Traditional Nanjing cuisine is a mishmash of regional dishes reflecting the many dynasties and governments in China’s long history. The younger generations, however, prefer spicy Sichuan fare and variants of bubbly milk tea.
Here is a roundup (in no particular order) of the best from both sides.
Plum Garden (梅苑)
No restaurant in town cooks better Huaiyang dishes, a regional cuisine from Nanjing and neighboring cities, than the Plum Garden. The 150-seat space in Jinling Hotel is where the local government sets up banquets for impressing visiting officials.
The layout and décor are exactly what you might expect of a classy Chinese restaurant: square mahogany chairs are placed carefully around big round tables covered with finely-woven tablecloths; potted pines and orchids adorn the marble-floored dining hall, which is divided into smaller sections by rosewood screens with exquisite carvings.
Most dishes are light-flavoured and beautifully presented. Salted duck chops, or yanshuiya (盐水鸭, RMB 198 or US$32 per duck), is a star starter. Must-try hot dishes include tofu cooked with crab meat (蟹粉豆腐, RMB 188 or US$30) and de-shelled shrimps fried with gingko fruit (银杏虾仁, RMB 188 or US$30).
Plum Garden (??), 2/F, Jinling Hotel, 2 Hanzhong Road, Gulou District 鼓楼区汉中路2号金陵饭店2楼; +86 25 8471 1888 ext. 4204; open daily 11.30 a.m.-2.30 p.m., 6.00 p.m.-10.00 p.m.; around RMB 400 (US$64.2) per head
Qinhuai Renjia (秦淮人家)
Eating in this two-story venue is strange but fun. After ordering from a menu full of set combos, waiters bring in more than a dozen small dishes, each holding a different snack, until the table is heaving with porcelain pots.
The star of the plate-driven feast is Qinhuai Eight Treasures (秦淮八绝), a dining concept featuring eight pairs of iconic eats that originated along the Qinhuai River. The 16 nibbles – half are dry dishes, others wet – are coupled by the restaurant to achieve the best gastronomic effect.
Examples of the delicious duos are shredded tofu in chicken broth served with a sesame pancake, and pan-fried beef dumplings paired with beef soup.
The restaurant is located in one of the best locations in Nanjing – looking directly at Confucius Temple over the water and the hustle and bustle of the Fuzimiao area.
No. 128 Dashiba Road, Qinhuai District 秦淮区大石坝街128号; +86 25 5221 1888; open daily 11.00 a.m.-1:30 p.m., 5.00 p.m.-8:30 p.m.; combos from RMB 198-598 (US$31.8-96) depending on accompanying side dishes
Nanjing Impressions (南京大排档)
Almost every Nanjinger recommends this chained restaurant for authentic local fare, reasonable prices and unique ambience.
Two male doormen wearing traditional Chinese dress welcome diners with nostalgic sales pitches. The buzzing dining hall is a nod to the late Qing Dynasty, with paper lanterns hung across the ceiling, waiters and chefs donning period costumes and artists singing local opera.
Some 10 open kitchens occupy one side of the room. Cooks busy themselves from boiling sweet sticky-rice dumplings to frying stinky tofu to garnishing duck blood soup.
Customers can either walk around the kitchens and order directly from the chefs or sit down and call for a waiter.
Signature dishes include steamed dumplings stuffed with duck meat (天王烤鸭包, RMB 12 or US$1.9 for three pieces), yanshuiya (RMB 28 or US$4.5 per plate) and mini-pork dumplings in duck soup (老鸭汤小馄饨, RMB 12 or US$1.9 per bowl).
Multiple locations, Shiziqiao branch, No. 2 Shiziqiao, Gulou District ??????2?; +86 25 8330 5777; open daily 11.00 a.m.-midnight; around RMB 60 (US$9.6) per head
Numbing and spicy Sichuan cuisine is extremely popular in Nanjing, and this is where expert eaters get their monthly pepper doses.
The mid-range eatery spans two neighbouring houses. One of them contains only individual dining rooms; the other has a massive 20-table dining hall as well as private sections.
The menu includes both iconic Sichuanese fare, such as sliced beef in chilli oil (水煮牛肉, RMB 48 or US$7.7) and steamed chicken with chilli sauce (口水鸡, RMB 28 or US$4.5), as well as fusion creations like sautéed shrimp kebabs (串烤大虾, RMB 108 or US$17.3). All dishes are big enough to feed three to four people.
It’s advisable to book for a dinner table at least one day in advance. Lunchtime, by comparison, is less crowded and much quieter.
18 Luojia Road, Gulou District 鼓楼区珞珈路18号; +86 25 8372 4040; open daily 11.00 a.m.-2.00 p.m., 5.00-10.00 p.m.; around RMB 50 (US$8) per head
Nanjing at a glance
A quick fact sheet on the buzzing ancient capital for first-time travelers