In China, Dinner Is Theater

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@davestone/flickr


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.

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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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