It is hard to connect tasty cuisine with a thoroughfare nicknamed 'Ghost Street.' But this 1.5-km east-west street in eastern downtown Beijing has won the hearts of local food lovers.
There are many tales of how Guijie got its name. The superstitious one is that, according to old people, only restaurants could survive on this street because business was strong only after nightfall, when the hungry 'ghosts' came out.
The legend might have some roots in history. In ancient times, this street was a path that people took to bring the deceased to cemeteries outside the then-walled city. A wholesale grocery fair was set up, and it usually started at midnight and ended in the early morning. The vendors, working beneath dim kerosene burners, looked like ghosts. And the coffin shops and morticians along the street added to the spooky ambience.
Today, there's no remnant of this era. Instead, about 100 restaurants line both sides of the wide street.
A more prosaic explanation comes from Sun Xuejun, head of Guijie's community committee: the street was named Ghost because it was the first place in Beijing where restaurants were open round the clock.
In any case, perhaps for luck, the Chinese character for ghost was replaced by another character that sounds the same but means food basket.
The busiest time at Guijie is between 6 p.m. and 4 a.m. Spicy foods set the tone. Several old restaurants are well known for dishes such as hot and spicy crayfish and roasted fish with chili sauce.
Nights here belong to locals. They come in shorts and slippers, order a full table of red hot dishes or steaming hot pot with bottles of cold beer and talk as if competing with others at the next table.
According to Sun, the street has undergone some changes for the sake of the Olympics. Servers were trained to use simple English and taught about foreign customs, hygiene was improved and English menus were provided.
It is easy to find the street. Get off subway Line two at Dongzhimen station and you will find yourself at the east end of the street. Get off subway Line five at Beixinqiao station to come from the west end. It is about two blocks south of Lama Temple, the famous Tibetan Buddhist temple and popular tourist site.
The restaurants we list here are unique but not the only good ones. If you wander along the street, you may find something much more to your taste.
The restaurant is one of the oldest and most famous on the street. It sits in a private courtyard and has a grand traditional Chinese archway at its gate, painted in red and gold. But it's more expensive than others on the same street.
It won fame with hot and spicy crayfish but then developed other dishes in its own style. For instance, it offers roast duck but serves it with slices of honeydew, pineapple, cucumber and hawthorn fruit as well as sweet soy sauce and wasabi. That's quite different from conventional roasted ducks. The plum juice here is strongly recommended.
It also offers evening performances of traditional Chinese music and drama.
Address: No. 235 Dongzhimennei Street, Dongcheng District
Open from 10:30 a.m. to 3 a.m. next day
Accepts credit cards and has an English menu.
Cost per person: 60 to 100 yuan (8.7 to 15 U.S. dollars)
Xiaoshancheng Hot Pot
Spicy, very spicy. That's the common impression of hot pots here. But you can choose less spicy versions, as it offers seven kinds of hot pot soup base. You can pick two or three kinds of soup base and the restaurant will put them into one pot in separate compartments. They have special pots that have two compartments, which look like the Taichi symbol from above. The one with three compartments looks like a Mercedes-Benz symbol from above and it is named Benz hot pot.
What to 'rinse' in the hot pot (a term commonly used by Chinese about boiling raw foods in a soup base) varies widely. It includes fish, beef, mutton, vegetables, toufu, mushrooms and frogs. Frogs, raised specially for eating, are strongly recommended by frequent customers here.
Many red lanterns are hung in front of the restaurant under its huge golden symbol. It is very noisy inside during prime time.
Address: No. 251 Dongzhimennei Street, Dongcheng District
Open 24 hours.
Accepts credit cards and has an English menu.
Cost per person: 50 to 70 yuan
Yingxiong Shanzhuang, or Hero's Castle
This 'theme' restaurant portrays itself as a scene from China's martial arts tales. Remember in almost every martial arts movie, there is a fight at a restaurant or inn? You will feel as if you are a Kung Fu master when stepping into Hero's Castle.
The waiter will greet you with 'Come in please, master' and guide you to a table named after a famous martial arts school, such as Wudang or Shaolin. The wall is decorated with traditional paintings on martial arts topics, windows have bamboo grids and wooden tables and chairs are made in old style.
Chopsticks are called Nanchaku and dishes are also named after martial arts terms or dishes discussed in famous martial arts works of fiction. There is no menu -- the owner, or 'Lord of Hero's Castle', will arrange the meal for you.
Address: No. 181 Dongzhimennei Street, Dongcheng District
Open from 11:30 a.m to 2 p.m. and from 5:00 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.
Does not accept credit cards and has no menu in any language.
Cost per person: 30 to 50 yuan.
(Xinhua News Agency July 24.2008)