A relic of the past: Regulations bring outdoor dining back ... for now
The outset of summertime in Shanghai is a significant period for the city. This time at the beginning of June, known as mangzhong in Chinese, traditionally represents the end of the grain-growing season and the last opportunity for sowing seeds each year.
For Shanghai's urban dwellers, it brings the onset of the city's sweltering summer heat. We see an increasing number of children out to play during the short gap between the end of the school year and the beginning of summer training courses. And it means sunbrellas, fresh melon and those tiny Shanghai mosquitoes that we all love so much.
Not too many years ago, though, this time also brought with it another activity that I always enjoyed a great deal ― outdoor dining. I'm not referring to picnics in the park, although those are also fun. I'm talking about roadside plastic tables and stools, shaokao (barbecued skewers), and xiaolongxia (crayfish) pots and plastic bibs to protect against soup spatter.
Fried rice and noodle carts and the sweaty-browed uncles throwing together whatever ingredients you might request, flipping them around in the wok with guile. Tank tops, flip-flops, beverages, banter and fun, welcoming in the summer season.
The outdoor, roadside, nighttime dining experience was one of my favorite activities in China. It brought a sense of togetherness and a carefree attitude; an ethos of sorts in living in the moment.
In recent years, efforts by the city of Shanghai to reduce streetside waste and to clean up the look of the city's downtown areas have largely pushed summertime diners back inside as outdoor barbecue spots and noodle carts have been replaced by indoor shops along streets and in shopping mall basements.
Though the practice is still alive and well in many of China's other cities and towns, downtown Shanghai has pursued a more cosmopolitan environment in its development in recent years, pushing out roadside vendors and relegating what we might have referred to as "street food" in the past to indoor dining areas.
While central districts of the city have benefited in terms of cleanliness ― outdoor diners are sometimes not the most mindful about making sure their trash gets into the bins ― I do often regret around this time of year that this experience has become far less common in downtown Shanghai than in years gone by.
In recent days, however, as the city has entered its post-lockdown stage, a surprising, but for me, welcome trend has emerged: Outdoor eating is back! Many eateries have reopened, but due to current pandemic control measures, sitting indoors is heavily restricted or often prohibited entirely. So, restaurants fortunate enough to have ample space in their outside vicinity have either lugged some of their tables and chairs out front or, in lieu of that, brought back the iconic plastic tables and stools.
It isn't exactly the same, as current precautions mean that diners are more spaced out and keep to their own groups, whereas in the past, the experience was more communal, and tightly packed groups of tables would often share laughs and a few ganbei (cheers) amongst each other. Still, perching oneself on a chair or stool out in the summer breeze and enjoying a meal amongst the cacophony of the city streets is a truly welcome experience for many after the lengthy stint inside.
This past weekend, I was able to meet for dinner with a group of close friends for the first time since lockdown began. We chose a downtown Xinjiang restaurant ― wonderful halal cuisine from the Xinjiang region in China's northwest ― that we'd noticed had set up a grid of tables outdoors on the street corner. We, a small, tightly knit group of expats, each with more than a dozen years spent in China, lamented the difficulties of lockdown, remarked on the relief of being outside again, and pontificated our futures in the city. It was also an opportunity to reminisce upon our experiences in the city over the years whilst enjoying one of our somewhat bygone pastimes.
It is, of course, quite likely that the outdoor dining experience as it stands will be short-lived. Once COVID-19 regulations change and indoor dining resumes, most of the tables currently inhabiting street corners and sidewalks will likely be swept back into indoor seating rooms.
But for now, the outdoor experience is a relic of times past that we're able to relive during this special and unique time in the city. Be sure to take the appropriate safety measures, but once you've done that, perhaps get out and enjoy the evening sunset with a curbside meal with friends you've likely not see in the flesh in months.
Just be sure to throw your trash away ... and bring along some bug spray as well.