The culture of eating well blossoms at last in China

BEIJING --- My last house guest had 13 restaurants on his to-try list, including three renowned for succulent versions of crisp-skinned Peking duck, one popular for its tongue-tingling Sichuan cuisine, and a Uighur joint -- known as much for the ethnic minority's cumin-spiced lamb skewers as its exuberant floor show.


"I never thought Beijing would have so many things!" he said hungrily after hours of online research.

Gone are the days when the traditional Chinese greeting "Have you eaten yet?" seemed like a bad joke in the dour capital where, as recently as the 1980s, staples were rationed, state-run canteens dished out the slop of the day in chipped enamel bowls, and restaurants were few and far between.

Today's Beijing is packed with eateries at every corner, open at all hours and offering regional cuisines of all kinds -- a reflection of China's stunning economic success after almost three decades of convulsive growth.

The run-up to the Aug. 8 Beijing Olympics has underscored the quantum leap in the quality and variety of fare on offer, with menus and manners being polished in anticipation of the crowd of 500,000 visitors during the games.

From al dente hand-pulled noodles splashed with bracing black vinegar from Shanxi province in the North, to fingernail-size chicken pieces buried in a mountain of dried chilies from Sichuan in the Southwest, to the rich, sweet braises of the East, there is something to pique every palate.

Don't forget the street food -- handmade pork buns, candied fruit and egg, lettuce and crisp fried dough rolled in a freshly made flour crepe, a Chinese burrito of sorts.

And that's just from within the country. Sushi and sashimi? Ocean fresh. Persian grilled meats and stews? In the heart of the city. Fish and chips? Beer batter or bread crumbs, take your pick. Greek, Vietnamese, Italian, French, German, Ethiopian, Spanish, Singaporean, even kosher ... the list goes on.

"Simply put, we've gone from eating just to fill our stomachs to the stage where we are open to the complete pleasures of the dining experience," says Chitty Chung, the editor-in-chief of Beijing's Food & Wine magazine.

That includes an awareness of a restaurant's environment, the chef's concepts, quality of service, the pairing of food and wine, and nutritional balance -- but also a willingness try new things, says Ms. Chung, who recommends Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant not only for the namesake fowl but also for its light modern twist on traditionally heavy Shandong fare.

"People's eyes are opening up, and they are becoming more international. They are ready to accept and taste food from other parts of the world," she says. "The choices are far beyond your imagination."

So are the numbers. There are more than 40,000 restaurants in Beijing, 90 percent of which are privately run -- a far cry from the few thousand state-owned eateries that were found on the streets during the early 1980s, says He Zhifu, the secretary-general of the Beijing Association for Food and Beverage Industries.

They run the gamut from the simple (mom-and-pop dumpling place) to the showy (the starkly modern Green T. House, where dishes are decorated with curling tree branches, and the Whampoa Club, where roast spring onion ice cream can be enjoyed in a dining room that sits beneath a massive glass goldfish pond) to the bizarre (Guo Li Zhuang, which serves the penises and testicles of various animals -- dogs, yaks, oxen -- cooked in a variety of ways.)

In all, Beijing's restaurants rake in more than $4 billion annually, and the revenues are still growing. Today, the city is a confluence of a rapidly growing middle class, relatively little competition and Olympics-driven tourism.

ROBERT F. BUKATY/ASSOCIATED PRESS A skewer of fried scorpions -- one of the many unusual edibles available in the capital -- is displayed at on Wangfujing Street. [CAPTION]

NG HAN GUAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS A Chinese chef serves noodles at a noodle bar in 1949, The Hidden City, a concept eatery space that was built around a 1949 factory in Beijing. [CAPTION]

ROBERT F. BUKATY/ASSOCIATED PRESS A vendor works at stand selling starfish at the Wangfujing Street shopping area in Beijing. The city has shaken off its culinary chains. Today, it is packed with round-the-clock eateries offering regional and international cuisines as China opens itself to the world.