Established in 1848, Lou Wai Lou, set along the banks of the West Lake, a picturesque UNESCO World Heritage site, is generally regarded as the best restaurant in the city of Hangzhou. It's certainly one of the oldest and most famous, and is virtually a compulsory stop for any visiting local or foreign dignitary having welcomed, amongst many others, Sun Yat-Sen, Jiang Zemin, President Nixon; and for any food-inspired tourist.
We arrived for dinner at around 7:45pm and were told that the private room we had reserved was no longer available as it was too late in the day and the staff who usually service such rooms were no longer on-site. Yes, this was at 7:45pm - we quickly learned that everything shuts down in Hangzhou rather early in the day, with 8pm not uncommon as the time for last orders.
After a round of negotiation, we were seated in the main restaurant area, which actually suited us fine, as it meant that we were spared the minimum spend requirement that usually accompanies a private room; and given the 'late' hour, all the benefits of the private room - less noise, faster service, no queues were no longer an issue anyway.
Surrounded by scowling waiters and waitresses who were clearly thrilled to see us walk in just as they were ready to pack it in for the night, we ordered promptly; and food started arriving almost instantaneously, served, most assuredly, without a smile.
Of the cold dishes, a first sampling on this trip of Bean curd with mushroom, daylily and peanuts was mildly appetising, but a Steamed goose liver was absolutely ghastly. Hangzhou beggar's chicken with beef, supposedly a speciality of the region, and the restaurant, was dry in the extreme. The version at Zhiweiguan for lunch that day was by no means the best version, but was still significantly better than this. Dongpo pork was also very dry, and had none of the lovely flavour that accompanied the lunchtime rendition at Zhiweiguan. The Crystal king shrimps and shrimp balls with Long Jing tea leaves didn't taste at all of green tea; admittedly a trait with this dish not exclusive to Lou Wai Lou, but the shrimps were also noticeably less fresh and less succulent here than elsewhere.
A Song sau fish soup, meant to be sour, was overly so. Deep fried bean curd skin roll with pork was a dish that could be found anywhere, while Ham with honey and lotus was so inferior to Jardin de Jade's the night before that even making a comparison would be an insult to the Shanghai establishment. Cured Bean Curd was another "nothing" dish.
We didn't stay for dessert, in no small part because when asked, they, in not so many words, told us that they didn't really have any dessert. Given what had gone before, it was almost certainly a blessing.
In a nutshell...
So many of China's long-established culinary institutions, especially those owned by the state, frequently fall short in the final reckoning, content to rest on their laurels safe in the knowledge that their position at the top of the tree is practically unassailable thanks to their history, and ownership. Lou Wai Lou is the perfect embodiment of this. The prices were actually fairly reasonable for a restaurant of such repute; a reputation wholly undeserved, but decent prices mean nothing when the food is this bad, never mind the service which can only be described as appalling.
Lou Wai Lou
30 Gushan Road, Solitary Hill, West Lake, Hangzhou, China
Average Price: RMB150