Taipei residents head for the hills in search of country dining with a view
Rural Pingdengli provides a culinary retreat for Taipei residents. Ralph Jennings wonders if the small village will become a victim of its success
The small of Pingdengli is so unlike most of cramped and populous Taipei that some people at City Hall haven't actually heard of it.
But tiny Pingdengli, which looks down on the city from a 400-metre-high perch, hosts a cluster of country-style cafes that have sprung up over the past decade to serve as secret hideouts for people tired of urban life. These rustic restaurants are often discovered by drivers and cyclists on the back road to Yangmingshan National Park.
The small community has no landmarks, so it has staked its reputation on offering dining in an environment that flat, dense Taipei can never match.
Cafes along the village's main two-lane road, or on estates in the tiny lanes behind it, make meals from local ingredients that are hard to find in town, and then complement them with powerful espressos or iced tea.
"When the weather is good, we fill up easily," says Chen Chao-hsiou, owner of the French Farm, which, with its 200 seats, is Pingdengli's largest restaurant.
"The advantage of Pingdengli is that you can see Taipei at night - between sunset and sunrise. The air is clean and our restaurant has its own view."
French Farm opened 10 years ago in a multi-chambered, hacienda-style building that was once a guest house; it still retains hints of European architecture.
The menu of 40 French and Italian dishes includes salads, spaghetti and half chickens, as well as 60 types of flavoured tea and coffee. Classical music merges with bird calls for those sitting near windows, or lounging on the veranda.
Chen bought the property because it was just a 20-minute drive from urban Taipei, and had ample parking. Such purchases have become a trend.
Pingdengli's appeal as an alternative gelled after 2008 when residents of Taipei, hit by the global financial crisis and rising fuel costs, turned to cycling. Travellers in it for the exercise still climb the zigzagging road from central Taipei to Pingdengli, where they pause to take a rest.
French Farm's European food is an exception among village menus. Most restaurants make country-style Chinese food from village farm produce.
The Song-Ching Farm restaurant-teahouse complex can attract up to 200 customers on each day of the weekend, according to its owner Chao Chih-tsung. It offers free-range chicken and squash grown in the sloping garden out back.
Chao worked in a Taipei hotel restaurant for 13 years before returning to Pingdengli, his native village, which he says is popular for its "mountains, air and water".
His cross-village rival Big Banyan Tree seats up to 100 people around large round wooden tables and changes its food by the season. The 22-year-old eatery suggests beans and squash in the summer and cabbage in the winter. Year round, it offers cold slices of chicken raised locally and dunked in a garlic sauce.
"We get a lot of people who come to hike, and during the tree-flowering season even more come," says restaurateur Wu Hui-fen, referring to fruit trees that bud in early spring. "They're all familiar faces. We don't advertise. Old customers tell new customers, like a family."
Pingdengli prices often top those of lowland Taipei restaurants, and chicken dishes sell for more than NT$300 (HK$78). The French Farm charges up to NT$780 for main courses.
City dwellers keen to get a view of where they came from may end up at the Hoho Garden, a cafe with a view down a 300-metre-high canyon onto Taipei's high-rise buildings. The owners of the 15-year-old, two-level cafe that can seat 70 people, says its seasonal vegetarian dishes fill the place on weekends.
But Pingdengli's bumper crops of customers may have levelled off as residents shun day trips, Hoho Garden owner Cheng Feng-yin fears. "Younger people prefer to stay at home to play computer games and don't go out that often," she says.
Some visitors worry that Pingdengli is slowly losing its rural appeal as more cafes open; the main road is clogged with cars on weekends,
"The wind is cool and the sun is gentle," says Liu Wen-chu, 53, who joined a friend for lunch at the French Farm before a mountain hike. "But if this were even closer to nature, it would be better."