Shanghai can be a gourmet delight or culinary disaster, depending on where you decide to eat. So we reached out to a few Shanghai F&B folks who really have a handle on the scene to Spill the Beans on their favorite spots, from hole-in-the-wall local eats to high-end venues, from late night drunk grub to date night treat yo’ self splurges.
Image courtesy of Elysia Bagley
Name: Elysia Bagley
Hometown: Singapore & Rhode Island
Occupation: Managing Editor (China), DRiNK Magazine / Thirsty Work Productions
Disclaimer: What I look for in a restaurant has transformed quite a lot since I first moved to Shanghai five years ago. Since my work is now centered on the bar industry, I’m out to find places that offer both great food and great drinks (alcoholic or non alcoholic). Nowadays more and more restaurants offer brilliant cocktails alongside their food, and more and more bars offer brilliant food alongside their cocktails. That’s my present jam.
Where does your love for food stem from?
I grew up in Singapore, and from a young age my parents always took me and my siblings to awesome meals at every type of restaurant, with all forms of cuisine. My mom is a wonderful cook (and now my dad too), and even our meals at home were diverse, creative and delicious.
They often focused on Southeast Asian styles and ingredients as a reflection of our lifestyle and home in the region, alongside American dishes and family classics that in a small way kept us connected to the US. It was very much my parents and upbringing that determined my fate as a foodie.
What’s your favorite restaurant in Shanghai that serves your native food?
That’s a tough question for me – as a third culture kid, I don’t quite feel I have a native cuisine, but I am always inclined towards Southeast Asian flavors. Unless I am unaware of it, there’s not really a quintessentially Singaporean restaurant with a spectrum of foods like you’d find in a hawker stall… if I am wrong, someone please contact me immediately.
So then, if we’re talking American-ish… for me, kind of the ultimate ode-to-Americana hub is The Union Trading Company, which really delivers old fashioned American hospitality and down-to-earth, neighborhood bar vibes with Yao Lu’s excellent, unpretentious cocktails that you can drink while eating Austin Hu-style tater tots. Wins all around.
Homeslice, Co. Cheese, Spread the Bagel and Charlie's are also places where I get a fix for things I miss from the US – and Al’s Diner for very American dessert classics like brownies or red velvet cake, because nowhere else really lives up to that serious level of sugar, you know?
What’s your favorite local eats spot and why?
I think a lot of dedicated Chinese food pros will find my answers a bit weak, but here it goes! To be honest, I don’t eat a lot of Shanghainese food as these days I predominantly eat vegetarian – but my favorite xiaolongbao spot was always Nanjing Tang Bao.
For other Chinese regional cuisines, Sichuan noodle spot Chuan Noodles (六樘门) is one of my go-to lunches, and I love Yunnan food, so Lotus Eatery; even if geared towards laowai it’s still just so good!
Vegetarian Lifestyle (枣子树) is super tasty vegetarian Chinese, and Sapar Uyghur Restaurant was one of the first restaurants I ate at in Shanghai, and I still go all the time. I’ll also never say no to a late-night trip to Hai Di Lao for hotpot.
What’s your favorite high end restaurant and why?
For an awesome AF cocktail and dining experience, Sober Company is my number one, and I always try to take out of town guests there. If you can do the full run – aperifs at Sober Café, dinner at Sober Kitchen, and a strong after-dinner tipple at Sober Society to then gain access to Tipsy – you’re in for an incredible evening where you’ll spend what you would on a meal at a fine dining restaurant, but across four concepts and with more surprises. Like at all of Shingo Gokan’s venues, the service is excellent, the drinks reflect the best of modern cocktail culture, and the Asian fusion food truly succeeds where so many fail.
Otherwise, I honestly don’t do a lot of high end dining these days – that said, I will always swoon over anything that Paul Pairet touches (and fills with butter). Very into his youngest spot, Polux, and of course Ultraviolet remains the most awe-inducing dining experience I’ve ever had and should be a bucket list restaurant for any foodie. Taian Table is lovely as well.
Image by Sophie Steiner/That's
What’s your go-to date night spot and why?
