SHANGHAI STREET VIEW: Shanghai-fying Canto Diners

Tsui Wah brings retro Canto to Shanghai

Cantonese cuisine has become a local favorite in Shanghai these past few years, reflecting the city’s growing taste for both regional and international foods. An interesting twist on that trend has seen China’s financial capital snub higher-end Cantonese food for more down-market chacanting-style restaurants, which are Hong Kong’s equivalent of the local greasy spoon diners in the west. But these Canto diners that have rapidly colonized Shanghai hardly look like their Hong Kong cousins, and have taken on a decidedly mid- to even high-end approach to the dining experience.

The phenomenon reflects a broader trend that has seen Shanghai, like many other major Chinese cities, cast off its bias for local cuisine over the last decade and start to favor a wide range of regional and even international flavors. The change is quite remarkable for a longtime China resident like myself, and contrasts with a dining scene just 20 years ago when out-of-town choices were extremely limited, pricey and often required long trips across the city.

During my earlier years living in Hong Kong, I developed a particular fondness for these Cantonese diners, which are famous for their simple dishes like curry beef and smoked meats, 2 of my favorites. The diners are equally notable for their simple decor, which often consists of simple metal tables and chairs filled with individual diners who often eat while reading a book or newspaper, or watching a TV mounted on the wall.

So I was quite excited when many of Hong Kong’s most famous chains started discovering Shanghai a few years back and opening branches here. One of the earliest was Cafe de Coral (HKEx: 341), which started out with outlets that were copies of its popular Hong Kong fast-food restaurants. But then the company discovered the Shanghai fondness for chacanting, and now has substituted this more upscale format for many of its former restaurants.

Since then, 2 of Hong Kong’s other famous brands, Tsui Wah (HKEx: 1314) and Tai Hing, have also recently discovered Shanghai and opened their own renditions of chacanting here. Each chain has taken a slightly different approach in Shanghai, but both offer a more mid-range environment and more food choices than the original greasy Canto diners in Hong Kong.

The colonizers have stayed true to their roots by offering most traditional chacanting fare, and also by keeping the original diner-style booths and general diner feel. But they’re definitely more comfortable places to eat and linger for a while. In many ways, the trend is similar to what happened in the US in the 1980s and ’90s, when a wave of nostalgia saw a wide range of more upscale, retro-style diners open to cater to a generation of people who grew up with the original low-end eateries in the 1950s and ’60s.

Of course this wouldn’t be China if there weren’t a wide range of local imitators as well, even though most serve food that’s mediocre at best. Among the true Hong Kong chains, Tsui Wah has taken the interesting approach of making its own retro version of the chacanting, creating a highly stylized chain of diners with decorative and architectural elements reminiscent of the art deco era of the early 20th century.

In another interesting twist to this growing national trend, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a similar upscale Tsui Hua chacanting in the Kwun Tong area on a recent trip to Hong Kong. It was the first such upscale diner I’d seen in Hong Kong, and provided an intriguing example of how the local eating culture is not only influencing mainland Chinese tastes, but is also being influenced by adaptations from cities like Shanghai.

At the end of the day, the thing that matters most for me is being able to eat my favorite foods in the kind of dining environments I like. While the traditional, super-simple chacanting format is certainly comfortable and familiar, I have to admit I’ve developed a fondness for these slightly more upscale Shanghai renditions that are a nice place to eat by yourself or with a friend, and have no TV blaring in the background. I’m equally encouraged that Hong Kong may also be embracing this new mainland twist on one of its most traditional restaurant forms, reflecting the growing interaction between the heart of Cantonese cuisine and major mainland cities like Shanghai.

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