April is the beginning of the al fresco dining season in Shanghai, and though many venues offer terraces and tables, some are especially appealing because of their gracious historic buildings and charming settings.
The air is balmy, budding leaves create a greenish haze and in the parks, trees and flowers are in bloom, from white magnolias and red roses to pink cherry blossoms and purple lilacs.
In a city of concrete and high-rises, it’s hard to find a relaxing outdoor setting with a sense of privacy.
Shanghai Daily explores 10 restaurants that are fairly close to nature, some in parks, some hidden inside private gardens, some set on water. Many have outdoor tables. At some, guests dine indoors, sometimes with a view, and they can wander in the gardens.
It takes more than greenery to make our list. Architecture matters and some of our favorite venues were built in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, some are Art Deco, some are exotic with a tropical feel, some are post-modern.
They offer many cuisines, including Shanghai, Cantonese, guanfu (a refined cuisine favored by the Ming aristocracy), Italian, Spanish and Southeast Asian.
We point out the best seating areas for enjoying the springtime views.
Next to a pond in Jing’an Park, this relaxed restaurant features Indonesian cuisine. The wooden structure and lakeside terrace are surrounded by trees and tropical plants. Inside, the decor is warm and colorful, with Buddha statues, crafts and textiles.
Wait staff wear Indonesian costume. Recommended are the satay, curried crab and nasi goreng (rice stir-fried with egg, chicken and shrimp, seasoned with sweet soy sauce and chilli). The mango pudding deserves a try.
Best seats: Outdoors
Address: Inside Jing’an Park, 189 Huashan Rd
On the grounds of Xijiao State Guest House and enormous garden, the restaurant is built by a lake dotted with lotus and surrounded by towering trees. Ducks and swans and a very occasional red-crowned crane can be seen.
The menu features Shanghai cuisine. Signature dishes include tossed black fungus in wasabi sauce, deep-fried fish with soy sauce, tofu stewed with cabbage.
The highlight of the spring menu is knife fish (daoyu), only available for around a month. It’s delicate, very bony, very expensive and close to being endangered.
Best seats: Six tables by the window
Address: 1/F, Bldg 7, 1921 Hongqiao Rd
Inside Guilin Park, one of Shanghai’s notorious figures, “Pockmarked” Hung Jinrong, built an extravagant residence. He was then the senior police officer in the French gendarmerie in the 1920s and 30s, and associated very closely with gangsters.
The interior design of the two-story structure is Chinese and European, with European-style sofas embroidered in traditional Chinese patterns, Ming and Qing dynasty furniture and elaborate chandeliers.
The park itself is filled with osmanthus trees, probably the largest concentration downtown. Diners can see pavilions, stone bridges and a rockery with old trees, peach blossoms and winter jasmine.
The menu is a mix of Cantonese and Shanghai flavors, including costly ingredients such as bird’s nest and abalone.
One highlight is pork braised in sauce with aromatic Pu’er tea, which cuts through the fattiness of the pork. Recommended are the chicken soup with matsutake mushrooms and sweetened osmanthus and lotus soup with white fungus for dessert.
The spring menu features knife fish and bamboo shoots. A wide range of teas are served.
Best seats: Private dining room on second floor
Address: 188 Caobao Rd
This is another garden restaurant in a bamboo-filled park containing a pond with geese. It’s formerly a Ming Dynasty private garden planted with many varieties of bamboo. Bamboo designs are carved into pavilion pillars an stone bridges.
It specializes in dim sum, notably xiaolongbao (steamed dumplings with pork fillings), such as hairy crab roe. The skin is thin and nearly transparent. Fish ball soup with seasonal greens is recommended.
Although the restaurant is in a park, there is no outdoor seating and the views are obscured by patterned window screens. It’s best to wander in the garden after a meal.
The wait staff does not speak English.
Best seats: Tables close to the door
Address: 218 Huyi Highway, Nanxiang Town, Jiading District
Kathleen’s 5 Rooftop Restaurant
Atop the former Shanghai Art Museum, the restaurant has a glassed-in area and rooftop terrace from which diners can see People’s Park with its many trees and a pond.
