My Shanghai Is Better Than Yours
Four years ago, Dan Washburn dropped everything, moving from suburban Georgia to China's most dynamic city. As the editor of Shanghaiist.com, he's since learned far more about Shanghai than we ever could hope to, so we've invited him to tell us the best places to eat, shop, and play.
I arrived in Shanghai by accident, really. I had a decent gig at a small newspaper outside Atlanta--they paid me to try a new activity each week (bull riding, skydiving, nude water volleyball . . . ) and write about my experiences. Not bad. Of course, I also had to cover high school tennis, but there are always tradeoffs in life. Nearly four years into my Georgia stay, with another high school sports season on the horizon, I suddenly decided I needed to make a change. I didn't know what, and I didn't know where. I just knew I wanted something . . . different.
An e-mail here, a contact there, and faster than you can say "career suicide," I had signed a one-year contract to teach English at a place called Shanghai University. Different, indeed.
Four years later, my teaching days far behind me, I'm still in Shanghai. And I have no plans to leave.
Western journalists have taken to calling Shanghai "the most exciting city on Earth," and while I generally think anyone who writes such hyperbolic swill should be fired on the spot, it's true that Shanghai is certainly never boring. The city is constantly changing, always reinventing itself. The relentless pace of the place is addictive. I have fallen in love with Shanghai (and no, that's not hyperbole).
I had a personal website before I moved to Shanghai, so I kept it going once I got here. Hard to believe now, but back in 2002, there was a dearth online of English-language information about the city. My blog, Shanghaidiaries.com, quickly attracted a dedicated readership. Last summer, I launched Shanghaiist.com, a blog that has since become one of the most popular English-language websites about Shanghai.
It's kind of funny: Four years ago I was the guy asking all the questions, and now I'm the one other people look to for answers. I receive e-mail after e-mail from people the world over wanting to know about Shanghai, Shanghai, Shanghai. I respond to most of them, too. Think of the following 3,000 words as a giant mass e-mail about the city that I happily call home.
You probably aren't visiting Shanghai for its hamburgers--which are getting a lot better, by the way--so I'm focusing on Chinese restaurants. Whittling my list down was no easy task; Shanghai is a great city for anyone who loves to eat.
Shanghainese cuisine gets a bad rap: too oily, some say, or too sweet. But when prepared correctly, it can be delicious. (You'll hear that word a lot: It's one of the first English words students here learn.)
On a small, dark street in Luwan District, Chun ("Spring" in Chinese) serves the best home-style Shanghainese food in town. Reservations are essential, as Chun has just four tables. Simply ask the owner what she recommends. If you don't speak Chinese, have your hotel concierge write "please feed us well" on a piece of paper. You'll be taken care of.
There are a dozen more tables and an English menu at Jesse in Xuhui District, but you still need reservations. The braised pork is, well, delicious.
If you're out late, hope for a seat at Jing'an District's Bao Luo, a cavernous joint that stays open until 6 a.m. and often has lines out the door. I like the sauteed tofu and crabmeat.
Ye Olde Station Restaurant, in the heart of Xujiahui, is a little more upscale. Despite its name and the old train cars that double as dining rooms, it was never an old station. It was a French monastery, founded in 1921. (The equally regal St. Ignatius Cathedral is across the street.) Savor the tender Mandarin fish--a steamed river fish that the server will debone--then explore the grand building, which is the epitome of Old Shanghai.
You must try xiaolongbao, often called "soup dumplings." While the steamed delicacies--thin pastry skins filled with meat and scaldingly hot soup (be careful!)--can be found on many a corner, ordering them in English will get you nowhere. The easy solution is tourist-friendly Nanxiang Mantou Dian, in the kitsch capital of Old City, Yu Yuan. Nanxiang is famous, and recognizable by the long take-out line (pay more to get a seat upstairs). Gourmands grumble about a decline in quality at Nanxiang, preferring the Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung in Luwan's Xintiandi development, despite a sterile atmosphere and higher prices.
The xiaolongbao's fried cousin is shengjian mantou, which is worth the wait at Yang's Fry-Dumpling . While we're on the subject of dumplings, I could live on jiaozi, minced meat and/or veggies in ravioli-esque skins. They're boiled, steamed, or fried and served with an addictive soy-vinegar sauce. Da Qing Hua is a chain--I go to the one in Jing'an--but it has a wonderful selection of jiaozi and other hearty specialties from the northeast. Don't miss the bizarre "penis shrine" in the men's room.