By Hart Hagerty
October 23, 2014
James Whitaker / Alamy

Shanghainese cuisine sometimes gets shrugged off as too oily, salty and sweet, but those who really want to explore this city’s gustatory side will find a wide array of nuanced, flavors here. From lavish nouveau cuisine to traditional home-style comfort food, Shanghainese cuisine, and restaurants, encompass all manner of dishes. Since Shanghai literally translates as “on the top of the sea,” it’s no surprise that seafood is a culinary cornerstone here; at eateries like Jesse, crab finds its way into everything from tofu dishes to xiao long bao. Another signature element of Shanghainese food is the combination of sugar and soy sauce, which is fundamental to the city’s hong shao cooking method for meats; restaurants like Xiao Nan Guo serve up dishes like hong shao rou—generous cubes of fatty, salty pork belly slathered in a sweet, sticky glaze. Shanghai’s many authentic restaurants, including the ones on this list, also let you savor excellent renditions of standards like fried noodles, “beggar’s chicken,” smoked fish, braised eel and niangao. And for the truly adventurous who can stomach the noxious odor of rotten cheese, there is always stinky tofu.

Jesse

Whenever local residents suggest going out for a Shanghainese dinner, Jesse is often the favorite destination. This cozy, noisy, and fast-paced restaurant in the heart of the French Concession has been around for decades. While the cult-like following of the original Jesse has spawned a newer, cleaner chain of clones across the city, the original—despite being a bit run down and perpetually crowded—still serves the best braised fish head, xiefen potato soup and Shaoxing wine-marinated crab. 

Jianguo 328

At this charming, casual joint specializing in Shanghainese cuisine, everything about the food here is traditional (except for the MSG and generous use of oil, sugar, and salt). In the cramped dining room, busy waitresses squeeze by tables with plates of braised pork, sweet dates stuffed with glutinous rice flour, and salted chicken. The ever-present Taiwanese manager is always nearby to make guests feel at home.

Fu 1088

Tables at Fu 1088 are some of the hardest to snag in Shanghai. You’ll need to make a reservation look before you arrive at the 1930s Spanish-style mansion in Jing’An district, where the friendly staff and old world décor — Spanish tiles, antiques and dark wood paneling—endow the place with authentic charm from a bygone era. While not strictly traditional, the food features delicious, modern spins on classical Shanghainese dishes. If the prices here are prohibitive for you, sister restaurant Fu 1039 offers equally delicious Shanghainese food in a more casual setting.

Yang’s Stir-fried Dumplings

You can’t get more authentic than the most beloved street food in the Pearl of the Orient, sheng jian bao. A bit plumper than golf balls, these pan-fried pork dumplings have puffy, bready wrappers—sprinkled with chopped scallions and sesame seeds—which enclose hefty meatballs and steamy juices. The cooks at this chain of eateries create a mouthwatering contrast of crunchy and chewy by frying the bottom and steaming the top of the dumplings in a shallow wok. Yang’s dozens of locations sell by the “liang”—four dumplings for only RMB6.

Xiao Nan Guo

Xiao Nan Guo is a reliable local chain, with 15 (and counting) branches scattered around the city. The restaurants are a favorite go-to for locals hosting family gatherings and business dinners. Everything is polished here, from the attentive service to the delicious Shanghainese classics served on crisp white tablecloths. Among the standout dishes are tofu with crabmeat, sautéed river shrimp, and the braised-pork dish of hong shao rou.

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