Over the eight centuries since Beijing was first established as China’s capital, the city’s history has been interwoven with stories of the rise and fall of emperors, dynasties, movements and great houses. While many of these stories from the imperial age were concluded long ago, a few great houses of commerce, craftsmanship and cuisine remain alive as reminders of Beijing’s dynastic past. Known as Lao Zi Hao (老字号, lǎo zì hào) or Time-honored Brands, these houses are celebrated as part of Beijing’s living history and purveyors of the best Beijing has to offer.
While the title of Lao Zi Hao can be bestowed on any traditionally celebrated product, service, company or brand, the best known of these Lao Zi Hao are the restaurants that have survived, some for hundreds of years, despite the pressures of Beijing’s rapid modernization. Below, we offer our top five (in no particular order) Lao Zi Hao restaurants for visitors and expats alike. While we’ve placed quality and flavor as our number one criteria, we’ve also ensured Beijing’s three main cuisines (Shandong, Hui and Imperial) are represented, and also ensured none on our list of Beijing’s top five time-honored restaurants are too far outside central Beijing. We’ve also excluded Lao Zi Hao restaurants specializing in Peking Duck. If you’re looking for duck, see our Top Pick for Peking Duck Near Tian’anmen Square.
Dong Xing Lou Fanzhuang 东兴楼饭庄
Beijing’s status as the imperial capital has seen its cuisine influenced by culinary traditions from all over China. During the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties, chefs from throughout the country were given places in Beijing’s palace kitchens, where they pitted their own regional dishes against those of others to gain the favor of royalty, aristocrats and courtiers. While these chefs were busy vying for the favor of the privileged few, however, thousands of chefs from Shandong Province on China’s east coast were moving to the capital to establish restaurants catering to Beijing’s working masses. Over subsequent centuries, mass appeal triumphed over imperial favor, winning Shandong cuisine prime position in the hearts and stomachs of Beijing’s people, and securing its role as the backbone of Beijing cuisine. Many of these centuries-old Shandong-style Beijing dishes are still being served in restaurants across the city, with restaurants old and new either drawing influence from Shandong cuisine or specializing in the cuisine itself. One of the best-known of such specialists is Dong Xing Lou, established in 1902 and located in Beijing’s most famous eating precinct, Ghost Street.
Shandong cuisine is famed for its stewed and braised dishes, its bold flavors and its tendency toward sweetness and saltiness. Three dishes that showcase these features and the mastery of Dong Xing Lou’s chefs are the deep fried pork meatballs (新干炸小丸子, xīn gān zhá xiǎo wán zǐ), with a selection of dipping spices; cold sliced pork elbow with traditional Beijing bean-flour rolls and mandarin pancakes (北京咯吱配肘花, běi jīng gē zhī pèi zhǒu huā), and diced boneless chicken fried with sweet flour paste (酱爆鸡丁, jiàng bào jī dīng).
Address: Dongzhimen Nei Dajie #5, Subway: Line 2 – Dongzhimen (300m west of exit A). 东直门内大街5号东兴楼饭庄. Tel: 010-84064118. Hours: daily from 10:00-21:30. Note that the name of the restaurant above the door is written from right to left and in traditional characters. Look out for 樓興東.
Tong He Ju 同和居
Our other top pick for Shandong-style Beijing cuisine is Tong He Ju, established in 1822. Nestled on the western shore of Shichahai Lake, this restaurant serves some of the best renditions of the kind of dishes you could expect to see served in the homes of Beijing locals. We like the shredded pork wok-fried with a sweet and salty fermented sauce and served with thin sheets of tofu for wrapping (京酱肉丝, jīng jiàng ròu sī); Fried bamboo shoots and meatballs with dipping spices (干炸两样, gān zhá liǎng yàng), and Dalian Huoshao (褡裢火烧, dā lián huǒ shāo), long, fried dumplings resembling a combination of dumpling and springroll.
Tong He Ju’s lake views and rooftop tables make it a great option for summer dining, however, cold winters and unpredictable local policies mean alfresco dining is never guaranteed. Whether the rooftop is open or not, this restaurant remains one of our favorites and is well worth a visit.
Address: Di’anmen Xi Dajie #51-2. Subway: Line 6 – Nanluoguxiang Station (1500m west of exit E, inside the Lotus Market and close to the Lotus Market Pier). 地安门西大街51-2号(荷花市场内近荷花市场码头). Walk along the western shore of Shichahai Lake and look out for the characters: 同和居. Tel: 010-83289699. Hours: daily from 10:00-22:00.
