Aged to Perfection
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A gleaming glass elevator delivers us, Willy Wonka style, to the concrete labyrinth of bridges and ramps that makes up 1933, the 75-year-old Shanghai slaughterhouse that is reopening tonight and is set to include – what else? – the city’s latest high-end steak house. We’re greeted by David Laris, the diminutive, bald-headed celebrity chef who has worked in kitchens across Europe and Asia and who is leading the charge to revive this Art Deco masterpiece.

Laris, who is of Greek heritage and was born in Australia, arrived in Shanghai five years ago to help reinvent Three on the Bund, the sprawling neoclassical building (built in 1916 by the Union Assurance Company) that many credit for leading Shanghai’s revival of disused industrial spaces. “When I first came,” he says, “I thought I’d give it a year or two and see how it goes, but I became more and more inspired by what China was becoming and the potential that it has.” His eponymous restaurant, as well as four other restaurants (including a Jean Georges), anchors the building – redesigned by American architect Michael Graves – which also houses couture boutiques and the Shanghai Gallery of Art. The old abattoir, says Laris, “deserves to become something special. We have to allow it to live on in a new incarnation.”

Laris’ approach, of course, is not the norm here; the crane and bulldozer have been the symbols of Shanghai’s dramatic rise. But in contrast to the city’s long-held belief that the future requires scrapping the past, there is now a growing sense that Shanghai must move forward by reanimating what it has left behind. At the vanguard of this process are restaurants, capitalizing on a growing taste for the authentic and lending a spirit of vitality (renao) to a movement in architecture and design that’s radically changing the face of China’s largest city.

Richard Xavia is perched at the bar of Hamilton House, his new French brasserie, when I arrive. Shanghai, he says, “is in the midst of an artistic revolution. It happened before in Berlin in the 1920s, Paris in the ’60s and New York in the ’80s. Restaurants and bars are where this revolution gets played out.”

The room is buzzing as diners sip absinthe frappés and dine on foie gras in a newly refurbished Art Deco-inspired interior, evocative of 1930s Shanghai, an era that Xavia calls “one of the best brands in the world.” Hamilton House is in another of the city’s Modernist masterpieces, a looming skyscraper built in 1934 by the legendary tycoon Sir Victor Sassoon. Despite its proximity to the developed Bund, the area is still neglected. Xavia refers to Hamilton House as an “incubator” – a testing ground for what he believes this area can become.

A few blocks away, in the heart of the former French Concession, Xavia’s revolution is already playing out. Just past the vats of snakes and sacks of semi-somnolent toads at the local wet market, musicians, artists and designers gather for the Sunday Big Breakfast at the Kommune Courtyard Café & Wine Bar, in the complex known as Lane 210 Taikang Lu, or Tianzifang.

Eight years ago, Wu Meison, a native Shanghainese and government employee, was given the mandate of devising a plan for preserving the area. Wu, who credits Vancouver’s Granville Island as part of his inspiration, held a factory party, and in a single night rented out the entire area – 4,500 square metres of industrial space. With wine bars, pizza joints and cafés as its lifeblood, Tianzifang is now home to nearly 200 shops and galleries, run by people from 21 countries.

While Taikang Lu is being repurposed as a creative cluster, many of the area’s original tenants have stayed, renting out their cramped living spaces as cafés and designer boutiques. As such, signs of lilong, the traditional laneway community life, are still apparent: Laundry hangs from bamboo poles and exposed wires, men crowd around folding tables playing mah-jong, old women gossip in their doorways. Above Kommune’s back patio is a couple in their 80s who have lived in the area their entire lives. “There is already 200 years of history here,” says Wu. “The goal is to preserve as much as possible.”

After the Cultural Revolution, when Shanghai reopened its doors, restaurants were the first to bloom. It’s no surprise, then, as the city realizes the importance of reviving its golden age, that restaurateurs are leading the way. As Laris explains, “I want to step back years from now and be able to say that, in my own small way, I was part of this massive change.”

