While the American chain restaurant invasion of China has been underway for some time, and it seems like KFC can be found every few blocks, where would be the fun in sacrificing adventure for the sake of the familiar?
Our neighborhood in Changchun is full of small family restaurants. And I do mean small. When you think of a small restaurant, how small is it? These are smaller than that. No… Smaller than that, too. In a walk through the neighborhood, you will pass a few restaurants that have 10-15 tables. But for every one of those there will be three that have just 5 or 6 tables. Or four. Or three. Or yes, even two.
Some of these restaurants double as the residence for the owners. Rather than pay rent on both a restaurant and a residence, they carve out a small living area in the back and make a go of it. In the restaurant where I had breakfast this morning, they made use of a space above two tables and put in a sleeping bunk.
Tables and chairs definitely show variety:
At a restaurant with tables and chairs like this, you might expect to pay around 25 RMB ($4.20) per person for your meal.
Brand new tables. Plastic stools with foam padded tops (still wrapped in plastic). This Halal restaurant just finished a remodel last week. A typical meal here would be around 15 RMB ($2.50) per person without meat, or 30-35 RMB per person with beef or lamb.
Solid wood chairs with foam seating pads. Dumpling meals here are roughly 15 RMB per person. (The squeeze bottles are not ketchup and mustard. Red is soy sauce, yellow is vinegar. The small stainless bowls contain dried chile peppers, garlic paste, and something the Bearded Giant still has not tried).
A breakfast restaurant with foam pads on benches for comfort. Breakfast here is around 5-10 RMB per person.
Changchun gets VERY cold in winter. Despite being at the same latitude as the southern border of South Dakota; Milwaukee, Wisconsin or Albany, New York, Changchun is much colder than any of these. In fact it is colder than Calgary, or Edmonton, or Moscow, or Stockholm. Changchun’s nearby neighbor, Harbin, is the only colder large city on the planet.
You see the effects of the cold winter everywhere, including in the layout of restaurants. Nearly all restaurants have double front doors, with a small anteroom between them to keep the outside cold away from the patrons during the brutal winter. During spring and summer, these anterooms see use as storerooms, which is an odd experience coming from America. The most valuable stock in the restaurant, its stores of alcohol, are routinely stored here between the two front doors.
The entryway to a small dumpling restaurant. This ten-table restaurant stores its supply of Snow Beer (and other brands) between the outer and inner front doors.
To be continued in Part 2.