21 Mar 2019
Explore one of the most romantic neighbourhoods in China’s largest city
From the futuristic skyscraper skyline of Pudong to the historic buildings along The Bund to the ancient alleyways of the Old City, the romance of Shanghai is real. But nowhere is it stronger than in the tree-lined streets of the Former French Concession. Perennially hip, the dynamic neighbourhood blends Shanghai’s past with its present, pushing heritage homes, soup dumpling shops and vegetable stalls up alongside fashion-forward boutiques, con-temporary art galleries and the city’s latest cocktail bars.
For as far back as the memory goes, Shanghai has been China’s most cosmopolitan city, influenced and shaped by the foreign presences residing in the city. In the 1930s, urbane youth might have sipped cocktails at the Peace Hotel on The Bund. Now, they converge over breakfast and brunch at hugely popular – and very tasty – French eatery RAC (322 Anfu Lu; +86 136 3659 5172). Weekend mornings see the courtyard heaving with well-polished Chinese hipsters, millennial expats and young families snapping photos of picture-perfect Breton galettes with brilliantly orange egg yolks and tiny mason jars of oeuf en cocotte. The hype is real, however, with a menu of truly crave-worthy savoury buckwheat flour crepes oozing with cheese and breakfast sandwiches on buttery brioche rolls. Beyond breakfast, RAC boasts the city’s best natural wine list, perfect for splitting a bottle at the space’s large, communal table later on in the day.
11am: Capsule Shanghai
Despite Beijing long having been known as the country’s cultural capital, in recent years, Shanghai’s art scene has outstripped that of its northern counterpart. The momentum is undeniable; galleries continue to sprout up across the city and massive international art fairs are making Shanghai a stop on their maps. Tucked at the end of a traditional Shanghai residential lane, Capsule Shanghai (Building 16, Lane 275, Anfu Lu; +86 21 6417 0700) occupies a secluded, low-slung 1930s villa. Opened by Italian native Enrico Polato, the gallery’s four rooms showcase international and Chinese artists, working in painting, sculpture and mixed media. The garden house juxtaposes the city’s historic past with cutting-edge modern art.
Oha Eatery (23 Anfu Lu; +86 136 2164 7680) is a deep dive into the flavours of Guizhou Province, twisted and screwed. What started as a test kitchen for the team’s more ambitious space Blackbird and Table Black in Changning district developed an identity of its own. Bold and funky are the words best fitting for what’s happening at the hands of New Zealander Blake Thornley. The product of intense research trips and development with founders Diao Wei and Gong Xian to their home province, Thornley’s menu reworks Guizhou’s signature flavour profile (sour and spicy), dishes and ingredients into unapologetic, modern interpretations. Think ‘moldy’ tofu salad, with fermented tofu that’s reminiscent of blue cheese and Chinese clover, or burnt bell pepper with a preserved egg puree. The narrow space lends itself to an intimate lunch with a curved bar seating roughly a dozen and wines that are as unchained as the food.
Quality vintage, thrift and second-hand stores are few and far between in Shanghai. Luckily there’s Pawnstar (No 1, Lane 34, Xiangyang Bei Lu; +86 156 1833 1415). Spend the early afternoon combing through the racks at this two-storey vintage consignment shop. Founded by husband-and-wife team Nels Frye and Jane Jia, the shop’s ethos revolves around reuse and upcycling. It’s an ethos that diverges sharply from the city’s overriding obsession with fast fashion, ‘the new’ and convenience. Frye and Jia carefully curate pre-loved items for an abundant but cohesive collection. Scour for a wide gamut of styles – one recent visit unearthed a pair of men’s red and grey cameo New Balance, pastel blue Dolce & Gabbana heels adorned with teapots, an NFL 49ers jersey and an eye-popping purple, blue and yellow Coogi Modigliani sweater with extreme levels of swag.
3pm: LABELHOOD Pillar
As designers, artists and craftsmen continue stepping into the global spotlight, ‘Made in China’ is taking on a new meaning. Shanghai-based platform LABELHOOD has been instrumental in promoting and supporting emerging Chinese fashion designers inside and outside of China, international fashion weeks as well as Shanghai Fashion Week and retail stores. Started as Dong Liang in 2009, the brand evolved over the past decade, finally merging and re-branding its two Shanghai stores as LABELHOOD last year. Set in a narrow three-storey lanehouse, LABELHOOD Pillar (184 Fumin Lu; +86 21 3469 6926) offers a quick 101 on current names in Chinese fashion. Browse womenswear brands like the retro-elegant Ms Min and whimsical, lively Museum of Friendship, spirited menswear from Staff Only or bold and intensely colourful styles from unisex label Angel Chen. The space flows effortlessly over the three floors, punctuated by the occasional art installation and pop-up shop tucked onto landings and under staircases.
5pm: Bitter and Bird
Sip on an aperitif as the sun sets at airy, relaxed café and bar Bitter (58 Wuyuan Lu). The polished yet unpretentious space opens at 8am, caffeinating an ebb and flow of neighbours, freelancers and young entrepreneurs throughout the day before serving up unfussy pre-dinner drinks once dusk hits. One storefront over, you’ll find the café’s sister space Bird (50 Wuyuan Lu; +86 135 0172 6412), a wine bar and kitchen. Here, Shanghai-born Chris Zhu turns out creative plates drawing on the flavours of his childhood – a mac and cheese riff with rice cakes, béchamel and mozzarella or peppers stuffed with pork, lotus root and mushrooms.
9pm: Sober Company
From delivery services on steroids to a nearly cashless society, ‘convenience’ is king in Shanghai. Cocktail mastermind Shingo Gokan (also behind the city’s most acclaimed bar Speak Low) takes this next level at Sober Company (99 Yandang Lu; +86 21 5309 8261), where you can bar crawl through three distinct concepts – café, restaurant and cocktail bar – within a single building. Start with a clarified coffee milk punch and avocado fries at Sober Café before moving upstairs to Sober Kitchen for Chinatown and Kong Kong-inspired tipples with modernised Chinese sharing plates like a creamy foie gras mapo tofu. Just adjacent, moody, copper-ceilinged cocktail bar Sober Society serves up more involved creations. A drink at each of the three venues within this Asia’s 50 Best Bars-ranked spot grants you access to the space’s one-room, no-menu speakeasy Tipsy, where the bartender will create a bespoke cocktail for each of your party.
For nearly a decade, gritty underground club The Shelter (literally both underground and in a bomb shelter) was a mainstay in the city’s nightlife scene, known for its boundary-pushing, alternative music programming and wild parties that lasted until the early hours. Its sudden shuttering in 2016 left a palpable void for a short few months until the legendary club’s co-founder and manager Gaz Williams opened ALL (Second Floor, 17 Xiangyang Bei Lu; +86 21 6495 8595). On weekends, the minimalist club, designed by digital artist Kim Laughton, throbs with an edgy young crowd throwing back beers and highballs to hypnotic, flickering visuals alongside live, avant-garde DJ acts that more often than not flirt with performance art. ALL plays host to album release parties for artists on Williams’ electronic music label SVBKVLT, seminal figures in the country’s electronic scene and international acts like Cakes Da Killer.
While in Shanghai stay at the luxurious Jumeirah Himalayas Hotel Shanghai.