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All's Quiet on the Western Front

With a glut of half-empty Western restaurants in Shanghai, we thought we’d take a look at how foreign restaurateurs can break into and influence a market still clearly dominated by Chinese cuisine.

Of course, everybody wants their share of the China’s 1.3 billion mouths, but Western restaurants find it notoriously hard to succeed. Most Chinese people have grown up eating nothing but Chinese food and the cuisine is truly ingrained in the culture.

And it’s not just the food itself that makes a difference; the presentation, from menu to service to plate, all counts. At a Western restaurant the menu tends to cover two or three pages, whereas in a Chinese restaurant you are presented with a veritable novella filled with romantic sounding names and photographs to choose from. Mr & Mrs Bund is one place to have caught onto this and their enormous menu is bound to be a factor in their success with Chinese clientele.

Service is another issue. High-end Chinese restaurants are hard to beat when it comes to coordinating the floor; look at Din Tai Fung, Crystal Jade, Lei Garden, Paradise Garden and Maggie’s as examples – they’re run with almost military precision. Unfortunately, many Western F&B Directors in charge of the pre-requisite Chinese restaurants in hotels have no idea how to pull this off and the restaurants fail. There are few notable exceptions including Xindalu in Hyatt on the Bund, Gui Hua Lou in Pudong Shangri-La and we’re expecting good things from the new Sheng Hui Tang in the InterContinental Expo Hotel, also in Pudong.

Small plates, buffets, shared dishes – this is how Chinese people are accustomed to eating. Able to taste a little or this and a little of that, not faced with one intimidating plate of food. This is why El Willy’s tapas menu has proved a hit with its familiar small dishes format and why steakhouses have proven less appealing. Steak is too big and Chinese people don’t traditionally eat big hunks of meat. It’s also expensive and fears of mad cow’s disease still abound so the uncooked pink centre makes people nervous. Given all of this, we wish Morton’s luck with their new 200-seat steakhouse!

What any Western entrepreneur or restaurateur looking to succeed here really needs to focus their strategy on is how to be more Chinese. Not necessarily going to the lengths of LAN, who despite only recently re-launching their Western restaurant Butterfly have now opted to turn the whole building into a Chinese restaurant. Instead, they should think about how to adapt their product to appeal more to Chinese sensibilities; sharing dishes, more variety, local ingredients. In this way, Western cuisine here will develop and as the next generation Chinese come of age with open minds, palates and wallets, so business will certainly grow. Still, for a long time to come, Chinese dining preferences are likely to remain first and foremost with the food of their homeland.


El Willy, a shining beacon on the Shanghai scene has opened new Japanese tapas bar Ohana on Hongmei Lu. The original El Willy’s will move to Bund 22, with the Dongping Lu space to become a new tapas bar, Elefante, due to open in June 2011 and a fourth project, the BBC (Belgium Beer Café– previously at the Shanghai Expo) is due to open in the new Xintiandi-style development at 498 Jianguo Xi Lu come May next year.



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