From top-secret, ultramodern Michelin-starred eats to soul-stirring streetside dumplings, here’s our guide to the best food in Shanghai.
To those in the know, Shanghai’s always been a sizzling centre for all things auspicious, ambitious and delicious – but it’s only in recent years that the city has really made a name for itself as one of China’s premier culinary destinations. There’s a lot here for the luxury diner to tuck into – from caviar-topped Peking duck to multi-course Sicilian degustation guaranteed to whisk your tastebuds straight to the Strait of Messina. But the city hides more than Michelin-star eats – hit up any hawker street and you’ll be welcomed with a dazzling array of flavours, drawing on culinary influences from Anhui to Szechuan and beyond.
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1. On-the-go: street eats
Fried pork buns at Yang’s Fry-Dumpling
This one needs no introduction – at home and abroad, the Shanghai fried pork bun is legendary. This iconic breakfast snack is crispy, chewy and crunchy in all the right places, with a savoury pork-and-scallion filling that’s brimming with robust umami notes. If you’re feeling particularly hungry, eat like the locals do and order by the liang – four buns at a time – at Yang’s Fry-Dumpling, a citywide Shanghai street-eat institution. Fried to golden-brown perfection and generously topped with sesame seeds, the dumplings taste so good, you won’t want to start the morning any other way.
Steamed hairy crab at Cheng Long Hang Crab Palace
As September rolls into October, the weather begins to cool, the sweet aroma of the city’s flowering osmanthus trees fills the air and Shanghai becomes obsessed with steamed hairy crab. Traditionally served with eight separate dining implements, it’s a hallowed culinary ritual that’s built on centuries of tradition, with the cooking method kept simple to preserve integrity of flavour – crabs are steamed whole and served with a dipping sauce made of rice vinegar, ginger and sugar. When crab season hits, countless food stalls hawk the delicious crustacean, but for an elevated experience seek out Cheng Long Hang Crab Palace – to guarantee quality, the restaurant proudly sources only from its own crab farms.
Soup dumplings at Fu Chung
Has there ever been a more perfect bite? Pork mince is generously seasoned, rolled with a rich aspic, masterfully wrapped and steamed in a traditional bamboo basket. As the dumpling cooks, the gelatine-rich aspic transforms into a rich pork broth, wondrously trapped within the dumpling’s light dough. Take a bite and you’ll be rewarded with a dazzling spread of flavours and textures – and it’s traditional to supercharge each dumpling with black vinegar and chopped ginger. It’s a dining experience that’s inextricably linked to the culinary soul of Shanghai. Most dim sum shops sell soup dumplings from dawn to late evening – hyper-popular Shanghai-based chain Fu Chung is still one of the best.
Beggar’s chicken at Fangbang Lu
Said to be the invention of an enterprising beggar – who, after stealing a chicken, had to improvise upon realising he had no oven – this ancient Hangzhou dish is steeped in culinary folklore and remains a beloved delicacy to this day. A whole chicken is marinated in soy sauce, stuffed with spices and wrapped in a tight layer of lotus leaves, parchment and clay or dough; baked extremely slowly, the result is moist, richly fragrant and irresistibly tender. After a taste? Head to the city’s revered food street, Fangbang Lu, still the best place to sample this historic dish.
2. Something to savour: mid-range meals
Garlic Barbecue Shanghai
American-style barbecue, seasoned, smoked and served until sold out – in a city filled with hanging geese and char siu pork, Garlic Barbecue Shanghai stands alone. All your favourites are here – including brisket, glazed pork ribs and pulled pork – though the sides take a decidedly Turkish twist, with baba ganoush, pickled garlic and lightly dressed salads helping to cut the richness. For the brave, be sure to visit on the weekend – the restaurant’s signature ‘beef dinosaur ribs,’ weighing in at an unhinged 950 grams, are only available on Saturday and Sunday.
Lost Heaven Shanghai
Famous for its snowcapped mountains, yawing gorges and mushrooms of all types – including truffles – the southwestern province of Yunnan and its extraordinary flavours take centre stage at Lost Heaven Shanghai. Try the wild mushroom hot pot, a local delicacy said to showcase over 30 types of regional fungi or let your tastebuds wander – the restaurant also offers a fantastic selection of Thai, Myanmar and Vietnamese dishes.
Long Bar at Waldorf Astoria Shanghai
Originally built in 1910 to house one of China’s most elite gentlemen’s clubs, Long Bar at Waldorf Astoria Shanghai is dressed to impress: the 34-metre, marble-clad mahogany bar was, at time of construction, the longest in the world. This is your taste of the elegant Shanghai of yesteryear – caviar and foie gras are available from the venue’s tailor-made Oyster Bar and cocktails are delivered with the utmost professionalism. Be sure to try the ‘Waldorf,’ an exhilarating blend of rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters and absinthe.
YISEA at Pudong Shangri-La
Some of Shanghai’s best Japanese can be found at YISEA, tucked within Pudong Shangri-La's storied interior. Effortlessly bringing a refined, kaiseki-inspired sensibility to teppanyaki’s iconic smoke and fire-driven plates, the restaurant dazzles and delights in equal measure. The sukiyaki course is especially recommended – beginning with abalone, sashimi and oysters, the main course is a sumptuous selection of M9 wagyu cuts, simmered to perfection in a house blend of soy, sake and mirin.
3. A sense of occasion: Michelin-star indulgence
Unashamedly avant-garde, Ultraviolet offers an evening of fearsome culinary whimsy to 10 gourmands willing to travel to the restaurant’s top-secret location and embrace adventure. Acclaimed French chef Paul Pairet weaves a story in 20 unpredictable courses – to say any more would be to spoil the surprise. But Ultraviolet – which boldly claims ‘we eat more myths than calories’ – has been generating Michelin stars (three consecutive stars to date) and rave reviews since opening in 2012. You owe it to yourself, and your tastebuds, to take the ride.
Settle into Shanghai’s old-world opulence at Hakkasan, offering perhaps the city’s best evening views of Huangpu River from within Shanghai’s ritziest shopping complex, Bund18. But despite the spectacular views, the menu’s the true star of the show – classical Cantonese dishes are reimagined with regal flair, accompanied by a cocktail list that bridges the gap between Chinese and international flavour profiles. Try the Peking duck – topped with imperial caviar and served, a touch ironically, with cucumber and ultra-thin Cantonese pancakes, each bite offers a whirlwind of flavours and textures from across the globe.
Bao Li Xuan
Positioned within the heritage Chamber of Commerce building – now a part of Bulgari Hotel Shanghai – Bao Li Xuan works tirelessly to celebrate and elevate dim sum. Favourites like chicken’s feet with X.O. sauce, barbecued pork puffs and steamed shrimp dumplings are meticulously prepared and best enjoyed with any of the restaurant’s sommelier-picked signature teas. It’s a lovingly exquisite tribute to the brunch tradition that has come to define Shanghai’s exceptional culinary scene.
8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana
Ever since Marco Polo returned home from Kublai Khan’s far-flung court, China and Italy have shared a linked culinary vision. At Umberto Bombana’s third Michelin-starred restaurant, 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana, the acclaimed chef’s adoration for his homeland’s cuisine shines through on every plate. The kitchen artfully draws on local produce to redefine Italian classics – try the handmade fagotelli pasta, tossed with burrata, parmesan and Yunnan mushrooms. It’s the kind of flavour profile only Shanghai could provide.
Feature image: Long Bar at Waldorf Astoria Shanghai.
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