SHANGHAI – Chopped steak, salmon, a few plates of sushi plus enough Japanese beer to send someone home staggering would normally bleed the common Chinese bill-payer of a week’s pay.
In Shanghai, add to that a salad, a mushroom stir-fry, a bottle of sake and just about anything else and you pay as little as 100 yuan, which is worth about $12.45.
“At 100 yuan, everyone can accept it, all kinds of people,” said Huang Juping, branch manager of the eight-year-old Itoya Japanese Restaurant. About 80 percent of Itoya’s 108 seats fill every night with prices of 98 yuan for 200 kinds of food, Huang said.
Itoya helped start a Shanghai trend of all-you-can-eat specials for Japanese food. About 70 percent of the estimated 500 to 1,000 Japanese restaurants in Shanghai now offer set prices for unlimited dining.
In other parts of the world, restaurateurs consider Japanese cuisine too expensive for flat rates. Chinese outside Shanghai eat out less often for fun or like Japanese food less, creating little demand for economy cuisine.
“If I don’t know how much I am going to eat, I won’t feel comfortable,” said Wu Binsen, lead chef at the 100-seat Ooedo Japanese Restaurant, explaining why his place introduced Shanghai’s first all-you-can-eat Japanese food deal, for 200 yuan per head, in 1995.
It’s best, he said, if “I can come in and eat anything and it won’t come to 400 or 500 yuan.”
Set prices in Shanghai range from 100 to 200 yuan, with 150 yuan the most common quote. Prices cover almost all menu items, but higher-value food, including Kobe beef, may be off limits or listed as part of a more expensive set meal, diners say.
Some deals include unlimited beer and sake.
The all-you-can-eat trend began when Shanghai natives were returning home from Japan in the mid-1990s with culinary skills they had learned from working in Japan’s restaurants, said Sam Wong, a self-employed restaurant consultant from Hong Kong.
When those returnees realized Shanghai was filling with Japanese expatriates, they began to use their skills to open eateries, Wong said. Some operators are Japanese or trained by Japanese, about 40,000 of whom live in Shanghai.
But the fixed prices favor fun-loving yet frugal Shanghai consumers plus Western expatriates who come to pig out toward the tail end of business at around 11 p.m., restaurant managers say.
Shanghai consumers like Japanese food, which is similar in some ways to local cuisine, and pay with their own money instead of with bottomless public funds or company accounts, restaurant managers and customers say.
Today, according to widespread word of mouth, the 12 “teppan-yaki” restaurants under the Tairyo Group, which got started in 2003, are the most popular Japanese all-you-can-eateries in Shanghai. Customers need reservations there to avoid standing in line for a seat, from which they can watch a chef grill their beef and seafood.
“It’s a bargain, and Shanghai people pay a lot of attention to special prices,” said Wang Dequn, manager of the chain’s Hengshan Hotel branch.
Restaurateurs may save money by buying local seafood and working themselves as master chefs instead of hiring them, Sam Wong said. He said restaurants generally make money if they get more than 100 customers per day and that some see more than 600 people per day.
“They’re looking for the quantity, not looking for the quality,” Wong said, evaluating the customers.
As all-you-can-eat competition thickens, some restaurant managers say they are trying to play up quality. “We see that the cuisine has gone down in quality,” said Wu of the Ooedo restaurant, which asks 200 yuan per person for entrees that can start with a plate of sashimi normally priced at 160 yuan. “If (customers) see our menu, they will be able to see the difference.”
Reservations are also advised at Ooedo, which filled up at 7 p.m. on a Monday night in March despite cramped seating and delays between ordering food and eating it.
Akira Matsunaga, owner of four Japanese restaurants in Shanghai, sees all-you-can-eat deals as a way to whet appetites for Japanese dining in general. “They’re curious,” Matsunaga said. “Once they’ve tasted something, they might go to a more professional place.”
In Beijing, Alan Wong, owner of the restaurant Hatsune, offers weekend specials of 158 yuan per head but seldom publicizes this rate to avoid getting a reputation for cheap food.
Shanghai’s 100-seat Tailang Restaurant offers four all-you-can-eat prices, from 88 yuan to 178 yuan, to let customers pick the grade of food, said owner and chef Liu Liping, who used to cook for the landmark Beijing Hotel.
“Cheap prices — some people find that those don’t cut it,” Liu said. “They want something that tastes better.”
Liu said business declined by half after the anti-Japan demonstrations in mid-April last year but that it had picked up this year.
Shanghai diners say the deals are good, but some question the quality.
Teppan-yaki ingredients at Tairyo look fresh, but the cooking style does not bring out the best flavors, diners at the restaurant chain’s reservation-only Dongping Road branch said after a meal Saturday.
“The flavor is not the best, since the way they take care of the food isn’t that great,” said diner Fu Yue, a Shanghai-based public relations consultant who often eats out. “But if you bring a lot of people, it’s very much a bargain.”