A gleaming glass elevator delivers us, Willy Wonka style, to the concrete labyrinth of bridges and ramps that makes up 1933, the 75-year-old Shanghai slaughterhouse that is reopening tonight and is set to include – what else? – the city’s latest high-end steak house. We’re greeted by David Laris, the diminutive, bald-headed celebrity chef who has worked in kitchens across Europe and Asia and who is leading the charge to revive this Art Deco masterpiece.

Laris, who is of Greek heritage and was born in Australia, arrived in Shanghai five years ago to help reinvent Three on the Bund, the sprawling neoclassical building (built in 1916 by the Union Assurance Company) that many credit for leading Shanghai’s revival of disused industrial spaces. “When I first came,” he says, “I thought I’d give it a year or two and see how it goes, but I became more and more inspired by what China was becoming and the potential that it has.” His eponymous restaurant, as well as four other restaurants (including a Jean Georges), anchors the building – redesigned by American architect Michael Graves – which also houses couture boutiques and the Shanghai Gallery of Art. The old abattoir, says Laris, “deserves to become something special. We have to allow it to live on in a new incarnation.”

Laris’ approach, of course, is not the norm here; the crane and bulldozer have been the symbols of Shanghai’s dramatic rise. But in contrast to the city’s long-held belief that the future requires scrapping the past, there is now a growing sense that Shanghai must move forward by reanimating what it has left behind. At the vanguard of this process are restaurants, capitalizing on a growing taste for the authentic and lending a spirit of vitality (renao) to a movement in architecture and design that’s radically changing the face of China’s largest city.

Richard Xavia is perched at the bar of Hamilton House, his new French brasserie, when I arrive. Shanghai, he says, “is in the midst of an artistic revolution. It happened before in Berlin in the 1920s, Paris in the ’60s and New York in the ’80s. Restaurants and bars are where this revolution gets played out.”

The room is buzzing as diners sip absinthe frappés and dine on foie gras in a newly refurbished Art Deco-inspired interior, evocative of 1930s Shanghai, an era that Xavia calls “one of the best brands in the world.” Hamilton House is in another of the city’s Modernist masterpieces, a looming skyscraper built in 1934 by the legendary tycoon Sir Victor Sassoon. Despite its proximity to the developed Bund, the area is still neglected. Xavia refers to Hamilton House as an “incubator” – a testing ground for what he believes this area can become.

A few blocks away, in the heart of the former French Concession, Xavia’s revolution is already playing out. Just past the vats of snakes and sacks of semi-somnolent toads at the local wet market, musicians, artists and designers gather for the Sunday Big Breakfast at the Kommune Courtyard Café & Wine Bar, in the complex known as Lane 210 Taikang Lu, or Tianzifang.

Eight years ago, Wu Meison, a native Shanghainese and government employee, was given the mandate of devising a plan for preserving the area. Wu, who credits Vancouver’s Granville Island as part of his inspiration, held a factory party, and in a single night rented out the entire area – 4,500 square metres of industrial space. With wine bars, pizza joints and cafés as its lifeblood, Tianzifang is now home to nearly 200 shops and galleries, run by people from 21 countries.

While Taikang Lu is being repurposed as a creative cluster, many of the area’s original tenants have stayed, renting out their cramped living spaces as cafés and designer boutiques. As such, signs of lilong, the traditional laneway community life, are still apparent: Laundry hangs from bamboo poles and exposed wires, men crowd around folding tables playing mah-jong, old women gossip in their doorways. Above Kommune’s back patio is a couple in their 80s who have lived in the area their entire lives. “There is already 200 years of history here,” says Wu. “The goal is to preserve as much as possible.”

After the Cultural Revolution, when Shanghai reopened its doors, restaurants were the first to bloom. It’s no surprise, then, as the city realizes the importance of reviving its golden age, that restaurateurs are leading the way. As Laris explains, “I want to step back years from now and be able to say that, in my own small way, I was part of this massive change.”