If you have time for only one meal when visiting China's northern coastal city of Tianjin, have it at Yue Wei Xian Restaurant.
Situated amidst a complex of exotic-styled buildings on Hebei Road, and with a name which literally means "Cantonese Delicacies," Yue Wei Xian is housed within a four-story building designed in 1936 by Italian architect Paul Bonetti. The exterior walls are decorated with specially formed knot-shaped bricks; hence the local nickname, "Knot Building." This construction was once the residence of the late Ma Lianliang, a renowned master of Peking Opera.
At the entrance, in addition to the name "Yue Wei Xian," there is another plaque inscribed with "Huayun Museum." The Cantonese-style restaurant concurrently serves as a private museum, the first of its kind in Tianjin. Thus the celebrated writer Feng Jicai dubbed the place the "edible museum."
Entering Yue Wei Xian for the first time, one is struck by an elegant atmosphere devoted to traditional Chinese culture. Standing in an imposing manner at the center of the hall is a 2.5-meter-high white marble statue of a traditional civil official. Adding to the elegance and mystique, also arrayed around the hall are more than 3,000 cultural relics, including bronze ware, sculptures, stone tablets, stone carvings, wood carvings, decorative screens, wood cases, smoking sets, and bells.
Here one can get up close to view and appreciate diverse artistic works, many of which have their own particular and remarkable story to tell. For instance, an ornate chair may be traced back to the 18th Century. The third and fourth floors are devoted to VIP rooms, each featuring its own unique style and ambience. Most of the rooms hold furniture dating to the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties, and one of those is adorned with a genuine imperial degree.
Yue Wei Xian is the brainchild of proprietor Zhang Lianzhi. Born into a family devoted to collecting precious and historic objects, Zhang has a special enthusiasm for cultural relics. His collection includes thousands of pieces among dozens of categories, including sculpture, musical instruments, memorial archways, doors and windows, furniture, equestrian equipment, carriages, and bronze mirrors. Rather than hiding away these precious cultural relics, Zhang chose to blend his historical collection with a modern culture of cuisine, so as to offer diners a feast for both eye and palate. He distributed most of his collection over the three Yue Wei Xian operations, and thus each of the three restaurants also became "museums."
"My purpose is not to display wealth," Zhang says. "Instead, I wish to enable my customers to better understand Chinese history and culture, while enjoying closer contact with our cultural legacy."
Of course, the ambiance is not the only draw. The Cantonese-style dishes are tasty, inexpensive, and equally alluring for the clientele.
Today in China's large metropolises, in increasing numbers diners are seeking out not just a meal, but also a visual and spiritual sensory experience. This may partially explain the strong and growing popularity of Yue Wei Xian.
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