Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, legendary boxer Muhammad Ali and Microsoft founder Bill Gates all dined at the same restaurant when visiting Beijing. Most would assume it was a luxurious eatery in a Shangri-La or Hilton Hotel or one of Beijing’s myriad five-star hotspots, which would all be wrong. The restaurant, hidden in an unremarkable hutong in Beijing’s Houhai area, has fed numerous celebrities from China and around the world even though its exterior is less than glamorous. In summer, it tends to get shaded by dense foliage, and in winter it is often covered by mountains of snow, making it somewhat difficult to find. Still, the seemingly humble hideaway is well-known amongst dining connoisseurs: the Li Family Restaurant.
Li Family Restaurant’s prosperity confirms the adage “good wine needs no bush.” Although the business has expanded in recent years, opening branches in Shanghai, Tianjin, and even Melbourne and Tokyo, the original eatery has changed little over the past several decades. The siheyuan (quadrangle courtyard) where the Li family has lived for generations isn’t much different from its neighbors other than the few red characters reading “No. 11 Yangfang Hutong” on the white wooden door plate. Hardly a fancy decoration can be found in the house. Guests sit around simple round tables and have no say in which dishes will be served. Everything is decided by the chef.
The Li Family Restaurant may be one of the most renowned spots for “private cuisine” in town, but the dining genre itself is probably unfamiliar to most. The concept is actually quite simple: visitors eat the best of what the host has to offer. The story of the Li Family Restaurant is already legendary, and it aptly depicts the concept of private cuisine in Beijing.
The restaurant is managed by 90-year-old mathematics professor Li Shanlin, whose grandfather was Minister of Household Affairs for the Imperial Court of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Combining the essence of Qing imperial cuisine with contemporary nutrition principles and a life-long passion for food, Li Shanlin founded the business.