SHANGHAI — Having recovered from the pandemic last year, people were champing at the bit to get out again and embrace life. Capturing that heady mood, bistros have burst onto the lifestyle scene of Shanghai.
Good food. Cozy ambience. Even the imagery of street life in Paris. The venues quickly became a captivating trend.
“This kind of dining seemed so novel, so I began going to different bistros,” 35-year-old Yang Mengyi tells Sixth Tone. “It’s important to me that a bistro has a good quality of music, decor, food, and service, regardless of whether I’m there for eating, drinking, or chatting.”
To her, bistros offer a wide variety of wines and many creative dishes suitable for one or two people.
“They meet the needs of people with small appetites or people like me who don’t eat just for the sake of eating, but want to drink something with it,” she adds.
For many, bistros conjure up visions of an idyllic Parisian lifestyle, where small restaurants serve moderately priced, simple, but delicious meals in a modest setting. Bistros are known for their comfortable, convivial atmosphere.
The French origins have evolved into distinctly Chinese adaptations, with many featuring a high-quality, expensive, intimate dining experience in a market with great growth potential.
Bistro culture is thriving in China’s metropolises, especially Shanghai and Beijing. As of publication, Shanghai has 265 bistros, while Beijing has 140, according to the Yelp-like app Dianping. Many young people simply refer to the eateries as “bistros,” though the official translation is xiaojiuguan. An online search using the Chinese word brings up 958 results in Shanghai and 476 in Beijing.
According to market research firm iiMedia Research, the number of bistro-related companies registered in China surged to 4,840 in 2021 from 433 in 2015. Revenue from the sector is expected to rise to 140 billion yuan ($19.7 billion) in 2023 from 86 billion yuan in 2015.
The researchers noted that bistros are popular because they help people relax and reduce stress in today’s hectic, competitive society. The emergence of a thriving “night economy” in China also provides an ideal climate for the rapid development of bistros.
Bistro-related notes posted on the Instagram-like Xiaohongshu platform have nearly doubled in just a year to more than 350,000. Among the most frequently mentioned descriptions are “atmosphere” and “photogenic.”
The eateries have come to be seen as places where people can relax with friends or go on dates. Even though Chinese bistros charge high prices and have a limited choice of dishes, many young people are willing to pay for what they see as a unique, exquisite dining experience.
Bistros have become particularly attractive to higher-income urban residents, earning the eateries the nickname “middle-class money harvesters.” Young white-collar workers often joke that their lifestyle is “coffee in the morning and alcohol in the evening” — a trend to which bistros cater.
Upon entering the Chinese market, many bistros have incorporated Chinese elements. A search on Dianping reveals that many of the eateries offer “creative cuisine.” In addition to traditional Mediterranean, Italian, and French cuisines, Shanghai bistros also specialize in regional Chinese cuisine and even fusion meals like French-Sichuan dining.
Yang Liu — not related to Yang Mengyi — opened a bistro called The Fall in Shanghai in 2021. As a wine enthusiast, she came to appreciate the bistro concept through her knowledge of wines. She wanted to serve food from the southwestern province of Guizhou, but not in the traditional sense. So she sent a chef who trained in France to Guizhou to blend the two tastes.
“Guizhou cuisine is still relatively unrefined, using large pots or rough dishes, but with a great taste,” she explains. “French food is more delicate. By combining the two, we create a more exquisite, more interesting Guizhou cuisine.”
As an environmentalist, Yang chooses “natural wines,” which weren’t that well-known or even popular in Shanghai when she opened her bistro. They have their own particular character, reflecting the terroir of sandy soils. “Our goal is to provide an interesting bistro serving interesting wines and innovative Guizhou food, and to invite people to come and sample it,” Yang tells Sixth Tone.
Female customers account for over 70% of the clientele at The Fall, she says. They enjoy taking photos of the food and atmosphere and posting them on social media. “People often wear glamorous outfits to our bistro and don’t feel it’s too outlandish,” Yang adds.
Many bistros don’t pair fine wine with food, but Yang says it’s crucial.
However, Franklin Chiang, co-founder of another Shanghai bistro, begs to differ.
“Pairing food and wine can get a bit too serious,” he tells Sixth Tone at his bistro Alors, which is located in the trendy neighborhood of Tianzifang. “It’s more about what the customers want to drink. They describe what they want and we suggest the wine.”
The name Alors, taken from a common off-hand remark used by French speakers to roughly mean “in that case,” isn’t one immediately pronounceable by the Chinese.
“It doesn’t matter to us whether Chinese customers can pronounce it correctly or not in French,” Chiang says.
The decor at Alors incorporates French elements like cork-covered walls and wooden tables and chairs common in Paris bistros. Paintings with Parisian images — from baguettes to the Eiffel Tower — reflect the memories of the three founders who once studied in the French capital.
In Paris, Chiang says bistro patrons are very sophisticated.
“Everyone goes to a bistro over there, and there seems to be no second dining choice,” he says, noting that there is no need for the eateries to promote their natural wine because it’s just part of the tradition. “Currently, China is still in its infancy where bistros are concerned.”
The main fare at Alors is Chinese, with French food elements reflected in its cooking techniques. Served in tapas-style sharing portions, the roughly 12-item menu is priced at around 200 yuan per person for an entire order when four people share the table.
Its iconic fusion dishes include roast chicken wings stuffed with water chestnuts, minced pork, and meigan cai, a type of Chinese pickled vegetable, and duck confit spring rolls garnished with Sichuan peppercorns and red plum jam.
The success of Alors in Shanghai already has Chiang dreaming of opening another bistro overseas, perhaps even in France, to introduce the Chinese fusion flavor to foreigners.
Alors doesn’t have to advertise to draw big crowds. Weekends require reservations.
“We usually serve one round of full tables on weekdays, hoping to create a more comfortable atmosphere for eating, drinking, and chatting,” Chiang says, adding that there are second and third rounds on Fridays and Saturdays.
Despite its success in China, bistro owners and customers interviewed by Sixth Tone are concerned that its internet celebrity status will harm the bistro concept. Bistros were initially considered “cool” in China, but then negativity set in.
Uko Yin, 29, says she goes to bistros three or four times a week when she is in the mood for Western-style food accompanied by red wine. Taste is more important to her than decor or ambience.
“If the food is delicious and the decor is nice, that’s a plus. If the food is bad but the decor is gorgeous, it’s a negative,” Yin says.
Yang Mengyi says she is very selective in choosing bistros. She first looks at photos of them on Dianping.
Earlier this year, she found engaging pictures for a bistro offering something called beef spinal cord rice, which she had never tried before. She went to the bistro with high expectations, only to find that the entrance to the eatery was behind a bakery, was not much bigger than 20 square meters, and was drowned out by roadside noise.
“There was no sense of sophistication, taste, or personal style,” Yang Mengyi recalls. “The knives and forks weren’t laid out properly, and the service wasn’t particularly professional.”
Not worth the 300 yuan cost per person, she concludes.
“At that price, the bistro definitely needs to work harder and make more of an effort if it wants to get repeat customers,” she says.
(Header image: Customers enjoy their meals at The Fall in Shanghai, Dec. 24, 2021. Courtesy of Yang Liu)
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