Peking duck is the ultimate must-try in Beijing. (Photo: Alamy)
Few nations can boast the level of culinary sophistication and diversity that the People’s Republic of China can.
From the blisteringly spicy hot pots of Chongqing and the hand-pulled noodles of Lanzhou to the delicate xiao long bao (soup dumplings) of Shanghai, each city has its own specialties of which it is justly proud. Beijing is no exception, and locals are all happy to discuss the merits of the best jianbing (a thin crepe served on the street) and other snacks.
The undisputed king of the capital’s cuisine, however, will always be Beijing kao ya, often known in the West simply as Peking duck.
Seldom, if ever, attempted by home cooks, this labor-intensive preparation takes days and the skills of a master to complete. Generations of chefs have rigorously perfected each element, from the special breed of bird to its distinctive diet.
Professionals endlessly debate the smallest details, such as whether to use fragrant peach or date wood for roasting. After days of marinating, air-drying and a final, fiery blast in an inferno-like vertical oven, the ducks emerge with shatteringly crisp skin and a gorgeous, glossy sheen.
Carved and served with hoisin sauce, scallions and pancakes, the finished dish is a feast fit for a special occasion. Although who has the finest duck in town is a fiercely contested topic, most Beijingers would agree that the following eateries rank among the best.
Quanjude Roast Duck
The name Quanjude is all but synonymous with Beijing’s beloved dish. Since opening its flagship Qianmen branch in 1864, the restaurant has sold millions upon millions of quackers worldwide.
Though the eight Beijing outlets attract their fair share of tourists, and the original can feel a bit like a factory during peak times, it’s hard to dispute the superb quality of the duck.
The Wangfujing branch makes for a more subdued alternative to the main location and usually requires less of a wait for a table.
30 Qianmen St., Dongcheng Dist.; +86 10 6511 2418
Although gastronomic scholars question this restaurant’s claim that it invented the dish, there’s no denying that Bianyifang serves a mean Peking duck. Given that the place recently celebrated its 600th anniversary, they certainly have had time to perfect the recipe.
The restaurant’s oldest existing location dates back to the 1800s, which puts it right up there with rival roastery Quanjude.
5 Chongwenmen Outer St., Chongwenmen, Dongcheng Dist.; +86 10 6708 8680
Da Dong Roast Duck
Sleek and sophisticated, Da Dong Roast Duck‘s branches offer a contemporary spin on the classic, sans the kitschy decorations and clamor of more traditional restaurants. Though these ducks err on the pricey side, rabidly loyal devotees claim that they are worth it for the exceptionally lean, tender meat and brittle, beautifully lacquered skin.
Duck de Chine
From the moment you set foot in this stylishly modern space, it’s clear that you’ve entered a different sort of duck restaurant.
While the original Quanjude hosts hundreds and sports a rather gaudy red-and-gold aesthetic, this stripped-down interior attached to a Bollinger Champagne bar keeps it as classy as can be.
In addition to the ducks themselves, which roast to burnished glory over aromatic jujube wood, Duck de Chine offers updated renditions of side staples.