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Study in Beijing: Hutong Delights

by glchinese

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Hong Kong may have its harbor, and Shanghai its Bund, but Beijing has its own unique thang that creates a distinct atmosphere in the city — hutongs. Most of these ancient alleyways have been torn down tor redevelopment, but some of those remaining have been snapped up by the enterprising — their dwellings turned into quaint boutiques, mellow bars, and, of course, some of the most characterful restaurants in the city.

One of the earliest and most successful hutong restaurants serving non-Chinese food opened its doors behind the Bell Tower just tive years ago. Cafe Samba! dishes out classic Malaysian food in a minimalist interior which cleverly utilizes the original structure of the pingfang (平房single-level house). "I like old stuff," says owner Cho Chong Gee, "and I like to contrast it with something new." Cho updates the old space with stylish modern details, bringing out the best in the ancient structure. Out-of-town guests will be wowed by the antique-chic ambience and sense of authenticity about the place. Nearby Italian restaurant, Luce, chooses to go in the opposite direction with a complete contemporary remodeling of their pingfang. With hardwood floors and strategically dim lighting, it's a snazzy joint for dinner a deux.

However, both of these places are tiny. What happened to the spacious open courtyards and multiple rooms of traditional Chinese houses, a la Raise the Red Lantern? Unfortunately since 1949, most courtyards have been dissected into smaller, separate households, each occupied by separate families. For a taste of pre-revolutionary luxury — and Yunnan flavor — try the revelatory Dali Courtyard, just a kilometer or so east of the Drum Tower, which occupies a complete siheyuan (四合院). The owners — he a furniture craftsman, she a jewelry designer — have created an unobtrusive ambience throughout their four-sided courtyard space. The compound's high walls offer protection, while the open courtyard allows for a feeling of spacious isolation from the outside world. The soothing music, the owners' easygoing hospitality and their free-rambling pets, will relax you so completely you'll forget where you are, or what time of day it is. A short stroll away nested within the alleys west of Yinding Qiao(银锭桥), past the neon—lit cookie·cut bars, are several more of Beijing's gourmet gems. Admittedly No Name Restaurants pairing of Yunnan fare and boho-chic decor is fast becoming endemic to Chinese hutong restaurants.

However, here they pull it off with exceptional flair, the quiet rooftop terrace and well-crafted cuisine providing a welcome respite from the lakeside chaos. In an alley just a poke south, hip French wine bar La Baie des Anges is a beacon to the oenophile community and also serves quality French nibbles such as crusty baguette sandwiches and pissaladiere. Alternatively, winos who prefer a mass of cheesy square—shaped nourishment to complement their tipple can dip next door into Hutong Pizza.

Further off the beaten track are the hutongs in the Beixinqiao area — best described as intestinal in their geographic complexity. Don't be afraid of getting lost, for you might just end up at the door of Private Kitchen No. 44. Deep in a hutong south of Iiaodaokou, PK44 is another converted courtyard residence, serving Guizhou province-style sifangcai (私房菜) — that is, dishes from the owners' private recipe collection. Comfy leather love seats, purple hues bathed in the glow of paper lamps and well·worn wooden furnishings are a great setting for a round of addictively 

tart suantang yu (酸鱼汤), the tomato and fish hot pot that is a signature of Guizhou (贵州)cuisine. For a home-style European meal in another cozy hutong, meander your way to Vineyard Cale for English breakfasts and pizzas in a charming semi-courtyard.

For a taste of old Beijing in a matching setting, check out Iiumen Xiaechi. When their original Qianmen (前门)location was scheduled for redevelopment, the collection of snack stalls relocated to a courtyard on the idyllic northern bank of Houhai. Though nostalgic locals complain about the over-sanitization of these Jaozihao (老字号), they still know this is the place for a comprehensive, one-stop tasting of all of Beijing's traditional treats.

Meanwhile, the Whampoa Club from Shanghai's Three on the Bund has opened its Beijing branch in the lone remaining siheyuan in the Financial Street district. Mastermind—chef Iereme Leung gives all the classic Beijing dishes a facelift and makes them worthy of the up market environs. Restored with meticulous attention to detail, the courtyard's glass ceilings, lotus ponds, and white washed walls create one of the city's best designed spaces. 

Whampoa's choice of venue — an old courtyard house — signals the growing appreciation of the capital's traditional architecture, as more and more Beijingers enjoy high-quality dining experiences in unique, ancient surroundings. However, veteran hutong restaurateur Cho is not optimistic: "Most people cannot see the beauty in old things .. . they will only realize its value when it's all gone; when it's too late." We pray he's wrong.

Dali Courtyard Set meals only: RMB 100/person. 

Daily l0am—9.30 pm. 67 Xiaojingchang Hutong, Gulou Dongclajie, Dongcheng District. (8404 1430) 

大理四合院, 东城区鼓楼东大街小经厂胡同67

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