The vast country of China has just one time zone, so Shanghai’s East Coast location means darkness comes early and most residents usually eat by nightfall, with restaurants often closing their kitchens around 9 p.m. But for those who keep late hours, nighttime brings out a chorus of pushcart woks and mini grill stands to street corners around the city. Despite often aggressive government crackdowns on these tasty, yet mostly unlicensed, food stands, the migrants who run them are determined to make a living and feed the masses while they’re at it. Our top five list goes beyond these roving vendors to feature a mix of restaurants that stay open late and small family-run gems that cater exclusively to the night-owl crowd.
If Liberace were Chinese, Bao Luo (aka Polo) would be his mansion. Until the venue was renovated recently, you would never have guessed that a cavernous restaurant was hidden behind its shoddy doors, but the new facelift has brought a double-wide entrance and a whole new level of tacky to the institution. Located just around the corner from one of Shanghai’s most pulsating local nightclubs, Bar 88, it’s a nice sit-down alternative to the area’s questionable street food stalls and beggars with monkeys. The shēngjiān mántou (生煎馒头), or fried buns stuffed with pork, are the size of a fist and sprinkled with sesame seeds on the crispy bottom for extra crunch. Stir-fried black pepper beef (瑞士牛排, ruìshì niúpái) might be labeled “Swiss” on the menu, but the wok-thrown slices of tender meat with a mayo dipping sauce are Shanghainese through and through.
[Editor’s note: We’re sorry to report that Charmant is closed for now as they search for a new location.] This pair of late-closing Taiwanese chains used to be owned by the same company, and their menus of cheap comfort food from the island are practically identical. You can’t go wrong with the national dish, “Three Cups Chicken” (三杯鸡, sānbēijī), which gets its name from its sauce – made of equal parts rice wine, sesame oil and soy sauce – which is stewed with bone-in chicken in a claypot. The caramelized green beans stir-fried with minced pork and olive leaves (榄菜肉碎, lǎncài ròusuì) come with translucent pancakes for easy wrapping – a perfect greasy dish to soak up any late-night drinks. For dessert, the “smoothies” – velvety sorbets piled high in dessert bowls and eaten with a spoon – prove that Taiwan has the Mainland beat when it comes to sweets; try the peanut (花生冰沙, huāshēngbīngshā) or mango (芒果冰沙, mángguǒbīngshā) flavors.
Mi Dao Zan
The sister restaurant to Ding Te Le, Mi Dao Zan also offers congee and noodle dishes around the clock in a humble, cafeteria-style setting. But don’t let the plastic chopsticks fool you – this place prioritizes taste over looks. The rice porridge is the most popular dish on offer, usually when it’s flavored with dried scallop and shiitake mushrooms (香菇干贝粥, xiānggū gānbèi zhōu) and topped with shredded lettuce. Order the deep-fried fragrant pork cutlet (香炸大排, xiāng zhà dà pái), a Shanghainese standard, on the side to round out the meal.
Er Guang Hundun
The Pang family has been slinging dumplings to feed the nocturnal scene in Xintiandi for the past 16 years, and shows no signs of slowing down. Lines of a dozen or more people frequently queue up for a to-go container of the signature pork and Chinese mustard green dumplings (芥菜肉混沌, jiècài ròu hùndùn), which swim in a chopstick-suckingly amazing peanut sauce. Grab one of the few tables outside when the weather is good, or duck into one of the several small dining rooms. The half-dozen family members work like a well-oiled machine, but clearly business is booming: a small “help wanted” sign – for someone to wrap wontons (包馄吨, bāo hún dūn) – hangs above one entrance.
This street is famous for its seafood and stewed crayfish dishes (小龙虾, xiǎo lóngxiā), which are available in three different spice levels, making for a late-night marriage made in heaven when paired with a cold Tsingtao beer. There are many options on the one-block street, most of which are open until 4 a.m., but we’ve long been fond of the tasty crustaceans at #48. The area also holds a few other lesser-known delicacies, though we recommending skipping the starfish. Instead, head over to #45, Xingshang Longxia Guan, which features a giant aquarium filled with water snakes. For 80 RMB you’ll get 500 grams (about three snakes), which are promptly de-headed and skinned, then stir-fried with leeks and peppers. It’s a surprisingly delicious snack once you get the hang of eating it – just pull the meat with your teeth in the same direction as the bones.