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Beyond the stunning juxtaposition of the Bund’s colonial architecture with some of the world’s highest skyscrapers, one of Shanghai’s most charming, local architectural experiences can be found on the southern edge of the former French Concession, in the neighborhood of Tianzifang. Slated to be destroyed to make way for (yet another) mall development in 2008, Tianzifang’s artist community rallied to save the warren of original laneway houses that are uniquely Shanghainese.

Since then, the lilongs (laneways) have grown crowded with visitors as they’ve gone increasingly commercial, but there are still glimpses into real apartments above with laundry hanging about and retirees buying produce in the local wet market. For those who are tired of knockoff Guccis in fake markets where haggling is the norm, Tianzifang is an excellent place to shop for more memorable gifts and decorations. A large portion of the space is dedicated to eating and drinking within the city-block-sized compound, and while many different cuisines and countries are represented, the fare is increasingly overpriced. What follows is our roundup of places where you can eat and drink like a local after a morning or afternoon spent browsing.

Modern Toilet restaurant, photo by UnTour ShanghaiSkip eating a full meal in Tianzifang. Opt instead for a kitschy afternoon dessert break at Modern Toilet. Instead of asking whether you’d like smoking or non, the staff will ask whether you’d like to sit on a toilet seat chair or a normal chair. If you haven’t already heard about this phenomenon, we’re really not joking. The toilet theme continues in the food – we couldn’t help but order the chocolate ice cream served in a toilet bowl and in the shape of a Dr. Oz-approved, cartoonlike poo spiral. Clearly, you need to be in the mood for a bit of potty humor, but it is a memorable, if not Instagram-worthy, bite.

If you’ve been in China for a while and need a break from local food (it happens, we understand), just around the corner on Sinan Lu, you’ll find Puro Café. Run by an overseas Chinese family from British Columbia, the space’s laid-back, friendly vibe, quality food and decent prices hit the café trifecta that is almost always lacking in Shanghai. The outdoor patio is perfect for getting a little work done or checking Wi-Fi, with free-trade and organic coffees on offer. They only make five thin-crust pizzas per day, but if you miss that, you can try their popular lasagna or other pasta dishes.

Walking another 1.5 blocks north up Sinan Lu, you’ll hit one of our all-time favorite noodle shops, A Niang Mian, specializing in Ningbo-style seafood noodles – the yellow croaker noodles are a must-try. The flaky fish rests atop al dente wheat strands in a balanced soy broth. You’ll find a crush of happy eaters at peak meal hours, so come in the midafternoon for a more peaceful experience. The noodle shop, passed down through generations, is a Shanghai institution.

Puro Café, photo by UnTour ShanghaiJust a block farther up Sinan Lu is another restaurant with a cult-like following. Cha’s perfectly replicates a Hong Kong-style diner, from the floor tiles to the signature dishes. Weekend lunch queues are especially long, so again, it’s best to avoid peak meal times here if you’re too hungry to wait. The silky-smooth scrambled eggs with shrimp is on our table every time, and we never leave without an order of the fried chicken or, if we’re craving something lighter, chicken poached in soy sauce. The stir-fried instant noodles with barbecued meat is another favorite, but the menu is perfectly translated with plenty of options for your personal tastes.

If you find yourself in the area in the evening, head over to happy hour at the local branch of Kaiba, Shanghai’s growing empire of Belgian beer bars. With a huge selection of bottled beers and an ever-changing roster of beer on tap, Kaiba has been sourcing more obscure brews since well before most of the others in the now-crowded playing field. The close proximity of the neighbors means the patio closes early, but inside there’s a warm, lofty vibe for a great evening of exotic beers and decent bar food.

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Published on November 24, 2014

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