Dining out is a way of life in China, in fact we know some Shanghai-born denizens who’ve barely stepped foot inside a kitchen. Luckily for families, this translates to a remarkably child accepting culture at Chinese restaurants, quite unlike the sniffy ‘no under 12’ policies at some of their European and American counterparts. In China, eating is about togetherness. You’ll likely see families dining with children of all ages (often with granny and gramps in tow), so why not join them and discover what Chinese food has to offer?
However, despite this child-friendly attitude, don’t expect most places to have special kids menus with toned down flavors and ingredients. We’ve compiled a list of our favorite Chinese eateries with easy to eat dishes that will appeal to younger palates.
One last thing before we begin. If you suspect a certain dish contains more spice than your kids can handle, there’s a bit of easy vocabulary you absolutely need to learn: 不辣 (bù là, not spicy). Utter this phrase to your waitress upon ordering, and the kitchen will leave out the chilies.
1. Din Tai Fung
A chain that does both quality and quantity, Din Tai Fung is the first Chinese restaurant we take out of town guests to. The reason? It’s spotlessly clean, affordable, consistent every time and absolutely delicious.
Specializing in simple Shanghai-style dishes with Western-friendly flavors, Din Tai Fung is casual, comfortable and suitable for both lunch and dinner. The menus also have pictures too.
What to Order: xiaolongbao (soup dumplings), fried pork chop, dandan mian (sesame noodles), wontons.
English Menu/Service: Yes/Yes
2. Holy Cow
Opened by Chef Anthony Zhao in a bid to provide a safe and healthy hotpot option for his young toddler, Holy Cow is a different breed entirely from the MSG-laden likes of Hai Di Lao Hotpot.
Now with two locations in Shanghai, choose from a wide range of meats to cook in the tasty beef broth hotpot base (their never-frozen beef is a particularly popular choice) along with fresh veggies too. There’s an enormous range on offer, including greens, mushrooms, corn, tofu, cauliflower and much, much more. There are even xiaolongbao dumplings you can cook in the hotpot at their Xujiahui branch!
What to order: everything
English menu/service: Yes/Yes
Perfectly formed little egg tarts with gorgeously crispy pastry and a hot center, what could make for a better afternoon snack? These originally Portuguese treats, which came to Shanghai after becoming wildly popular in Hong Kong and Macau, are a specialty at Lillian Bakery, which counts over 50 stores around the city.
Ideally eaten hot and fresh out of the oven, these make for a perfect on-the-go snack. Alternatively, buy a box and take them home for afternoon tea!
A Cantonese specialty that’s a way of life in Hong Kong and Guangdong, dim sum is arguably the gentlest introduction into the complex world of Chinese food for children. Lynn, a Chinese restaurant just off Nanjing Xi Lu in Jing’an, serves a good value all-you-can-eat dim sum brunch on the weekends for just RMB98 per person.
Though the selection is more limited than at other dim sum spots, all the classic favorites are there, including steamed buns with honey barbecue pork, har gau (shrimp dumplings), pai gu (steamed short ribs) and stuffed changfen (rice noodle rolls).
This place gets filled with brunching families each weekend, so advance booking is essential. Expect service to be on the brusquer side if they’re busy.
What to order: all the above, plus chicken and wonton soup, spring rolls
English service/menu: Limited/Yes
5. Mr. Pots
Another classic dim sum eatery that’s stood the test of time in Shanghai, Mr. Pots is a favorite of ours for its consistent quality and friendly atmosphere.
There are loads of options on the menu here, almost all of it non-spicy and suitable for kids. Expect a roster of all the dim sum classics, but whatever you do don’t forget to order the star attraction: shrimp and youtiao changfen (crunchy fried dough sticks stuffed in rice noodle rolls). It’s fantastic.
Aside from that, we also love their deep-fried shrimp wontons, barbecue pork pineapple buns (so-named for their pineapple-like appearance) and a plate of steamed bok choi to keep it healthy.
What to order: shrimp and youtiao changfen, crispy wontons, barbeque pork pineapple buns.
English menu/service: Yes/Yes
A true Shanghainese favorite, Wei Xiang Zhai is a legend amongst local noodle fans. Many moons ago this place used to offer a variety of dishes, until one in particular became so outrageously popular they virtually stopped bothering with the rest. Now there is but one dish you need to order: creamy sesame paste noodles (麻酱面, májiàng miàn).
Almost always bustling with locals of every age and demographic, expect a bit of a wait if arriving during peak hours (11.30am-1.30pm). Order from the counter at the front, and don’t forget that all-important bù là phrase – a standard portion comes with a splash of chili oil, which can easily be omitted upon request.
Cheap and cheerful, Wei Xiang Zhai is recommended as an authentic lunch option for smaller groups and children aged six and up.
What to get: sesame paste noodles (麻酱面, màjàng miàn), fried pork cutlet (zhà zhūpái炸猪排)
English menu/service: No/No
Serving up tasty Western palate-friendly Yunnan dishes, Lost Heaven is another favorite of ours for out of town visitors. Inside, the restaurant is decorated with exotic interiors that lend the place a fun atmosphere.
Most of the dishes are very light on spice, but ask for ‘bu la’ if you’re cautious. Standouts include their signature crispy roast chicken (opt for the versions with chopped scallions for a bolder flavor). We also love their Lijiang-style beef, fried pork short ribs and Mandalay-style stir fried beef with veggies.
Lost Heaven has three branches in Shanghai. The one on the Bund, is slightly more formal and best suited to children aged eight and over.
What to get: everything
English menu/service: Yes/Yes
Specializing in Xinjiang food, Xibo’s dishes keep that authentic Northwestern China flavor but package it in a way that appeals to Western diners. The ambiance is also comfortable and clean, feeling more in line with a bistro than a regional Chinese restaurant.
Kids will love the simplicity of their crispy shredded potato cakes and lamb chops, and be sure to get the fluffy housemade flatbreads to fill up on. For kids who are comfortable with trying new things, Xibo’s cumin-flavored grilled lamb skewers are also exceptional. Once again, do be sure to specify ‘bù là’ if you’re worried about the spice factor.
What to get: flatbreads, potato rosti, lamb skewers, lamb chops
English menu/service: yes/limited