In China, Dinner Is Theater

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The restaurant called Red Sun is a long taxi ride into the Beijing district of Wangjing, and at dusk, the rubble of highway-side villages destroyed to make way for developments is cluttered with shadows. Tin shacks lit with bare bulbs whip by between the fields of smashed concrete, and the windows of a long, low building, a flea market for housewares, wink as we go past. Roll up the windows when we take a shortcut along a dusty gravel road; roll them back down when we're back on the superhighway. But the scenery of a city in the grips of an exhilarating and terrible transformation disappears as we pull into the parking lot of a vast restaurant.

Red Sun is a sprawling complex of rooms with seating for more than 3,000 people. An indoor stream and beds of trees separate different sectors. In one area, diners relax opposite each other on porch swings, leaning down to a low table for sips of tea or bites of lotus root. In another, high screens enclose intimate clusters of tables where an extended family can feast. And all along the back wall is a series of rooms with names on baroque placards above the doors. Berlin. Athens. Rome. A waiter on roller skates whizzes by with a tea cart, and a hostess leads us to our room.

On the way we detour around koi ponds and spot several black-and-white cats crouching in the greenery. My boyfriend, Austin, and I exchange a glance. Red Sun is certainly the most extensive restaurant we've seen during our two-week trip to China. But it is far from the only extravagant one.

You can spot fancy restaurants in Beijing by the armies of costumed waitstaff loitering in the parking lot or in the decorated alleyways that lead back to restored courtyard houses. Dry ice, trompe l'oeil staircases, waiters impersonating Qing dynasty courtiers—every bell or whistle that might be equated with luxury makes an appearance. The best meals we had were in less elaborate settings: cold crushed eggplant and fish heads with green chilies among shelves of well-thumbed books at Yue Lu Shan Wu on Qianhai Lake, and the hearty Beijing noodles with pork sauce and cucumbers at Yue Hua Yuan on the Tsinghua University campus (the perfect coda to our walking tour of the area, not least because Austin, a translator and aficionado of Chinese cooking, ate there when he studied at the university). But if you want to try something a little more upscale, you may run into a restaurant experience that's as elaborate as anything Rube Goldberg could think up. And the food isn't necessarily better. In fact, it's usually worse.

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Kent Wang/flickr

That may be because so much effort is expended on presentation. At Red Sun, interactivity is part of the experience. You select your dishes in a kind of arena of decision, gladitorial in its immediacy, under the unblinking attention of the waitstaff. In the selection area—a several-minute walk from our brocaded chamber with private kitchenette and bathroom—photographs of more than 400 dishes mounted on five billboards show gleaming knuckles of lamb, slices of duck, slivers of cucumber in chili dressing. The tanks full of rays, carp, crustaceans, and bullfrogs are a seal of freshness ("Sorry the fish is late. We're killing it now," we were once told at a Chinese deli). At Red Sun, we are assured that all the vegetables are organic, since they are grown in the complex's adjacent farm. But the fish tanks look a little green, and grim. The abstract sculpture of peas and mung beans is shedding.

On the way back, we see a manager on skates clean out on the concrete floor—one minute skating along confidently, the next head over heels on the slab. On an exploratory stroll I come across a grove of tables occupied by waitstaff sorting pound after pound of half-eaten rice and dirty chopsticks in basins. The meandering paths and little bridges occasionally lapse into scarred plexiglass, so you find yourself standing over a rocky crevasse on the way to the selection area. The elaborate window dressing sags wherever you take a closer look. We're visiting China so I can see the country that Austin has immersed himself in, and I guess we're getting what we bargained for.

When I return to our room, a waitress ferries dishes to the table with great pomp, spinning the lazy Susan. She stands nearby while we eat. Lotus root in sweet-and-sour sauce, cumin-coated beef, and red braised pork make their rounds, and about the time that the silken tofu soup arrives, so does a man with a camera. He takes our picture—in Chinese you say "qiezi!", which sounds something like "cheese!" but is, in fact, "eggplant!"—and returns later with it on a mug. A free souvenir! We all look a little shell-shocked.

And to tell the truth, the food, although we ate it at the center of the vast complex—the food was an afterthought.

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gruntzooki/flickr

This mismatch between style and substance was not uncommon, and by the end of our two weeks in Beijing, I mistrusted any restaurant that wasn't a greasy spoon. Two days before we left the country, following a lead from a Chinese friend, Austin led us to a vegetarian restaurant in Dongcheng called Pure Lotus. I waited in the parking lot while he went in to check the prices. Come inside, urged the Tibetan-tunicked waitstaff. No, I said stubbornly, and sat down on my rolling suitcase outside the flaps of the gigantic orange tent. I was through with shelling out for silken draperies and gilt spoons when all I really wanted was a spicy cumin lamb sandwich and springy hand-pulled noodles.

When Austin returned, I stood up with extreme reluctance and followed him, noting the frills I would get in place of a decent meal: a massive camel sculpture, bamboo birdcage palaces, a huge revolving door of tropical wood. The placemats were large, glossy leaves, and the plates wide, shallow shells.

I had already decided to be satisfied with the slightly absurd aspects of the meal. Where else, after all, can you get a show like this for the price of a sandwich in New York City? But when a kneeling porcelain figurine was placed on our table, I met with a surprise. Nestled in its cupped hands were two of the best sausages I have ever had in my life. Like the best pork versions, crisp-skinned, juicy, with little nuggets of fat and a savory blend of spices—but not a scrap of meat. And with that at its heart, all the extra fat on the meal didn't matter much at all.

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Veronique Greenwood is a staff writer at Discover. Her writing has also appeared in Seed, Technology Review, Scientific American, and elsewhere. You can learn more about her at veroniquegreenwood.com.

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