Dining out on tradition
China's first international hotel, the elegant Astor, built in 1863, is the perfect spot to begin a heritage-themed food tour of the northern city of Tianjin.
The hotel was the place to wine and dine when Tianjin was a treaty port, controlled by European powers. The 152-room property recently has been given a makeover by the giant Starwood hotel group, and many of its original features restored and refurbished - including the grand sweeping staircase, the Victorian Lounge and O'Hara's pub. It's also been renamed The Astor Hotel, a Luxury Collection Hotel (33 Taier Zhuang Road, tel: +86 22 2331 1688). In the spirit of recreating the cuisine of that earlier era, chef David Woodford has studied 12-course menus from the past, selecting dishes that might still appeal to modern diners. The steakhouse now has dishes such as fillet of sole Veronique, roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, Russian borscht, chicken Kiev, prawn cocktail with Marie Rose sauce, English trifle and strawberries Romanoff.
That deeply traditional style of food is proving to be surprisingly popular with locals, or at least the nouveau riche and expense account cadres who can afford five-star prices.
The Astor is in a plum spot on the banks of the main Hai River that dissects the city and within walking distance of many restaurants and bars. Close by is a branch of the cheap and cheerful Goubuli restaurant chain (77 Shandong Road; tel: +86 22 2730 2540/27303277), known for its baozi (steamed buns), which are offered with scores of different fillings and are perfect for lunch.
In the evening, head to Little Italy, farther up the river, where a city block has Neapolitan-style buildings dating back to the start of the 20th century and which, in more recent times, were converted into bars and restaurants.
Work up an appetite with a stroll along the river bank, which is always bustling. In summer, groups of swimmers meet here to take the plunge together; fishermen cast their rods year round, inhibited only by the ice of mid-winter, while tai chi practitioners go through their slow, graceful motions in all seasons.
It takes 30 minutes to walk to the bridge that leads to Little Italy, a route that goes past the soon-to-open St Regis, a hotel that will significantly boost the city's high-end dining options.
The food options in Little Italy are more medium than high, with the exception of Brasserie Flo (37 Guangfu Road; tel: +86 22 6266 8811), which offers starched-linen-style French dining in a splendid converted mansion. The restaurant has lots of brass and wood, and a traditional menu, with classics such as escargot, bouillabaisse, foie gras, French onion soup, beef in Burgundy sauce and cheeses.
Most Little Italy establishments are typical pizza-and-pasta places, but one, Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (35 Guangfu Road; tel: +86 22 2446 4969), features old cinema projectors as objets d'art and classic movie posters on the walls. It also offers a reasonable selection of Italian wine, so patrons can imagine they are living la dolce vita, in an industrial-Tianjin kind of way.
In keeping with the theme, there's an an ornate Italian-style fountain at the main entrance of the zone, which residents regard as a rival to well-known after-hours areas such as Lan Kwai Fong, Sanlitun in Beijing and Xintiandi in Shanghai.
It is not quite there yet, but Little Italy is certainly a lively part of the city, with lots of alternatives, including a German beer hall, considered essential in the nightlife portfolio of any mainland city that has aspirations to be international.
The Bavarian Beer Keller (41 Ziyou Road; tel: +86 22 2445 6112) brews its own ales, has a menu with Teutonic stick-to-your-ribs fare such as sausage, stew and spuds, plus American-style barbecue dishes, and nightly entertainment from a sassy band. It attracts an enthusiastic Chinese clientele and, of course, regular visits by every German expat in the city.
Just the ticket
Ultra-fast trains now take passengers from Beijing to Tianjin in just half an hour - a journey that can take four times as long by road.
Bullet-style express trains leave Beijing South Station every 30 minutes, with a one-way fare costing about HK$70.
From the Tianjin station, it is a short taxi ride to the downtown area, making a day trip from the capital possible.
Dragonair flies to both places, so arriving in Beijing and leaving from Tianjin, or vice versa, is an option. The port city, which has a population of 11 million, is enjoying explosive economic growth, reflected in the increasing number of international-level hotels.
'The enormous amount of new company openings in Tianjin this year, and planned openings in the next couple of years, is just amazing and shows that Tianjin is the place to be in China,' says Westin Tianjin sales and marketing director Christian Metzner.