China's Roadside Eats

Spring has sprung. The hills north of Beijing are alive with ... the sound of noisy restaurant attendants, some waving red banners, standing at the side of the road shouting, "Stop here for a delicious meal!" at the throngs of city dwellers zooming by in their cars.

Chinese are hitting the road in record numbers. Car ownership more than tripled between 2000 and 2006, and China is now the world's second largest auto market after the United States. This love affair is spawning booming new auto-service industries, from vehicle accessories to roadside eateries. For better or worse, China is beginning to look—and taste—a lot like America in the 1950s. McDonald's and KFC (known for its Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets all over the country) plan to open 25 drive-through restaurants in China; both began testing the waters with drive-ins in Beijing and elsewhere in 2005.

McDonald's has entered into a strategic alliance with Sinopec, China's biggest oil producer and marketer, to open drive-through restaurants at Sinopec service stations across the country. (The retail oil giant has 30,000-plus gas stations and is adding more than 500 each year.) The first drive-in under this pact opened in the Beijing suburbs in January "to bring convenient, great-tasting McDonald's meals to China's increasingly mobile customers," as the firms' press release put it.

But Chinese don't need foreigners to tell them that keeping motorists fed and watered is big business. Roadside diners are popping up like mushrooms along the country's fast-spreading expressways, usually as part of the expanding retail-gas-station network. Meals are just what the driving public wants them to be: quick (often self-serve) and usually cheap, but with more-expensive options for growing middle-class tastes. A speedy, slurpy bowl of noodles in a greasy-chopstick joint costs 50 cents a bowl. But travelers can also tuck into a cornucopia of cafeteria-style hot buffet offerings: spicy bean curd, Kung Pao chicken, dumplings, the works.

Some provinces rate their roadside service areas with stars (none to four). One "four-star diner" not far from Shijiazhuang in Hebei province boasts all-you-can-eat mutton hotpot plus buffet for little more than $3 per person. That's pricey by mainland standards, but affordable for the growing crowds of yuppie domestic tourists. Last month a group of traveling businessmen piled out of a VW Passat and tucked into a hotpot of crabmeat, fish, cabbage, bean-thread noodles and mounds of thinly shaved mutton. The only disconcerting note was the frequency of "Bottoms up!" toasts as they downed glasses of potent Chinese white-lightning liquor, which came as part of the meal. Fortunately, another new service catering to motorists involves companies that provide trained drivers to transport inebriated travelers safely to their destinations.