Great China will be closed for a wedding this Saturday, September 6th during our lunch service. We will open for dinner at 5:00pm.

Thank You!

Great China Management

Closed Friday, July 4th

June 30th, 2014

Great China Restaurant will be closed on Friday, the Fourth of July. Have a safe Independence Day!

Thank you East Bay Express for your review! We loved it!

After a fire, Berkeley’s fanciest Chinese restaurant is back and better than ever. A moment of silence, please, in remembrance of the kitchen fire that raged through Berkeley’s Great China back in 2012, resulting in the restaurant’s closure for well over a year. May those dark, Peking duck-less days never return.

The titan of regional Chinese cookery finally reopened this past December in a new, modern-looking space located around the corner, in a former Looney’s barbecue joint that has been rebuilt from the ground up. The new digs lack the creaky charm of the original, which was housed in a quirky old split-level where the ladies who took your order might scold you for asking too many questions, and where first-time visitors would often be stunned to find a prize-winning wine selection (much of which, sadly, was lost in the fire).

Now, the main dining room has the sleek, minimalist look of a high-end cafeteria. It’s bigger, with room for 150 diners. And the service is better, too: The food comes out faster, and you’re less likely to wait for your check or for a refill of your water. An actual host stand, with two hosts working at all times, has replaced the old front-of-house system (a pad of paper), which is fortunate because if anything the crowds of people clamoring to score a table have gotten even larger. Word to the wise: Show up as soon as the restaurant opens.

All the changes make Great China 2.0 even more “Western-friendly” than ever, but if anything the food strives toward greater authenticity, as several Americanized dishes have been eliminated. The main influence is the cuisine of Shandong, the northern coastal province that is the ancestral home of the Yu family (which has run the restaurant for nearly thirty years), but the menu is fairly broad-ranging in its regional specificity. James Yu, who runs the front of the house, told me that his father, Ching, the original chef, grew up in Pusan, Korea, so there is a smattering of Korean-Chinese dishes — jajangmyeon (noodles in a thick black-soybean sauce) and fried sweet-and-sour beef — and complimentary home-style kimchi, served upon request. Less adventurous diners will find better-than-average versions of standard dishes like walnut prawns and stir-fried vegetables (the garlicky, sautéed snow-pea leaves, now in season, are especially nice).

Mostly, though, the menu skews toward the cuisine of northern China. The most popular item by far is the Peking duck, which I ordered during at almost every visit to the old Great China. It’s a showstopper of a dish, the best version I’ve encountered in the Bay Area, with shatteringly crisp skin and tender meat, served with plum sauce and a pile of thin, delicate crepes. If you’re dining with two people, a single order is pretty much a complete dinner. But for the sake of journalism, I decided to branch out and explore other, more understated pleasures.

Which isn’t to say I avoided duck altogether. An order of the rich, milky-white duck-bone soup — for which roasted bones (leftover from the Peking duck) are slowly simmered with sweet onions and napa cabbage — makes for an excellent first course. And many diners like the tea-smoked duck even better than the Peking duck. It’s served on the bone and features crisp, charred skin and deeply smoky, full-flavored flesh, although the end pieces were a little bit dry. (The other advantage over the Peking duck is that this is just half a duck, allowing you to preserve stomach space for other dishes.)

Many of the best dishes at Great China highlighted the bounty of the sea. Fish dumplings featured a gingery, delicate filling made with hand-cut basa — not the machine-processed fish mousse you typically get at restaurants. And another of my favorite appetizers, an order of baby Pacific oysters — a particularly tiny, flavorful variety that the restaurant sources from Korea — were perfectly fried, with a thick tempura-style batter. Bite into each of these crunchy little nuggets, and you get a briny burst of ocean flavor.

Almost all of the items mentioned here are conveniently marked on the menu as house specials; stick to those, and you’re almost certain to eat well. Another of my favorites was the steamed surf clams, which are priced at $7.95 a pound and are huge. The cooks slice the meat thinly and steam it, then present the tender-chewy sliced meat on the half-shell topped with slivered scallions and hot oil — the traditional condiments for Chinese steamed fish. Scoop some white rice right into the shell so that it soaks up all of that oily sauce. It’s not health food, but it’s tasty.

Perhaps the most unusual of the restaurant’s signature dishes is sautéed Dungeness crab that Yu said was inspired by something his father saw served at another restaurant, but with fake crab. At Great China, almost an entire crab’s worth of meat gets tossed in the wok with egg white and a ginger-herb sauce, so that you end up with a kind of crab slurry — light and herbaceous, the delicate flavor of the crab still shining through. The server brings the dish to the table with a raw egg yolk on top, which gets mixed in tableside, to bind it all together. Spoon the mixture into puffy steamed buns, and what you wind up with is not unlike a Chinese reinterpretation of a crab roll.

Great China has, of course, long been the rare Chinese restaurant where ordering a glass of wine feels natural — thanks in large part to a world-class list that Yu curated over the years. Even now, with an abbreviated selection, Yu said that oenophiles often email him to set up the special wine-pairing dinners he’ll do for parties of eight or more. You tell him what kinds of wine you’re interested in drinking, and Yu, whose training was as a sommelier, will pair them expertly with complementary dishes.

How many other Chinese restaurants in Berkeley offer that kind of experience? It’s no wonder, Great China, that you have been sorely missed.

Great China is now Quieter!!

April 29th, 2014

GC is now quieter! We have installed sound baffles throughout the dining room and still have more to come. The bar and lounge is still kept as a lively place to dine but we are continuing to make the rest of the restaurant easier to converse in.

Thank You

Great China Management

Of all the reasons for a favorite restaurant to close, fire is one of the most tragic. There’s no gradual decline in food or service, no switch in management or ownership, none of the usual warning signs of a failing restaurant — it’s firing on all cylinders one day and gone the next.

