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Avoid a springtime surprise

A restaurant in Beijing is preparing for the Chinese New Year. Photo: CFP

In the West, Christmas notoriously comes earlier every year, and in China Spring Festival is much the same way. Already, preparations are underway for family dinners that won't take place until mid- February. Nianyefan (the dinner held on Chinese New Year's Eve) is the pinnacle of the festival and the most important meal of the year, a time when everyone gathers for family reunions. Hence, Nianyefan is also called Tuanyuanfan (the family-reunion dinner).

Nowadays, many families are fed up with the tiring preparations and have the financial ability to choose to dine outside. Nianyefan dinner has been popular in most Chinese restaurants for more than 10 years, and its popularity continues to increase, to the degree that a banquet room in some restaurants must be booked a year in advance.

"I booked a six-person chuxi (Chinese New Year's Eve) dinner in a Guolin Restaurant last week. They told me most tables in the dining hall have been booked out, not to mention the tables in separate rooms, which were usually booked when people fin-ished their nianyefan last year," Zhang Zhongjie, a 65-year-old local resident in Xiluoyuan, Fengtai District, told Lifestyle.

Most Chinese laobaixing families prefer to visit mid-level chain restaurants, such as Guolin and Dayali, which are often crowded even outside the festival season. They serve authentic, classic dishes like fish filet in hot chili oil and fried sweet and sour pork with pineapple. The restaurants' reasonable prices and hygienic facilities have won them a good reputation among ordinary Beijingers. For 300 to 400 yuan, a six-member family can have a satisfactory nianyefan, and already most of these places are 80 percent booked. "Reservations for nianyefan began increasing in October, and usually before January all the tables will be booked out," said Jing Huan, a waitress at Guolin in Xiluoyuan.

This is not to say that high-end famous-brand restaurants aren't as popular, if not more so. All the tables and rooms for nianyefan in Jinyang Restaurant have been booked since before December, and many others, like Tongheju, Fengzeyuan and Bianyifang have booked 90 percent of their tables.

People who intend to book at high-end restaurants should note that they usually set a minimum consumption level. "I intended to book a secluded compartment table in Fengzeyuan to celebrate the first nianyefan since my daughter-in-law entered my family, but they ask for at least 300 yuan per person, which means the nianyefan will cost me 2,400 yuan (for a family of eight)," Jin Lipin, a local Beijinger said. For nianyefan, Fengzeyuan set minimum consumption levels of 200 yuan per person in the main dining hall, 300 yuan per person for a private room, all excluding drinks.

For all the early booking, most menus have yet to be determined. "We'll introduce a new menu in January, so at the moment we can't accurately tell you what dishes will be available for the nianyefan," waitress Jing said. Regardless, people are willing to trust these restaurants based on their reputations.

Those who want to book nianyefan must keep in mind that the majority of places ask for a deposit ranging from 100 to 500 yuan. Those who plan to drive should even plan their parking beforehand, as most lots near restaurants will be full. No getting away from it: it really is necessary to plan the perfect nianyefan a few months in advance.