We are creatures of habit. Partly out of necessity (commute/work/commute), but even when not, we end up frequenting the same places. Why?
The calculus in my mind goes something like this:
Me: Wow! A free couple of hours! What should we do?
Also me: Let’s check out a new place!
Me (suddenly wary): Like what do you have in mind?
Also Me: Let’s have a look on SmartShanghai. They have good recommendations.
Me: Sure, but what if it’s no good?
Also me: What do you mean?
Me: Like maybe there’s no seats. Or the seats aren’t comfortable. Or the soundtrack sucks. Or the happy hour deal is crap. Why not just go to the same places we always go to? Those are sure bets.
Also me (whining): But we always go to those places!
Me: And for good reason!
Also me: You’re lame, you never want to try anything new!
Me: Look, buddy, it’s pure cost/benefit analysis. You don’t get that much free time as it is, why not spend somewhere you know you’ll walk away satisfied?
Also me: Nothing risked, nothing gained, bro!
(fistfight breaks out)
Most of my free time is spent in paralysing internal conversations like this.
Over the holidays I had some time on my hands and I was determined to find some new places. So I went exploring, panning for gold in the great stream of Shanghai openings and closings, looking for places to do some writing, places which would hit the trifecta of providing decent coffee, quiet, and a bit of inspiration, preferably off-the-beaten-track with nary a wanghong (网红) in sight.
Here’s what I found.
1. Yi Lan Yuan in the Fenyang Hotel (怡兰苑)
This one is hiding in plain sight – the much-traveled Fenyang/Fuxing/Huaihai triangle. I’ve walked by the opening to the Fenyang Hotel grounds a million times but never went in, then finally one day I did. The hotel is guests-only, but if you veer to the right you’ll find a cafe called Yi Lan Yuan (怡兰苑), the Joyful Orchid Garden.
What a find! Take a look at the photos. Heritage architecture. Indoor and outdoor seating. Outdoor seating looks out on a manicured lawn. Secluded. Hardly any people. In fact when I was there there was only one other couple – man and woman – and I’m pretty sure they they weren’t husband and wife to each other. It’s that kind of place.
They have wine and coffee and afternoon tea and stuff like that. Prices on the high side as I recall.
2. The Old Film Cafe (老电影咖啡馆)
If you were a laowai in Shanghai circa 2000, then the Old Film Cafe on Duolun Lu up in Hongkou was the place to be. It was a wanghong destination before that was a thing. We’d go there to watch old black and white Chinese movies like The Goddess and feel like we had discovered Ruan Lingyu. Visions of PhDs danced in our heads. The world was ours!
Fast forward 20 years and guess what: it’s still there! Not sure if they play movies anymore, but it’s still nice, fully refurbed at the end of 2020, new furniture and stuff. The second floor feels like an English drawing room, like you could crank out an E.M. Forster novel here. My kind of place.
3. Teahouse at Lu Xun Park 鲁迅公园
Not a coffee shop, obviously, but still one of my favorite places in Shanghai. Worth a special trip to Hongkou. It’s more of an outdoor place, though, so maybe not the best for winter unless you get a seat in the sun.
This is the place for guangchangwu laorens (广场舞老人) to hang and gossip over pots of tea and piles of melon seeds. You know the drill. The outdoor seats look out on a pleasant little lake. Plus there’s Lu Xun vibes happening in the firmaments. Maybe. Anyway, I felt them.
4. The Donghai Coffee Shop (东海咖啡馆)
Wait what? A hidden gem coffee shop that’s just steps from the Bund? Impossible! I sympathise with your skepticism, but this place is the real deal. Where to begin to explain the greatness of the Donghai? Let’s start in 1934 when this place was opened by a Russian Jew and was called Mars Cafe. It’s still there, same place, different name though.
The clientele is almost exclusively local middle aged Shanghainese folks. Not exactly the people you’d expect to be hanging around Bund coffee shops. But it actually makes perfect sense. During the early days of New China the Donghai was one of the few places in Shanghai doing Western food. So that’s how all the local oldsters know about it. It was closed for renovation for like a decade and just re-opened in 2019.
It’s quite a scene, really. You won’t hear much Mandarin spoken. And the food is good! Russian-inspired stuff – soups, sandwiches etc. A latte was 30 kuai. They have bottles of Napa Chardonnay for 200RMB.
Don’t ever change, Donghai!
