If you are looking for some cheap food in China then it’s actually nothing hard, but finding some “normal” western food (especially something edible and in nice atmosphere) may already present a challenge.
No surprise, for me it actually WAS a challenge until I started hanging out in the Russian district of Beijing. It all started when a Russian acquaintance of mine once asked me if I want to have dinner for 10 yuan (1.5 euro) at a nice buffet. I didn’t know the guy so well what made me assume that it’s a scam or at least a joke. It became even more odd when it came out that the restaurant is located in a quite empty shopping mall where in front of the entrance stand a few worn-out Chinese guys. They asked everybody entering if they “want to buy lunch coupons” in Russian. As one of them approached us I immediately refused without paying much attention, however the friend I was with stopped and started bargaining.Subsequently he put a “coupon” (on which everything was written in Cyrillic) in my hand and told me to give him a tenner for my ticket since this is how much he paid for it. Still discombobulated – I followed him to the elevator and then through a maze of “goldish” Russian-style decorated corridors to reach the entrance with a sign saying “European Restaurant” and then “Black Mamba”.The guy at the entrance took our coupons from us, we got 2 plates from another person standing by the door and sat down at a table with puffy chairs and a bit kitschy finish among nearly completely empty room with maybe 2 people eating shrimps in the corner and some other 3 Russian looking old ladies walking around with plates.
The restaurant itself is a buffet and there is maybe 30 dishes plus salad table to choose from. Most of it is typical Russian food but the quality is actually not so far from good and you can find something more western too like pizza, spaghetti, etc. Of course drinks included .(they even have shrimp^^!) From the ceiling hangs a crystal chandelier and upstairs there were some expensive looking shops with a lot of boxes piled up everywhere with nobody around. Also in the corner stands a piano on which nobody plays and there is an exposition of expensive alcohols which nobody ever buy at the very back of the room.
Being there for the first time I was intimidated since I was really convinced that there must be a catch. The coupon that my “tour guide” gave me could have been fake, stolen or something else and he was actually a “just met friend” and it was the first time I had ever met him.. In a nutshell, I just had that unpleasant feeling of anxiety which one feels while in an unknown or unpredictable situation while expecting somebody to take my plate away or hit me with a baseball bat any time soon. The guy’s jokes about stealing my mobile phone, kitschy finishing and strange surroundings didn’t really help. The fact that the guy’s name was Nikita didn’t either. But….. it came out just fine . Excited about my new discovery, I went there a few times with some other uninitiated souls who thought that eating out in restaurants like that has to be expensive. Nevertheless, that’s where the stumbling started! I didn’t really know how to get coupons! The guys in front of the entrance repeatedly just refused to sell me anything for less than 30 Yuan, even though I could exactly remember them selling coupons to my friend for 10 and I knew that the wholesale price is 5.
The 4th time I went there, the guy finally told me that if you want to buy it cheaper you need to go to the seventh floor of the opposite building and ask there. Of course no surprise there was nothing there. Having of course no guts to pay 25 Yuan (3.5 Euro!) every time I go there, I started asking people where they get their coupons, what was heavily hindered by the fact that there was only middle-age Russians around and for those of you who are not familiar with Russian culture I can tell you that Russian speakers are not particularly “chatty” with strangers. After a few times, I managed to find out that most people actually get those coupons for free and one time a nice gentleman from Turkmenistan went with me to one of the shops in the basement of the restaurant building telling the clerk to give me a few coupons for free. It wasn’t really possible to become lifetime friends with him but I’d managed to ask him enough questions to get to know the system – the people who work in the Russian district in which everything seems to be interconnected get coupons for free or really cheap.
Myself I started asking people on the street who look friendly enough and sometimes I could get a coupon or two for free or for 5 Yuan. If not, then there is always the option of going to the shop where that Turkmen gentleman once brought me, where they would be willing to sell me for 10-15 per coupon. Of course one can always buy it from the guys in front but they are “ripoffers” especially if they see that you have no other choice than to buy it there. I’m also quite sure that since it is actually a Russian restaurant and the nominal ticket price is 88元, there is some laundering money going on.
Maybe to some it may sound cheesy but it is actually one of the most valuable discoveries that I made so far and this statement will include a “doing nothing” company where I could work from home never getting any work to do. When you have a date or a showing around dinner this is a perfect place to go and if you ask your dinner partners to “split the bill” you could probably even make some money out of it. Up to you.