A Canadian in Beijing: Fine Dining at Din Tai Fung

Sometimes you have to see what all the fuss is about. This restaurant, “Din Tai Fung,” is touted as being one of the “top ten restaurants in the world” and if people are saying that about it then I figure it had better be good. Of course, it could just have a good reputation or good “guanxi” with the New York Times (where the quote is from, 1993). Either way, there was only one way to find out.

When my school mates told me they were heading down to have dinner there and invited me along, I figured it would be the only chance I’d have to check it out. Quite honestly, I don’t really do “fine dining” here in Beijing… or, should I say ever. In fact, I’m more the type that likes to buy bits and pieces at markets and cobble it together to form a delicious meal for pennies a plate. I like cheap and back alley restaurants. I don’t mind the broken down interior if the taste is superb. In fact, the seedier the environment, often the better the food. At least, that’s what I’ve found.

So, when I arrived at this restaurant with my friends and stepped onto the plush carpeting of the gorgeous lobby, was greeted in English and then ushered upstairs into the dining room like it was a theatre event, I knew it was going to be expensive. I just hoped the taste would match the price.

The place was truly beautiful. Pristine, in fact. The bathrooms were all automated and the walls were lined with full length mirrors at all angles. My friend Daisy pointed out that “women like to see what they look like” and I laughed. I suppose everyone likes the option to see themselves from all angles once in awhile (regardless of gender).

There was also a kid’s playroom equipped with brightly coloured toys, comfy couches and activities for them to busy themselves with while parents enjoy their meal. No supervision in there, however, so I suppose it was only for slightly older kids who could be checked in on once in awhile.

The dining room was brightly lit and was more than half-filled with foreign (non-Chinese) faces. My friend Dave had been here before and so he was assigned the job of ordering food. That’s always a little dangerous with Dave as he tends to order too much – way too much – and in this restaurant, everything was priced so high that I couldn’t imagine both the food and the money waste if he ordered more than we could eat. By the look on the face of the waiter as he left our table with order in hand, I could only assume that we were going to have a feast.

And, I was right.

Dishes kept coming. This places specializes in steamed bread dumplings, or baozi. I eat them everyday for breakfast – 4 for 2 kuai – and these came in steam baskets at about 4 for 30 kuai, or fifteen times what I am familiar with paying here. They were tasty, however, and I promised myself I would stop calculating the cost of my meal and just enjoy the flavours. After all, if you think in Canadian dollars, those four baozi were about a dollar a piece, which is hardly much back home.

Eventually, we couldn’t eat anymore and Dave was able to head off the waiter and cancel the remaining three dishes that were on their way. Thankfully! We were all ready to roll away. We had eaten so much that we were starting to look like baozi!

I went downstairs and got some pictures of the open kitchen as well. They’ve positioned the windows so that people can peer in and watch these boazi (and jiaozi etc.) being made fresh by the chefs there. The windows were, of course, steamed up by the steam and so the only place you could actually see inside was through the open window at one end. I found this ironic and I smiled to myself. The chef looking out the window smiled back and motioned that I could get closer if I wanted. I practically leaned into the kitchen to get this shot, much to the amusement of the other chefs.

The lobby was also glittering with awards. This restaurant is all over the world and it has been honoured everywhere, it seems. Beijing is no exception.

In the end, I enjoyed my meal (lots of vegetarian options were available) and just handed over the $130 kuai which represented my portion of a bill that came to over $700 kuai. In Canadian dollars, that’s an average night out (and currently converts to only $18). In Beijing, that was extravagant.

I prefer the streaming baozi fresh from the dusty marketplace down the road from my school, but the experience was worth the expense. I recommend it to anyone breezing through Beijing without the time to seek out the perfect market stall for the perfect snack.

Besides, the menu was in both Chinese and perfect English.

We could easily have been in New York.

(But don’t even get me started about eating in U.S. dollars!)