5. KKU Bakery (亲亲侬)
What? There’s a coffee shop on top of a gas station which is not only right on Suzhou Creek but also a stone’s throw from the Bund? True story! The KKU Bakery. I’ve been there. It has a balcony with wood tables and chairs. I’ve had coffee there. The coffee wasn’t bad. The say they have “craft bread” too but I can’t attest to the quality. What’s important is that from the balcony you are afforded wonderful views of Suzhou Creek, the old Post Office and Bellagio. Where else can you compose poems and get a tank of gas?
6. The outdoor coffee shop across from KKU Bakery
That part of Suzhou Creek just keeps getting better and better. Newly opened in the latter part of 2021 and just across the river from the above mentioned KKU Bakery is a coffee shop which has somehow secured the rights to put tables and chairs right smack next to the river. It feel like Paris! Oh la la! Coffee’s good, not sure what else is on the menu, nothing looked that expensive.
What you get is basically unobstructed views of Lujiazui framed by Broadway Mansions, the old Shanghai Rowing Club and the Waibaidu Bridge. Throw in some craft beers and an affordable Pinot Grigio and this is my summer hang out. I might have to invest in a beret.
What strange alchemy had to happen for this little miracle to take place I have no idea. It seems to be an extension of some no frills coffee shop in a nearby building. Some chengguans (城管) must be getting paid big time. No idea how long it will last, so enjoy it while you can.
7. Antique Cafe 古董花园
This Sinan Lu place lives up to its name. It’s chock full of bric a brac. It feels like your grandparent’s attic. Maybe a bit too much. There’s some outdoor seating in back for the warmer months. Gonna check that out come spring. The interior atmosphere is dark and vibey. There are tables and chairs and even a desk pushed up against a wall in case you need to lock in for a few hours. The music programming leaves quite a bit to be desired, but, hell, you can’t have everything.
There’s a menu with food options, but I didn’t try any. There’s also a bird in cage outside that can speak. It says “Ni hao.” It’s really weird! Pro tip: if you want the bird to speak to you, don’t look at it. Pretend you’re looking elsewhere. Make it try to get your attention. Trust me on this.
8. Vesh Coffee
I ventured all the way out to Dingxi Lu for this one which was recommended by my son’s former kindergarten teacher. It sits on a corner. The interior is big, spacious, modern in design. Lots of tables, good for both groups and for loners like me. There’s also plenty of streetside patio seating shaded by those unbeatable FFC sycamores. Will be good in summer when the cicadas are in full blast. Coffee was good, generous. Food felt high quality. Attracts a young crowd. The closest thing on this list to hip. Ah well.
9. Tai’an Garden (泰安花园)
What a find! I’m calling this the highlight of the list. Okay, so there’s a couple of things going on here. There’s a hotel, restaurant, and coffee shop all tucked away down an alley at 115 Tai’an Lu. The restaurant is one of those places where there’s only a set menu for an astronomical amount of money, but what I am talking about is the coffee shop which is the first thing on your right after you pass through the Alice in Wonderland portal.
Indoor seating, outdoor seating, decent coffees – check check check. Indoor is cozy, outdoor looks like a real summertime winner. You can’t get much more full on FFC than this place. PLUS the only wanghongs around are 50-year-old Shanghainese ladies with dyed hair posing and taking photos of each other. Gabbing too. My goodness those ladies can gab.
I didn’t find this place on Dianping, it wasn’t recommended by SmartShanghai. Actually I was looking for a place called Chez Black which turns out not to exist anymore. So I took a walk down Tai’an Lu instead. Twenty years ago a couple of good friends lived in the top floor of one of the old villas and I occasionally stop by to reminisce. That’s when I found it. Sometimes what you are looking for finds you.
10. Hu Xin Ting at Yu Garden (湖心亭)
Yu Garden isn’t exactly the first place that comes to mind when you think off the beaten path. That path is pretty much beat to death every single day of the week and most of us sensibly stay away. But the teahouse in the middle of the zigzag bridge is quite all right especially if you go up the second floor where you can sit by a window and look down on the madding crowd.
The building is genuinely old. The plaque on the ground floor tells you it dates back between 200 and 300 hundred years. The tea is excellent, though the second floor tea fees may raise eyebrows (“am I that laowai being suckered into the tea scam???”), but it’s a nice spot during the day, a little peace and quiet hidden in plain sight. It’s not going to win any awards for comfort, but it’s certainly unique.
11. The Writers Bookstore (作家书店)
Julu Lu has a bunch of coffee shops but the best one is on the second floor of The Writer’s Book Store. First of all, a bookstore for writers is awesome. Second, it’s actually attached to the Shanghai Writer’s Association building. I don’t think much actual writing gets done in there, but there’s a vibe. Wang Anyi has cooled her feet in there giving talks, shaking hands, signing books, pontificating. Maybe Ba Jin too.
