Oral History: Reluctant Restaurants

Jinyang restaurant still closes for afternoon naps

As I longtime China resident, one of the most fascinating things for me to watch over the last 2 decades has been the rapid rise of the country’s private sector, which has spawned such big names as real estate giant Wanda Group and Internet leader Tencent. But a big majority of China’s economy still comes from the state-run sector, where many of the largest companies like Sinopec and China Mobile have also thrived on a combination of innovation and also strong protection from Beijing.

While these government-owned giants have thrived, the nation’s thousands of smaller state-run firms have faced a more uncertain fate. Many of these suffered from poor management, and quietly closed over the years as they failed to compete with better-run private sector players.

During my time in Beijing from 1987 to 1989, I became intimately familiar with one such sector, the restaurant business, after writing a guide book on the city’s eating scene. I’m somewhat sorry to see that many of China’s colorful and oldest state-run restaurants have closed their doors over the years, replaced by better-run, trendier private establishments. A few of the most famous ones do still remain, though based on the tale I’m about to tell I doubt if many will survive for the next 20 years.

I was quite excited back in 1988 when I signed a deal to write a restaurant guide to Beijing for a small Hong Kong publisher. The company gave me a modest $1,300 for my research, but that was more than enough at a time when a good meal for 2 at an upscale Beijing restaurant usually cost no more than $15.

After signing the deal, I consulted with culinary experts and friends to create my list of about 80 of Beijing’s best known restaurants serving a wide range of cuisines. The project became a sort of adventure consisting of trips to each restaurant with different friends. Each visit would begin with my explanation of the project to the restaurant’s manager. Most had never heard of such guidebooks, but nearly all were quite friendly and offered to give us a sampling of their signature dishes for a fixed price.

Even high-end restaurants back then were relatively drab places. Most had concrete or tile floors and bare tables, and any carpets or tablecloths were usually worn and often dirty. But the atmosphere and attitude was usually quite cordial, and I have many fond memories of eating at bustling places like Makai, a Hunan restaurant near the old drum tower, and Shaguoju, a clay pot eatery in the Xidan area.

Due to unforeseen circumstances in 1989, my publisher ultimately decided not to publish the book and instead gave me a simple “thank you” and let me keep the $1,300 advance. I was obviously disappointed even though I understood the decision, and quietly took my research and unpublished manuscript in several large blue binders back to the US where they stayed in storage for most of the next 20 years.

Fast forward to the present, when the subject of my unpublished manuscript and the 5 big blue binders came up one day over coffee with a Beijing friend who was visiting me in Shanghai. He became intrigued by this piece of history that by now was in some boxes at a friend’s home in Hong Kong, and encouraged me to retrieve them and re-visit some of the old restaurants.

I’d previously revisited Makai on an earlier trip to Beijing, and was disappointed to discover that the colorful restaurant had long ago left its old location and moved to a new nondescript building on Xuanwumen Xidajie where it served very mediocre Hunan food. But I figured that at least some of the other restaurants must still be at their old locations and worth a visit, and fetched the blue binders on a recent trip to Hong Kong.

I finally had my chance to revisit the past earlier this month when I was in Beijing for a work meeting. My friend and I met in a Starbucks in the northeast Beijing, and then carefully pored over my materials that included a self-designed evaluation form for each restaurant, and original items like menus and name cards. Many of the names like Duoweizhai and Shancheng produced few or no results from searches on Google and Baidu, leading us to suspect that they had closed long ago.

We finally settled on one name that was still in business, the Jinyang Restaurant serving Shanxi food on Zhushikou Xidajie. We made the mistake of starting a bit late, and didn’t arrive at the restaurant until just after 2 p.m. When we walked in, the place was much the way I remembered it from a quarter century earlier. Unfortunately, we quickly learned just how much the Jinyang of today hadn’t changed from the one I visited in 1988.

The place was marginally cleaner and attractive, at least based on what we could see of the darkened main dining hall from where we stood at the reception area. We couldn’t actually enter the dining area, as the young woman who greeted us said the entire staff had just gone for their official afternoon rest and it would be impossible to serve us. She was polite but also adamant that we would not get served, evoking memories of older times when such afternoon naps were considered sacred.

From the Jinyang we quickly raced over to the nearby Turfan Restaurant on Niu Jie , another eatery I fondly remembered for its tasty Muslim food. The experience there was almost identical, with a friendly but firm waitress informing us that all staff were taking their siesta and we would have to go elsewhere.

We finally went next door to another grimy, poorly heated restaurant serving Muslim snacks, where the middle-aged staff eyed me suspiciously when I asked whether the place was state-run or privately owned. The only redeeming part of that afternoon was a cute 5-year-old boy who kept looking at me in the restaurant, and finally summoned the courage to come to our table and ask me where I was from.

I don’t know what exactly I was expecting from my trip back to some of these older restaurants. Certainly there was an element of nostalgia and just a bit of romance, since I had such fond memories of Beijing back in the 1980s. Ironically, I did get the nostalgia with my return visit. But far from the romance I was hoping for, I was instead reminded of the many frustrations I felt back in those days when everything was state-owned and dining was just a way to fill your belly.

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