We’re in the middle of the 6th edition of Shanghai’s Restaurant Week. The event has evolved quite a bit since Dining City organized the first on 3 years ago. During the first Restaurant Week I was easily able to book some of the best restaurants in town: Sir Elly’s, Pelham’s, T8. Restaurants participating during those halcyon days really made an effort. I remember being served surprise courses (Pelham’s) and luxurious ingredients (Sir Elly’s) that made the relatively modest 258 RMB/person price tag a steal.
Subsequently, more and more restaurants started participating, and more and more diners started booking seats. Reservations at pedigreed restaurants like Sir Elly’s were snapped up right when booking opened. Some restaurants decided they were above the clamoring hordes of bargain-hunters who were not likely to patronize those establishments during the other 50 weeks of the year, and stopped participating. Others ratcheted back the effort and started offering unimpressive menus with cost friendlier (to them) ingredients. All the while dozens of mediocre and PR-hungry establishments were jumping on the wagon looking to stir up interest where none had resided before.
The landscape has become complex and filled with peril for those of us seeking the perfect marriage of a delicious meal at a worthwhile price. Being the veteran bargain-hunter foodie that I am, I thought I would put together a few rules that I always follow to ensure I maximize my hits and avoid as many misses as possible.
This, fellow cheapskates, is my secret to winning Shanghai Restaurant Week.
Tip #1 – Do your research
All the expat publications will give a heads up a month or so before the actual Restaurant Week starts highlighting popular participating restaurants. But you can go straight to the Diningcity website and take a look at their list. The restaurants won’t have menus up, but it’s good to have an idea of which of the top tier restaurants are available. Those restaurants will most likely be totally booked out by Diningcity’s VIP members, but a lot of them will be available that initial hour that booking is open to the general public.
Tip #2 – Move fast
Mark down the date and time the booking opens. Be in front of your computer ready to go. Premium bookings will go fast, so you have to be too.
Tip #3 – Go straight to the top restaurants
When the booking period opens and you go to the website for the first time, the list of restaurants will be organized in alphabetical order. Jump straight to the restaurants you had an eye on based off of your research. If you want to eat at T8 for instance, quickly scroll down to the “T” section and book right away. Scrolling down the list alphabetically wastes valuable booking time. You can always go back and cancel or change reservations after you’ve booked them, in case you follow Tip #3 and realize you aren’t impressed.
Tip #4 – Always read the menu
ALWAYS read the menu. Just because a reputable restaurant is available doesn’t mean they’re going to have a worthwhile menu. Also, for restaurants you’re not familiar with or places that are just recently launched, a potentially awesome menu can push you into their corner. While some restaurants make a half-assed attempt, new restaurants often want to make a splash and get butts into seats. The menu is the key to discerning who’s trying and who isn’t.
Tip #5 – Lunch is always the best deal.
I know this one can be tough for those who work far away from the city center or just cannot spare a leisurely lunch during the work week. For everyone else, lunch is by far the best bargain during Restaurant Week. Lunch reservations are easier to book because dinner reservations go so fast, and at a max price of 128 RMB you can find a ton of hidden gems. Fine dining establishments can’t really get away with skimping on their lunch offerings, so at minimum you can expect decent quality at a place like T8 or Restaurant Martin. Maison Pourcel has a three course lunch that would be worth twice it’s price. And don’t forget to ask for more bread.
Tip #6 – Avoid Western restaurants run by non-Westerners
This is a basic rule I follow, not just during Restaurant Week. A French or Italian or Spanish place run by Chinese management is a minefield: you can tiptoe your way to a good meal, but you’ll probably end up getting ripped to pieces. The probabilities of paying 258 RMB a person and getting tiny portions of unimpressive dishes are very high at these types of establishments (I’m looking at you, de Canto). I hate generalizations but since I’m in the country of generalizations, what the hell.
Tip #7 – Hotel buffets are your friend
Every year there are a few hotels that want to get in on the fun, and offer up their buffets for Restaurant Week. Hotel buffets have a low profile because the general public avoids them and no food writers really write or blog about them. However, booking one at the 168 RMB price point is a cheapskate’s dream. We booked the buffet at the Hilton Honggiao last Restaurant Week. The hotel was fairly new and it’s a major hotel chain, so we went in knowing there was a minimum bar of quality they would meet. We were greeted with a raw oyster bar, fresh sashimi station, and steamed lobster tails. For 168 RMB (+15%). What a steal.
Armed with these tips, you greatly exceed your chances of securing a meal at a quality establishment at a very good value. A 258 RMB meal at CAPO will be 10 times better than a 258 RMB menu at La Finca, so knowledge up kids!