Pull up a table right by window and gather inspiration from the street action below. Browse the shelves if you want to see how far you are from the pinnacle of literary greatness. Plus, because it’s a place for writers, it’s quiet. There’s actually even a sign that says “Be Quiet.” Heaven
12. The rest huts on the Pudong side of the Binjiang Riverside walk
This is a total Shanghai lifehack and it really only works in winter. All along the Pudong side of the Huangpu, as part of the new 25km Riverside walk, there are these hut things, one about every 3 or 4 kilometers, mini ski chalet-looking structures that combine vending machines, bathrooms and what looks like a community reading room. The reading room part is what interests us here.
These reading rooms are well heated and have desks and cushioned chairs. Floor to ceiling windows on three sides offer stunning views of the river and the big ships gliding back and forth. Need a bit of inspiration? Just look up. The lifehack part? Pick up a teda (特大) Starbucks on your way there or pack a thermos of your own home brewed tea. No one’s gonna say boo to you. The rent-a-cops milling around are far more interested in catching some Z’s on the down-low than policing your beverage choice. Hell I bet you could get Eleme to deliver to one of those huts
The huts are hardly used on weekdays during winter, plus they open pretty early, like 7 or 8am. Not sure if they have wifi so you may need to factor that in.
14. Garden Cafe at the Shanghai Tower
That wonderful twisting ballerina of a building that towers over the land has a genuine gem hidden inside and you only have to go up to the 5th floor to find it. Do so and you’ll discover a broad patio with actual grass soaking up the afternoon sun. One side is an upscale but not pretentious glassed-in cafe serving coffees and lunch things. Flanking the other side is a row of outdoor tables on a wooden walkway. Very nice!
The whole thing nestles – nestles, I say! – in the bosom of the Lujiazui skyscrapers. It’s a little more pricy, but hey you’re in the world’s tallest building! Close, anyway. It only opens at 11:30am, though, so don’t go early or you’ll end up with the sad sacks downstairs sucking down the social media at Starbucks.
15. The Bunny Drop (白兔糖精品咖餐)
This is another Pudong one, right on the river, just north of the JW Marriott Marquis. It’s part of a row of about 5 or 6 cafes sitting cheek to jowl. Really any of them could qualify for this list, but I chose the Bunny Drop because it seems the most stable. The others seem to rebrand every six months.
Bunny Drop has indoor and outdoor seating. The outdoor seating affords pleasant river views and ample people watching. Coffee and passable lunch items and even a German wheat beer on the menu seal the deal. There are also a few rabbits in a cage which never fails to entertain kids for at least 15 minutes.
16. The tea house at Guyiyuan (古猗园)
Out in Jiading is Guyiyuan and inside Guyiyuan is a teahouse. I love this teahouse. The outdoor seating is great. There are two full-on porch swings. It sort of juts out into this pond and is surrounded by greenery and flowers and lilypads. Ducks paddle around. There’s even a working waterwheel. Before 10:30am it’s mainly grizzled locals sipping tea and sucking on the cancer sticks, after that it’s a quiet little teahouse in what is Shanghai finest example of a Suzhou style garden. Plus the people who run it are nice.
17. The bike cafe in Xinchang Old Town (新场古镇)
Xinchang Old Town is pretty far, like 25km due south of Jinqiao far. If you know this place you are definitely a cyclist. Xinchang itself is pretty okay as far as water towns go, a clean enough canal lined by mom and pop restaurants plus a cobbled street where people sell curios.
On the canal itself there’s a little B&B that has a nice coffee shop on its second floor roof. Great view from up there, but it’s really only good for summer plus there’s only 2 or 3 tables so most of the time you’re out of luck. A better all-seasons option is the Bike Cafe, so called because all the cyclists stop there. Indoor and outdoor seating, sun drenched patio out back, well heated in winter. Solid lattes, the usual stuff. Winner!
18. Yi Chi Hua Yuan in Chuansha (一尺花园)
This one’s a ways out, but if you have a car at your disposal then a trip out to this cafe slash BnB slash family paradise is a must. The highlight is really nice outdoor tables on a patio with what feels like a mile of greensward radiating outward from your feet. Like your kids could run and run and run and still not hit the other side but still be in sight. The whole thing was renovated out of an old siheyuan type residence and the interior has little koi ponds and zen rock gardens. In Chuansha of all places!
Well there you go. 18 place you won’t find in SmartShanghai and maybe not even Dianping. It’s 2022, folks, high time to take the path less trodden.