Fang Shan Fanzhuang 仿膳饭庄
Fang Shan’s story begins in 1925, just 14 years after the fall of the Qing Dynasty. After China’s last emperor had stepped down to make way for the first republic, eight former palace chefs pooled their resources to establish a tea house on the north shore of Beihai Lake. Their aim was to continue the culinary traditions of Imperial Cuisine – the dishes and menus served for centuries within Beijing’s palaces. Fang Shang still continues to uphold those culinary traditions, with many recipes remaining unaltered to the present day.
Imperial cuisine is known for its light, fresh, often sweet flavors, and its playful presentation, making it a great option for a Beijing-style brunch. We recommend the sesame pastries (圆梦烧饼, yuán mèng shāo bǐng) – these delicate pastries are served with lightly spiced minced pork for you to stuff inside; the walnut-shaped pastries made from walnut flour (核桃酥, hé táo sū), and the Lv Da Gun’er (驴打滚, lǘ dǎ gǔn, literally rolling donkeys), chewy sesame and osmanthus flavored pastries made from soybean flour. Those with curious palates will find Beijing’s traditional sweets and pastries served in their highest form at this elegant lakeside teahouse, however, a word to the wise traveller: pay close attention to prices on this menu as while most items are inexpensive, some can soar to over US$200 per plate.
Address: 北海公园北门内九龙壁前的仿膳饭庄 (enter the north gate of Beihai Park and follow the north-west shore of the lake while keeping an eye out for the characters仿膳, or the tiled mural of nine dragons, which is close by). Subway: Line 6 –Nanluoguxiang Station (1000m west of Exit A). Tel: 010-64041184. Hours: daily from 11:00-14:00 and 17:00-20:00.
Kao Rou Wan 烤肉宛饭庄
Camel trains and Silk Road traders have been visiting Beijing for much of the city’s history, bringing with them commodities, culture and religion for over a thousand years. With Beijing’s first mosque established in 996 AD, and the Muslim Hui ethnicity constituting Beijing’s largest minority, it’s small wonder that Halal cuisine has had the second largest influence on the cuisine of Beijing (after Shandong cuisine, see Dong Xing Lou above).
Today’s Beijing has thousands of Halal restaurants, serving cuisines from along the Silk Road, as well as local Beijing Hui cuisine. One of Beijing’s oldest surviving Hui restaurants, Kao Rou Wan, is located just south of the Lama Temple on Yonghegong Dajie. Specializing in hotplate-barbequed meats, Kao Rou Wan was established in 1686 and is famed for serving meats ‘as tender as tofu.’ The restaurant’s chefs are known for their knife skills, cutting beef and mutton in the shape of willow leaves, using the ratio of 300 slices per kilogram as their standard. Sliced meats are then marinated in soy sauce, vinegar, ginger, cooking wine, leeks and cilantro before being roasted on the restaurant’s circular hotplates. Kao Rou Wan is definitely a restaurant for meat lovers, and we recommend trying both the barbequed beef slices (烤牛肉, kǎo niú ròu, barbequed beef slices) and the barbequed mutton slices (烤精品羊肉, kǎo jīng pǐn yang ròu), as well as the mutton slices stir-fried in a sweet and savory sauce (它似蜜, tā sì mì).
Address: Yonghegong Dajie #185 (south of the Lama Temple on the opposite side of the road). Subway: Line 5 –Beixinqiao (300m north of Exit A) 雍和宫大街185号烤肉宛饭庄. Tel: 010-64069729. Hours: daily from 10:30-22:00.
Hong Bin Lou 鸿宾楼
Finally, another outstanding purveyor of Hui-style halal cuisine is Hong Bin Lou. Established in neighboring Tianjin in 1853, Hong Bin Lou moved to Beijing in 1955 and was quickly proclaimed the capital’s ‘number one halal restaurant.’ Hong Bin Lou takes a more refined approach to Hui cuisine than other restaurants, with an emphasis on subtle, balanced flavors and appealing presentation. Stand-out dishes include the soy-braised oxtail (红烧牛尾, hóng shāo niú wěi,), Zhaopai Doufu (招牌豆腐, zhāo pái dòu fǔ, well-seasoned, crumbly tofu served with fresh herbs), and fresh ginseng and walnut salad (鲜田七桃仁, xiān tián qī táo rén).
Address: Room 203, Level 2, Zhuang Lian He Da Xia (Building), Chaoyangmen Wai Dajie #20. Subway: Line 2 –Chaoyangmen (500m southeast of Exit C). 朝阳门外大街20号1幢联合大厦2层203号鸿宾楼. Tel: 010-65881853. Hours: daily from 10am-8pm.