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Good service in China is a relative term, and the longer you live here, the lower your expectations sink. The Michelin Guide allegedly won’t deign to cross over the Hong Kong border into China because they refuse to sully their white-tablecloth reputation by doling out stars to restaurants with subpar service. But the inspectors must have never entered a Hai Di Lao Hot Pot, or they might have to change their tune.

Founded in Sichuan province in 1994, Hai Di Lao is not just adored by spicy hotpot aficionados; in fact, its business model is held up as an example in China. A case study written by Tsinghua University (China’s MIT) about the company’s employee management style is on the syllabus of every MBA candidate in the country and has been published by the Harvard Business Review in both Chinese and English translation. Teams of Chinese Communist Party government officials even visit the restaurant chain to learn tips on how to truly “serve the people.”

And serve they do. From the moment diners step into one of the 70-plus Hai Di Lao locations that pepper the dining scene of China’s biggest cities, they are waited on hand and foot. Manicures, shoulder massages and shoe shines are available to help fastidious customers while away the wait time – which can be upwards of an hour during peak meal times – before they are seated at their table. Staff also hand out board games and snacks, and there’s an origami table that can offset your final bill: each paper crane you fold while killing time can be turned in after your meal for a RMB 0.5 (US$0.08) discount.

Once you’re finally led to your table, the pampering continues. If the iPad ordering system trips you up, don’t worry; there’s a waiter hovering nearby just itching to help you navigate the touchscreen. Warm towels, hair ties, splashguards for your phone and aprons for the accident-prone – they’re all handed out before the first dish is delivered. Lenses fogging up from the steamy hotpot? Waiters will pass you tissues before you can even take off your glasses. Got a sleepy infant? There’s a crib for that.

But all of this would be moot if the food wasn’t consistently good. The Hai Di Lao ethos is to serve healthy, delicious food to its guests at every meal at every location (and many of them are open 24 hours). In a move that is unheard of in most of China, the chain’s website offers a full-disclosure-style photo album showcasing the pristine factories where they produce the chili-laden hotpot broths – which, by the way, you shouldn’t miss. After all, the restaurant originally hails from Sichuan province, where a meal isn’t complete without some tongue-numbing. That said, we recommend going halfsies (鸳鸯, yuānyāng) and ordering a tomato- or mushroom-based broth for the other section of the hotpot, to balance out the slow burn.

The point-and-tap picture menu makes ordering pretty easy: just go with what looks appealing. We usually start off with a couple plates of thinly sliced beef and lamb slices, then head to the produce section to round out our meal. We love the bamboo tofu (腐竹, fǔzhú) and big bowls of raw spinach (菠菜, bōcài) dunked in the spicy side of the hotpot. Chunks of coagulated duck’s blood (鸭血, yāxuè) and shrimp paste (虾滑, xiāhuá) are also available if you want to try something with a little more local flavor. Small groups can order half portions if you want to expand your tasting repertoire. Cap it off with several trips to the DIY dipping-sauce bar for a bespoke flavor blend.

The icing on the cake is at the end of the meal, when a young man dressed in a sideways hat and track suit sidles up to your table with a short strip of noodle in hand (see video below). An edible ribbon breakdance ensues as he whips the noodle up, down and around, stretching it to its breaking point before tossing it into your pot.

With new outlets opening in Los Angeles and Singapore and over 10,000 employees worldwide, Hai Di Lao isn’t your mom-and-pop shop, but it’s a culinary event worth experiencing. It’s also one of the few Chinese restaurants we eat at where our American urge to tip just can’t be stifled.

Published on January 22, 2013

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