The Beijing-based one-star Michelin restaurant Family Li Imperial Cuisine has a sign inscribed by Pu Jie, the younger brother of China’s last emperor Pu Yi. The imperial aura of the restaurant extends to its menu. Its culinary lineage is said to have descended from the best chefs in Beijing during the Qing Dynasty. The restaurant’s royal reputation, however, has just come under fire after finding itself on the receiving end of bad social media reviews.
On September 24, Wang Yuheng, a social media influencer and a popular contestant on the variety show The Brain, reviewed his meal at Family Li on weibo.
“This is a very terrible experience, including the environment and the food,” said Wang. “If this restaurant can be rated as one star, then a school canteen can be rated as two stars or above.” He accompanied his review with pictures of the meal, which consisted of shrimp, ribs and fish, among other dishes.
After Wang made the post, Family Li quickly became a hot topic across social media, with many onlookers agreeing with the influencer’s views.
The restaurant was founded in 1985 by Li Shanlin. He was born to a prestigious Manchurian family. His grandfather served as a senior official in the imperial court of the Tongzhi and Guangxu emperors. One of his main duties: organising the royal banquets and designing the menus.
Nearly 900 recipes for the royal family’s favourite dishes are said to have been passed on to Li Shanlin, although Family Li can only reproduce about 200 these days because of limitations in getting the necessary ingredients (such as tiger and rhino).
In its early days Family Li targeted tourists (the locals were too poor in the 1980s). Many notable figures have dined at the restaurant, such as novelist Jin Yong and actor Jackie Chan from Hong Kong. Distinguished foreign guests also included former US Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin, former UK Prime Minister John Major and business magnate Bill Gates.
Today, the restaurant has four locations: two in Beijing, one in Taipei and one in Tokyo and they are currently managed by Li Shanlin’s daughter and son.
Late last month, the founder’s son Li Xiaolin responded to the adverse review, insisting that food quality is not the issue. “The dishes aren’t a problem. Our dishes have been like this for the past 20 years. Many famous people have visited, and what they like isn’t necessarily what you will like.”
Family Li only offers set menus, ranging from Rmb298 ($44.4) to Rmb2,868. Li junior noted that Wang and his friends had chosen the cheapest set, implying that pricier dishes might result in an entirely different dining experience.
However, his comment further irked onlookers. “Family Li Imperial doesn’t want to serve poor men these days?” one internet users asked. Another food review blogger Xie Tian Xie, who says he has sampled many Michelin-starred restaurants, disagreed with Li’s claim, citing a clear discrepancy between how the ordinary customer rates Family Li and the royal reputation that the restaurant earned in its earlier years.
“In the past the restaurant had one primary dish – the bird’s nest, abalone and shark fin soup – which used the finest ingredients and sophisticated preparation,” wrote Xie. “It would only make one dish to solidify its brand. Now it is just trying to make money. Prices need to be attractive, so ingredients are cheap. Customer turnaround has to be fast, so the quality of cooking is low.”
“Family Li Imperial Cuisine is trying to uphold the reputation of a fine dining experience, while using subpar quality food to attract price-sensitive customers. This strategy could earn them a little money, but ultimately the result is the demise of the brand.”
The row happened shortly after a similar ‘consumer rights’ debate was triggered by a video posted by popular travel blogger Gu Yue which criticised Goubuli’s Wangfujing restaurant (see WiC512).
This too provoked much online chatter after the franchise holder for that particular Goubuli outlet issued a statement notifying Gu that it had called the police as a result of his scathing review which it said had “spread false, vicious information that was damaging to the restaurant’s reputation and financial livelihood”.
In response to the public backlash, Goubuli Group apologised and revoked the Wangfujing restaurant’s franchise.
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