Such was the case with Great China in downtown Berkeley, a popular Chinese-American restaurant that was destroyed by fire in January 2012. Though the owners, the Yu family, vowed to reopen, then signed a lease on a new, bigger location a block away, it’s the rare restaurant that can sustain its customer base and level of quality after a catastrophe and a move. But in December 2013, nearly two years after it was destroyed, Great China rose from the ashes, with its original chefs and part of its original staff, to once again become the Chinese restaurant that Berkeley residents knew and loved. And with its crowd lined up outside most nights and its popular lunch specials, it shows no signs of having lost anything along the way.

Great China’s appeal is not that it pushes the envelope on cuisine, though it does have a few specialties, like its double-skin noodles and warm crab rolls, that you don’t encounter much at the usual Chinese-American joints. It’s also got a better wine list than most — you can thank owner James Yu for developing it and Berkeley’s population for supporting it. But at heart, Great China is a neighborhood restaurant, and I was curious to see how it stood up to someone who had no emotional attachment to the place. How much of the reason we love a restaurant is nostalgia and convenience, and how much is the food itself?

Great China’s popular Peking duck is back.
Peking duck $35
Double-skin noodles $15-$25
Sauteed crab $25
Honey-walnut prawns $16
Ong choy with fermented tofu $13
Lunch specials $8.26-$9.17

It didn’t take long to see the restaurant’s enduring appeal. It started with the Peking duck, a menu highlight that graced most of the tables in the 150-seat restaurant. The duck meat itself, shredded and free of fat and bone, is topped with shingles of crisp, paper-thin duck skin that make up a bronze geodesic dome. It’s served with two dozen doughy pancakes meant to be spread with tangy plum sauce, topped with duck meat, skin, and shredded scallions, and rolled into a taco. An order of Peking duck and a glass of wine would not be bad company for an evening.

But then you’d miss out on the restaurant’s many other highlights. Shandong is a coastal province known for its seafood, which features in some of the menu’s unique dishes. White puffy buns come with a small mountain of warm crab sauteed with vegetables and topped with an egg, mixed by the server at the table. There wasn’t much texture in the mushy crab, and its gingery sauce overpowered its delicate flavor — a disappointment at its $25 price tag. But spooned into the sweet buns, it clicked: Here was a Chinese version of a crab roll.

You can order the popular double-skin noodles in a range of sizes; small is good for a party of four. A plate arrives with a pile of translucent glass noodles in the middle, quivering like jellyfish. Orbiting it are intriguing shreds of other ingredients: squid, shrimp, egg crepe, carrots, cucumber, and sea cucumber, which has the cartilaginous texture of pig ear. A separate bowl of shredded, cooked pork is added to the plate along with a vinegar/mustard sauce and mixed by the waiter. The final product tasted mostly of mustard and vinegar, but it was a textural delight: Each bite had a bit of something slippery, firm, crunchy, and soft.

The menu also offers items so familiar they’re comfort food for many of us, like another of the house specialties, the honey-walnut prawns. Great China’s rendition is a fine one, with fresh prawns encased in a crisp rice-flour coating, candied walnuts with nuttiness beneath their sugary lacquer, and a creamy sauce with lively citrus to counteract its usual sweetness.

Most of the tables — an even mix of families, couples, and college students — were graced with some combination of the above dishes. The woman seated next to us with her family said she was a regular and nodded approvingly at our menu choices, leaning over to ask how we’d liked every dish. This kind of interaction between parties was easy to have with tables only a few inches apart, but large windows and soaring ceilings keep the room from feeling claustrophobic. Its walls and floor are concrete, a show of permanence, but softened by abstract Chinese art on the walls. A long bar in front accommodates single diners, though as of yet there’s no alcohol behind it (the restaurant does have a beer and wine license, but the shelves are empty except for a row of backlit glasses, kind of like the bar in The Shining).

Lunch brings in another type of crowd, students and downtown Berkeley workers, for the prices as much as the food itself. Less than $10 gets you a special with an entree, rice (fried, white, or brown), a spring roll, salad, orange slices, tea, and fortune cookies. Most of the entrees follow the standard Chinese-restaurant playbook. Mongolian beef was tender, if not particularly spicy — just a solid riff on the takeout mainstay. Ma po tofu was soft and dusky, with a nice balance of oil and spice. It was enough to make me wish the restaurant was in my lunch radius so I could eat there every week.

If it were near my house, I’d go there for dinner too and methodically work my way through the long menu, which had more dishes to try than my time and budget allowed. One order of ong choy, Chinese spinach with fermented tofu, had the kind of funk that made me want to explore other meatless items, like guo ta tofu with ginger and scallions. The meat dishes are just as compelling, from five-spice-braised lamb shanks to thrice-cooked pork belly.

That’s the great appeal of a neighborhood restaurant: It’s a place that’s as reliable as a good friend, as comfortable as your favorite hoodie, and can reassure you when you’re feeling blue and challenge you when you’re feeling adventurous. Welcome back to the fold, Great China.

We are sorry to announce we are fully booked for Chinese New Year Weekend. Expect very long wait times for walk-ins.

Now Serving Wine and Beer!

January 18th, 2014

We are excited to announce that we are now serving Wine and Beer!

Online reservations are back

January 18th, 2014

Online reservations are back here.

Please note: Round tables are not guaranteed and reservations are for parties of 6 or more.

Closed Tuesdays

December 30th, 2013

Great China Restaurant will be closed every Tuesday starting January 7th 2014.

Thank You
Great China Restaurant

Holiday Hours

December 22nd, 2013

We’re going to be closed Christmas. Update we will be open New Year’s Eve; but closed New Year’s Day.