Get a taste of the Hermit Kingdom with our guide to dining out at North Korean restaurants in Beijing, including Pyongyang, Haedanghwa, Silver Bank and more.
It feels crass to call the official restaurant of a struggling country cheap, but that’s the overriding aesthetic at Pyongyang Restaurant.
Half dining space, half agitprop, the blindingly bright dining room is decorated with murals of smiling, ruddy-cheeked labourers, while a sole television flickers, blasting out karaoke videos set to footage of marching soldiers and utopian factories. The daily 8pm performance sees the otherwise aloof waitresses strut their stuff on stage. On the night we attended, the budget revue concluded with one waitress doing her best Ian Curtis impression – jumping and jerking around the stage – while a tiny hat miraculously spun atop her head. What’s Korean for encore?
The menu is mostly made up of simple Korean favourites. Prices are lower than a lot of the other North Korean joints in town, but they are still remarkably high, especially for what’s on offer. The pumpkin porridge (68RMB), ser ved in its rind, is unforgivably bland while the pollock (68RMB), dressed in a sickly orange-coloured sauce, turned our stomachs. A bowl of cold noodles (35RMB) – laced with mustard and a slice of crisp pear – kept us from leaving hungry. Come for the show, don’t stay for the food.
Pyongyang Restaurant First Floor, Huakang Bingguan, 78 Maizidian Jie, Chaoyang district (6503 5732). Open 11am-2pm; 5-10pm daily.
While all North Korean restaurants serve the glorious fatherland – it’s reported that they do a great job in generating foreign currency – the best bet for an intrepid eater might be at Haedanghwa.
The Beijing branch of this global chain is right around the corner from the North Korean embassy. The waitresses – there are no waiters here – are all escorted to and from the embassy for every shift during their three-year stint abroad.
As the flagship eatery, Haedanhwa offers plenty of specialities that are beyond the means of the average North Korean. No doubt a desire to appear cosmopolitan to the outside world explains the pan-fried foie gras (128RMB) and platters of sashimi, but staple Korean dishes such as vegetable kimbaprolls (50RMB) – thick, sushi-like rice rolls – are also available.
A selection of blood sausage (48RMB) was more satisfying, the meat surrounded with cold rice providing a rich, gelatinous bite. For the adventurous eater (read: morally bankrupt) dog is also available (68RMB).
On the whole, food here is fair to good: an ordinary meal in a not-so-ordinary restaurant.
Haedanghwa Second Floor, Kuntai Mansions, Chaoyangmenwai Dajie, Chaoyang district (8561 2925). Open 11am-2pm; 5-10pm daily.
Yes, this place is actually called ‘Café, Restaurant and Bar’. What more could you want? Well, a café and bar for one: it’s a straight-up restaurant (albeit a restaurant with the rollicking drunken energy of a late-night hotspot).
The place is regularly packed out with North and South Koreans who gather for the epic 8pm performance. The lights dim, audience members empty their towers of beer into whisky glasses, and the spectacle begins. The waitresses put on a blockbuster rock ’n’ roll per formance: virtuoso keytar solos amid plumes of fog, energetic electric cello per formances and rhythmic dancing that looks more like being stung by a bee whilst directing a taxiing aircraft.
That just leaves the food, which performs as faithfully as a loyal general. Every Korean meal needs kimchi (20RMB), though our North Korean variety has less of a vinegary slap than its Southern cousin. It also comes ser ved crammed into bulging kimchi dumplings (48RMB). The sizzling cuts of pork on an iron plate (68RMB) are tender but could have used a dash more spice. The same can’t be said of the show, though.
Café, Restaurant and Bar Second Floor, Building 316, Wangjing Xiyuan Zone 3, Chaoyang district (8471 3331). Open 11am-late daily. 平壤咖啡厅, 朝阳区望京西园3区316楼2层
Silver Bank is one of the higher-end choices for North Korean cuisine in the city. Because of this, the environment can be rather stiff. Most diners opt to cloister themselves in one of the private rooms (3,000RMB minimum charge), leaving those in the main dining hall to contend with the uncomfortable, eerie silence.
A karaoke video screening water falls and peonies provides the only respite from the uncomfortable stillness. Which is a shame, as Silver Bank’s comprehensive menu is full of classic examples of Korean cuisine. Beef and seafood feature prominently in the upscale menu, partly due to the large prices such dishes command, and partly due to the rarity of such ingredients in the homeland.But it’s the basic staples that really shine here.
The complimentary kimchiis bursting with pickled radish and crunchy bean sprouts and the tteokbokki (spicy rice cake) is also excellent. Try the less traditional sweet version – the cylinders are filled with a sweet, red bean paste (68RMB). The ol’ faithful, bibimbap(50RMB), was not too spicy and ser ved cool rather than in a sizzling stone pot. Politics aside, the food here stands out in its own right.
Silver Bank Fourth Floor, Zhongfu Dasha, 99 Jianguo Lu, Chaoyang district (6581 8603). Open 5.30pm-late Mon-Fri; 11.30am-late Sat-Sun. 朝阳区建国路99号中服大厦4层