Deda Restaurant in Shanghai has been serving Western food to the Shanghai elites since 1897. And time stood still in this place.
The First Wave
Shanghai is China’s first cosmopolitan city. With the opening of Shanghai, a large number of Westerners seeked their fortune in this trading city, and their different cultures flooded into Shanghai. In the 1920s and 1930s, those coffee shops with beautiful foreign names: Sullivan, Deda, Qislin, Kangsheng, Mars… – emerged in Shanghai among the “Ten Mile Mall” 十里洋场, a long stretch of shops selling imported goods and wares.
These were classic cafes with floor-to-floor windows, carved beams and painted door beams, whispering jazz in old recorders and mellow coffee whiffed through the air. These had become a fashionable way of life for social elites, politicians and businessmen in the old foreign market. At that time, Shanghai was really a fashionable modern city.
In the early 1980s, the late songster Ms Teresa Teng‘s song “Wine and Coffee” 「美酒加咖啡」made the Chinese people at the dawn of the economic reform to start having a strong interest in coffee for the first time. In Communist China dominated by tea culture, drinking coffee only satisfied the petty bourgeois feelings of white-collar workers. People who really know coffee culture are still quite minority.
Deda Western Restaurant
It started as a butcher shop selling German sausages. Deda was named as such because of it served German haute cuisine 德国大菜. In essence, it was a Shanghai-style Western restaurant. It came up with the Hamburg steak (still available to day), which is a minced meat patty grilled on the hotplate. That’s even before hamburgers were popular and beef was considered an expensive meat. To mince it and served as a patty was seen as extravagant.
For over a century, despite two world wars and a civil war, it was only closed during the Cultural Revolution, when it was deemed as counter-revolutionary to have Western food. But with the end of the revolution, Deda returned in 1973 to Shanghai quietly, changed its English name from “Cosmopolitan” to “DeDa”, the Hanyu pinyin of the Chinese name.
This is a typical Shanghai-style Western food, where ingredients are seasoned with Chinese condiments like soy sauce, and more importantly, MSG. Shanghainese have a sweeter palate than most Chinese, and this is reflected in the cuisine.
Deda Signature Salad 德大色拉
While the cuisine was originally influenced by the Germans, their potato salad was not. Instead of the vinegar-dressed Kartöffelnsalat, the Shanghainese used sweetened mayonnaise and made a potato salad that’s closer to what the Japanese ones tasted these days. But it retained the German roots with the slice of pickled cucumber.
Originally called the Russian Soup because of its Ukrainian origins, Shanghainese called them in the local dialect 罗宋汤 (Hanyu pinyin: Luo2 Song3 Tang1) which sounded like “Russian” and the name stuck to these days. Even the Hong Kongers have taken this name up, you get this “Lo Sung” soup in old HK Western restaurants and Cha Chaan Tengs as well. And the borscht has also lost its Russian roots, the beets gave away to cabbage. It would have been better with beets, given the sweeter palate that Shanghainese have.
Baked Crab Claw 芝士焗蟹钳
Another of Deda’s classic dish is the crab claw baked in cheese. Cheddar is used in this case, and it wasn’t the best cheese.
The gooey, cheesy sauce was delicious however with the well toasted piece of baguette. Forget about the crab claw, it was just a single piece of frozen flower crab claw.
Grilled Lamb Chops 香煎羊排
You have been warned, every grilled dish regardless of meat choices came with this mysterious brown sauce. It was also this brown sauce that saved the day. The lamb chops were marinated Chinese style with soy sauce.
Dessert was surprising good – a small shot of yoghurt, cut fruits and a chocolate lava cake. While the lava cake is not exactly Jean-Georges, it was nevertheless a nice attempt of the century old Western restaurant trying to catch up with modern tastes. And to round it all up, a mug of Deda’s coffee.
Places like these would not have survived if not for the nationalisation of these restaurants to become state-owned. The places were preserved as a reminder of the old times, good or bad. The food was sub-standard compared to the rest of the culinary scene of Shanghai. The service was nonchalant to the verge of don’t care. When they heard I went to Deda for dinner, Shanghainese would frown on my lack of sophistication and taste.
Despite all these, they kept coming. You would still see old Shanghainese ladies and gentlemen bringing their grandchildren to Deda and chatting happily in their dialect with the service staff. This is when you see that genuine smile of the waiters and waitresses. That familiar atmosphere of a simpler, older time. And these children, when they grew up, would bring their grandchildren, and the circle of life would continue.
Deda Western Restaurant 德大西餐社 (Main)
Date Visited : Jun 2021
Some photos were taken on an earlier visit (Jan 2016) to their other branch in Yunnan Road.