Temple Restaurant Beijing aka TRB Hutong was just named the world’s favorite restaurant by Trip Advisor, topping venues that hold Michelin stars (yawn) or other awards (yawn) deemed lofty in fine dining circles. TRB’s win might not shock the owners and staff too much, as they placed seventh last year and worked diligently to win this year, but it is pretty big news for the foodies of Planet Earth.
Case in point: Right after the announcement, friends from beyond China began contacting me about TRB. Have you heard of this restaurant? Have you been there? What’s it like? Quick answer: It’s the best!
As expected, TRB’s win is eliciting a wide range of reactions, from praise for a place that has delighted many people for many years to critiques the food / service / atmosphere / whatever might be good but certainly not the world’s best. Plus lots of opinions between. Blah blah blah.
The criteria for “best” can wildly fluctuate, depending on a given contest, so it is best to check the fine print. But does a consistent track record of victories (as TRB has) usually mean quality? Yes. Does it mean value? Not always. Does it mean you or I will enjoy it? Who knows!?
I was a big fan of former Korean restaurant Ssam in Sanlitun SOHO but many friends turned up their noses. They wanted bibimbap and BBQ. I spent time in Korea, so I enjoyed Ssam’s modern spin on traditional foods.
Same with the former Migas Sanlitun. Many friends didn’t get why I kept praising it. Again, I loved how Migas pushed the envelope and gave us authentic Spanish fare but also lots of cool twists. To each his / her own.
Anyway, back to TRB. It’s the best.
First, TRB hums with Beijing vibes: it’s a short walk from the Forbidden City, down a hutong street, set inside temple grounds, and by the time I enter the restaurant after a hectic day, I feel I’ve sauntered through a cultural decompression chamber.
It also embraced local wine when few others did. These days, everyone and their sibling is into Chinese wines. TRB listed lots of local labels even in the restaurant’s early days.
Second, TRB is holistic. Does it have the best food, ambiance or service? I don’t know. What matters is TRB takes those parts to give us the best whole, the best blend, like a winemaker leveraging the unique qualities of several grape varieties to give us something greater.
The menus are kept creative with seasonal changes and guest chefs. The service is professional and ably goes beyond polite to friendly. And both TRB’s location as well as the design of the restaurant space, with views of the temple entrance, speaks to many.
I get emails daily from people, including incoming visitors, about where to eat and drink in Beijing. TRB is always an easy answer, whether for first-time guests to the city or old friends here.
Third, TRB has Ignace Lecleir. He’s been in Beijing since the launch of the former Maison Boulud. I would hike over to that part of town for dinners by chef Brian Reimer or to have cocktails by Frankie Zou in the bar and, as many people, slowly got to know the seemingly indefatigable perpetually smiling Lecleir, a man who seems to bring the best out in people, who seems able to solve any challenge, who seems never to sleep. And who supports community events, time and time and time again.
I finally had my first and only one-on-one dinner with him last fall. I went with five bottles of Chinese wine. We drank most of it, then followed that with baijiu shots. Guess what? He’s human! He eats, drinks and jokes like all of us. (He even sleeps! At least that’s what he claimed.) I learned a bit about his life before China, how hard success is in fine dining, and never to challenge him in a drinking contest.
Anyway, I’m rambling so I’ll just say I don’t care to nitpick whether TRB is best in the world or not. It’s as hard to prove as what’s the best Chinese wine (Shi Bai Pian Cabernet 2015?) or basketball player these past few years. What matters is that TRB is a deserving winner and lots of us here in Beijing already thought it was best long ago.
Note: I asked Lecleir today if the win might mean needing to RSVP months in advance. He said his goal in opening TRB was “that it belongs to the community” and that his priority is to ensure you won’t need to book that far ahead. And that when hiring he looks for “personality and passion” as “the other elements of hospitality are easily taught.” He also told me a funny anecdote about when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg ate at TRB but I’ll save that for a later post.
If you are still reading, I’ll add that I have good experiences doing events or attending special dinners at TRB. Here are five:
Our annual Grape Wall Challenge, a non-profit contest with Chinese consumers as wine judges, in 2013. That year we focused on local wine priced under 100 kuai and TRB sponsored the space and snacks.
A going away party for Michael and Joanna Crain, co-founders of Chifan for Charity, who shared a bunch of wines they brought back from a trip to Myanmar. I remember there being a lot of visiting wine people in TRB –MWs, Berry Bros reps and more — on that very boozy night.
The Ningxia Winemakers Challenge in 2014, an event I helped organize for the region’s wine authority. It involved judging wine made in Ningxia by winemakers from seven countries, with RMB190,000 up for grabs. We rented a nearby room for judging and had both lunch and dinner in TRB.
What TRB is all about: getting together with friends for food and drink. Here with Yvonne Chiong of Opus One, trying a few local wines.
Filming a Netflix wine documentary in TRB last October. It was supposed to take a few hours but ended up going for six. The episode, called “Reign of Terroir”, part of the “Rotten” series, finally came out a few weeks ago. Still feel guilty we tied up the room so long. And still remember that tasty lunch, including this:
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