last night, we returned to a very old haunt–the nanyou food street, which used to be a thriving world of al fresco seafood, sichuan hot pot, and the odd miao restaurants. today, the street still bustles, but in a crumbling, obviously down-graded kind of way. it’s interesting to note that chains have moved in where independent restaurants used to be, while several spaces have been consolidated into larger restaurants, and rennovations were under way for another mega-restaurant.
for years, shenzhen has been actively upgrading its image by removing al fresco restaurants and other small, independent stores that used to spill onto the uneven sidewalks. all this grooming has resulted in neat, straight, clean streets that cut through beautifully tend and imported topiary–we are overwelmed by palm trees, where the restaurants and stores and kiosks used to be. the restaurants, of course, have (been) moved indoors, where air-conditioning, private rooms, and stylish chairs allow people to not only dine in comfort, but also eat in environments where open-toed high heals and business suits can be kept clean. after all, one of the downsides to al fresco dining is the grime that accumulates under the grill, between the tables, and in street gutters.
so, clear stratification under way in terms of unique dining experiences for those with money and increasingly mass produced for those with less. indeed, it is noticible that the al fresco restaurants continue to thrive in working class and older neighborhoods, while in more middle class neighborhoods (and those that have been subjected to beautification projects), the restaurants are all tucked away behind glass doors. unfortunately, for small restaurants, this layout is not comfortable. given the noise and proximity of fellow dinners in a successful chinese restaurant, big is better if you don’t have the sidewalk. thus, more fallout from the street-cleaning: larger, high capital restaurants do better in middle-class areas because they can provide a better dinning environment, while opportunities for low capital food entrepreneurs diminish.
yes, i am waxing nostalgic for old shenzhen, the shenzhen that friends once derided as “nothing more than a small town,” the shenzhen where al fresco dining was the norm, where workers and employees both jostled for tables under magnolia trees along uneven streets, and where cargo trucks rushed past, spewing carbon monoxide into our drinks.