurou), is a mind-blowing combo of slow-cooking, frying, dried chillis and cumin.
Southern Fish, 49 Gongmenkou Toutiao; +86 10 8306 3022
This hugely popular, highly affordable eatery a whole lot of fun to go and gobble grilled mutton skewers, Xinjiang dapanji (chicken and noodle stew), oven-baked nang breads, chewy wheat noodles, and all the other far-west favorites beloved of Beijingers.
The decor is pretty out there, think bling chandeliers, faux rococo, Italianesque ceiling murals and costumed staff.
Best of all, many of the larger banquet dishes can be ordered in small portions, making it a viable (though admittedly not risk-free) option for date night. It’s an exceedingly well-run restaurant, too, so despite the crowds you’ll never wait long for a meal.
Bayi Laoye, Xinzhong Dasha, Gongrentiyuchang Beilu; +86 10 6981 8181
Ask any Beijinger what the city’s favorite meat is, and many would say mutton, not duck (some would suggest donkey, but that’s for another article). Yanlanlou, espousing the flavors of Gansu province and with a handful of branches in the capital, is the city’s premier temple to the altar of eating sheep.
The kao yangpai (lamb chop roasted over charcoal), cut through with salt, cumin and just a hint of chili, is magnificent, while the shouzhua yangrou, a dish of boiled lamb ribs, is more meltingly flavorful than should be possible.
For a sheep-based palate cleanser, go for an order of yang tang, a clear lamb broth that tastes like a frolic in a sunny meadow. Gamey delights aside, the liangpi (a noodle-like cold dish in a sesame-rich sauce) is legendary here.
Yanlanlou, 12 Chaoyangmenwai Dajie ; +86 10 6599 1668
Deyuan Roast Duck
A local’s favorite despite its touristy location, this cheap and cheerful Peking duckery turns out beautifully bronzed birds at a fraction of the price of its more time-honored forebears Quanjude and Bianyifang.
As well as duck, Deyuan does delicious roast mutton dusted with cumin and chilli, donkey meat fried in lao gan ma (China’s best loved brand of chilli sauce), and a host of tasty stewed vegetable and meat dishes, some Sichuan favorites like kungpao chicken and sweet Beijing snacks for afters. Local beer is cheap, too.
Deyuan Roast Duck, 57 Dazhalan Xijie; +86 10 6308 5371
Tom O’Malley is a food and travel specialist who has written for The Guardian, Travel & Leisure, Fodor’s, Time Out and the South China Morning Post.