I must admit that I felt a tad self-conscious throughout my meal at Shanghai. We were dining late and had the restaurant almost entirely to ourselves. There was no background music, and the restaurant was very brightly lit. I was dining with my girlfriend, Danielle, a daughter of Sparks, where Shanghai is located, and the restaurant was a family favorite while she was growing up. It almost felt like a visit to the in-laws'.
Danielle was able to guide me through the menu, pointing out all the dishes she used to order growing up. The dish that got her highest recommendation (and her order) was the bean curd homestyle ($5.95), a braised tofu and stir-fried vegetable dish that provided Danielle with a crucial step in her burgeoning development as a vegetarian: “It was the first dish I ever had with really good tofu.” It is a good dish, though in my sampling, I tended to just pick out the tasty bits of tofu and ignore the vegetables.
We also had the egg drop soup (medium $5.25), and I ordered sweet and pungent chicken ($7.50) and pork lo mien ($4.50). The offerings ranged from passable to pretty good, though never great. The chicken was a bit more sweet than pungent and all the dishes were exactly what one would expect at a respectable but not outstanding Chinese restaurant (one that proudly proclaims “No MSG” just below its “Open” sign).
Shanghai—or is it “Shang Hai?” the menu and the sign outside disagree—is right across the street from Reed High School, Danielle’s alma mater, and it has long been a dining institution for students.
They offer student lunchtime specials, so it’s a nice, viable alternative to the fast food joints across the parking lot. While we’re dining, one of the few other guests we see is someone Danielle knew from high school so it is apparently a popular attraction to revisit.
The service is great: friendly, polite, formal, unobtrusive. The interior leaves much to be desired. In addition to the uncomfortable bright lights, the booths are upholstered with hideous flower print vinyl. But, in reality, it looks much the way you would expect a relatively inexpensive Chinese restaurant to look. This is a theme: Shanghai is exactly what you would expect it to be.
This is neither good nor bad. Though as diners we often crave innovation, it’s nice, really, to have restaurants that are privately owned but deliver familiar favorites in a familiar presentation.
This is why I wasn’t surprised that Danielle has such fond memories of Shanghai. Whereas I like my food bold, unusual and spicy to the point of agony, she likes dishes that are easy-going, comforting and, frankly, a little bland. But along these lines, for reliable, straightforward Chinese food, Shanghai serves just fine.