Diners can also see the museum’s elegant clock tower and the skyline. The structure was built in 1933 as the clubhouse for the Shanghai Horse Racing Club.
The menu features Italian cuisine that highlights the original flavors. Signature dishes include cream cheese fondue with sliced black truffle and poached egg, cuttlefish ink risotto, salmon gratin and for dessert nougat ice cream cake.
Happy hour from 4pm to 7pm has recently been launched. It’s a lovely place to see the sunset.
Best seats: Terrace
Address: 5/F, 325 Nanjing Rd W.
Li Jia Cai
This restaurant in Huangpu Park on the Bund is one of the few embracing both park and river views. It serves distinctive guanfu cai (cuisine favored by imperial court officials seeking the ultimate refinement and flavor). It features elaborately prepared abalone, bird’s nest and shark’s fin soup.
The dishes originated in the kitchen of the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), who was famous for loving luxury and demanding the finest and most delicate foods prepared precisely to her taste.
The set menu incorporates seasonal ingredients and consists of around 20 courses, each served in very small portions. A meal lasts around three hours.
Signature dishes include jade tofu (made with green soybean and scallops), sweet and sour pork ribs, deep-fried soybean skin and sea cucumber with ham. The silky, bouncy and bland cucumber because flavorful after absorbing juices from the ham.
Reservations required days in advance.
Best seats: Window seats
Address: 1/F, 487 Zhongshan Rd E1
The glass-in restaurant on the lake in Tangqiao Park in Pudong features a range of Indian and Malay curries, stewed for more than five hours, with different levels of spiciness. Diners look out om willow trees and a clear, calm lake.
Recommended are crab curry, prawn curry, fish braised in coconut sauce, roti prata, roast leg of lamb, and for dessert, bubur cha cha, a Malay treat made with yams, red beans, tapioca jelly and coconut milk.
Best seats: Seats with lake view
Address: 1260 Dongfang Rd, Pudong
Restaurant Martin by Martin Berasategui
This Spanish restaurant in leafy Xujiahui Park was opened by Martin Berasategui, a celebrity chef with three Michelin stars. It’s in an old three-story villa in French country style.
The menu reflects Spanish tradition and French culinary foundation. Recommended are fresh oysters, deep-fried Mediterranean anchovies, foie gras and fig terrine with Pedro Ximenez reduction (a Spanish wine), roast suckling pig (order in advance), grilled T-bone steak with Spanish peppers.
Their desserts include chocolate soufflé with caramel, cinnamon ice cream and frozen meringue.
The wine list features Spanish reds and cava sparklers.
Best seats: Balcony seats on the second floor, window seats on the first floor
Address: 811 Hengshan Rd
Shen Yue Xuan
This Cantonese restaurant occupies a two-story villa inside Dingxiang Garden built in 1862. It’s an old garden combining an English countryside house with a traditional Chinese garden. This features a 100m-long glazed wall with dragon carvings.
Outdoor afternoon tea on the lawn is recommended but seats are limited. It features Cantonese dim sum, including shrimp dumplings, pan-fried dumplings filled with pork, barbecued pork pastry, sweet and rich durian pastry, coconut and red bean cake and cream custard bun. Dim sum costs from 25 to 30 yuan per dish.
Best seats: Balcony seats on the second floor
Address: Bldg 2, 849 Huashan Rd
Xin Yuan Lou
Cantonese and Shanghai cuisine are featured in a Western fine dining style. The restaurant occupies a three-story, red brick, French Provincial villa with a marble balcony.
It was built in the 1920s by H.E. Morriss, a British newspaper tycoon whose family published the influential North China Daily News.
Diners can appreciate a sweeping view of a 100-acre walled French garden.
The chef from Guangdong Province is known for seafood and dim sum. Notable are the pan-fried scallops wrapped in bacon, sauteed beef fillet with garlic, and sweet, fatty and juicy Cantonese siumei roasted meats.
The cigar pastry is shaped like a cigar with brown wheat break skin; inside is shrimp meat and the ash tip is a mixture of thousand island dressing and sesame paste.
Crispy walnut puff pastry is filled with crushed walnuts and peanuts.
Best seats: Five tables by the window on the second floor