Tacolicious! My husband and I are quite casual – and also very busy – so when we have a free night we like to go somewhere we love the vibes, the team and, of course, the food. Tacolicious is hands down our favorite spot; Thijs, Logan and Saira are amazing and know our order by heart, and they put extra effort into vegan/vegetarian options and even adapt dishes special for us. They even make a fancy bowl of food for our dog Penny, and that’s love. #TacoFam for life.
If you had to pick one restaurant in Shanghai that you couldn’t live without, which would it be?
Aside from Tacolicious? Haha! Probably Brut Eatery. First of all, they’re all pet friendly; there’s one near my house and one near my office, it’s super affordable, and the food is always very tasty, whether dine in or delivery. They also change up the menu quite often while never taking away the sesame sriracha penne… and I appreciate both.
Any restaurants that closed that you really miss?
Birds of Paradise. I think Austin Hu does some kind of voodoo in any kitchen he opens. That miso carmel French toast, those okonomiyaki fries – like holy sh*t – and Yao Lu’s modern tiki-inspired cocktails with all their homemade ingredients and sassy liquor levels, yum. Those drinks, side by side with pan pacific bites; it was just so spectacular.
I also miss Sproutworks! Just a solid lunch spot, you know? Plus, Pelikan with its Nordic eats from Kasper Pedersen. I was also very sad to see Botanik go, as it was truly unique for Shanghai’s scene.
What gaps do you see in the Shanghai dining scene that you would like to see filled?
Vegetarian and vegan food for sure. Every major city I’ve ever visited has vast offerings of incredible restaurants and dishes without meat – Shanghai is so far behind in that such food is still niche here, and thus scant, overpriced and varying in quality.
It’s not that I believe everyone should go vegetarian – but I believe we can all afford to reduce, and the fact is there needs to be great food if it’s going to happen. Offering delicious, thoughtful vegetarian and vegan dishes shows not only conscientious thought towards our planet and the toll mass meat production is taking, but also an awareness for an ever-increasing demographic of diners.
I believe plant-based eating will only keep growing, and the hole in the market here really disappoints me. There is just no reason for every dish to have meat these days – it’s 2020, and places who put no effort into it come off as lazy and uninformed. The number of restaurants whose only vegetarian option is a shitty salad still kind of blows my mind… and like, why is every veggie burger just falafel? I’ve been asking that question for years now.
However – I do want to say that I really appreciate the venues that do recognize the importance of plant-based eating and put in the effort to have awesome options. Places such as Egg, Pie Society, Area 501, Spread the Bagel, Homeslice and Tacolicious really crush it with some excellent dishes that range from healthy to comfort food. Vegetarians want to indulge too, dude! Also, big props to Untour, which has just started a vegan Chinese breakfast tour. And I can’t wait to try the new plant-based spot, Duli.
Image by Sophie Steiner/That's
What is your favorite dish in Shanghai?
This is almost impossible to answer! I will say something very simple but divine; Paul Pairet’s mashed potatoes, which you can have at Polux or Mr & Mrs Bund. I believe they’re about 50% butter, no joke. I don’t think most people understand how difficult it can be to master a seemingly basic dish.
I would say Egg’s Black Magic Toast with an egg on it and a side of lotus latkes, but I believe that was seasonal and so now only a delectable memory. Also, very into Pho To Shop’s Vietnamese vegan vermicelli bowl right now (even if the restaurant name really kills me) and the coconut rice, tempeh and veggie bowl at Styx.
What advice would you give to budding foodies in Shanghai?
Be curious, open minded, educated, passionate and always aware of how lucky you are to live in a city with such culinary diversity and food delivery convenience.
But real talk, most importantly, if you’re in a position that gets you invited to restaurants and bars for complimentary tastings, be humble and grateful – never take advantage of someone’s hospitality. Being there is an amazing privilege, not a right. And if you’re going specifically to try cocktails, play it cool – small sips for the win so you don’t get sloppy wasted.
For more Elysia Bagley foodie adventures, follow her on Instagram @elysiawanders