“But, Madam, we are like McDonald’s”: Lunch at Royal China

Royal China is a high-end Chinese restaurant located in the trendy Turner Rd area of Bandra. I read somewhere on the Internet that Bollywood stars like the Kapoor sisters lunch there. While I have never personally seen the Kapoor sisters at Royal China, I can tell you that the staff is very attentive to guys in mirrored sunglasses who look like they are Bollywood stars. Was that Sallu or just some random guy who wanted everyone to think he was Sallu?

I did not see Karisma Kapoor at Royal China, but she was at the Pinkathon on Sunday. Note: I did not take this photo.

 

Royal China is one of the first restaurants Brian tried in Mumbai. After eating at this restaurant, he proudly proclaimed on Facebook that Mumbai had excellent Chinese food, and that, I could, in fact, live here. For those in the States, the closest approximation to Royal China is P.F. Chang’s China Bistro. So, you can imagine my surprise when the waiter made the McDonald’s comparison. Weeks later, it still makes me giggle.

What prompted the McDonald’s comparison? Well, one lady with whom I was lunching asked for a special preparation. She simply wanted to exclude one item from a dish because of an allergy. The waiter (actually, I think he might be the manager) said, “But, madam, we are like McDonald’s. We have locations in London. The food is already prepared. The chef cannot make a substitution or change the recipe.” After some discussion, my friend finally managed to convince him to make just plain rice noodles. No sauce. In the end, the noodles were quite good.

So, is Royal China like McDonald’s? Is that an accurate comparison? Let’s break it down, shall we?

Are they both franchises? 

Yes, Royal China has four locations in India (Mumbai, Delhi, and soon Pune). I checked on the London location. There is a Royal China franchise in London, but it does not appear to be affiliated with the India-based company.

How do you place an order? 

At McDonald’s, we go to a counter, like in the US. At Royal China, we can order our food from an iPad. An iPad 2, I think. Brian was quite impressed with this feature when he first went to the restaurant. When I went for the first time, the iPad was being updated (damn iOS 6 and its stupid Map app), so it was not available for orders. The next time Brian and I went, we had to request the iPad menu. The iPad menu has several advantages. First, the iPad menu has an image for each dish. Rather than relying on written descriptions, we can see what we want to order. Second, we can see how much food we have ordered and easily alter the courses. Finally, we can see our total on the iPad, which takes the guesswork out of costs, including whether the tip is included.

Do they both deliver? 

Actually, yes. In India, even McDonald’s delivers. There is a minimum order, but, yes, you can have your McAloo and Coke delivered right to your door. Chinese delivery is one of the great joys of living in Mumbai.

Do they both serve Chinese food? 

Well, obviously, no. At least, I don’t think McDonald’s has added dim sum to the menu lately. But, I have not been to a McDonald’s in some time, and only once since shifting (moving) to India.

Do they both serve hamburgers? 

Neither restaurant serves hamburgers in India. Royal China, however, does have tenderloin on the menu, which McDonald’s does not. In India, McDonald’s serves chicken instead of beef, and its biggest seller is the McAloo, which is a potato patty. The McDonald’s business model has been modified to suit the Indian palette and culture. So, it offers a veg Egg McMuffin (minus the egg) alongside the non-veg version (egg and pork sausage included). Instead of a Big Mac, it offers the Maharaja Mac, which features a chicken patty, rather than beef.

Is the food prepared fresh on location?

Evidently not. With McDonald’s, it is understood that the patties and fries are all delivered frozen and then heated on a grill or in a fryer. With Royal China, however, I always assumed the food was prepared fresh by a chef on site. From what the manager said, however, it sounds like the individual components are prepared in a central kitchen and then delivered to the location to be heated and served, just like McDonald’s fries. That means my Chinese food had more in common with my VW than with real food. My VW is made from parts that come from outside India, which are imported, and then assembled here. Evidently, to ensure consistent preparation across the franchise, the individual parts of the dishes are prepared elsewhere and then assembled at each location. The chef at Royal China is more like a mechanic than an artist. Maybe Royal China is like McDonald’s after all. To be fair, P.F. Chang’s uses the McDonald’s method to ensure consistency across franchise operations.

How does the quality of the food compare?

Royal China wins this comparison hands down. The menu is filled with great dishes: both veg and non-veg. I highly recommend the turnip cake appetizers. I know, you are thinking, “Turnip cakes? Eww.” But, believe me, they are delicious. The crispy duck is also excellent. OK, let’s be honest, I have never had a bad dish at Royal China, and that is why I keep coming back. They do not make my favorite hot and sour soup—that honor goes to China Valley in Powai—but the soup is very good.

How does the service compare? 

Honestly, as service goes, Royal China does not top my list of best restaurants. The food is excellent (A-), but the service is just passable (C+). We were a table of 10 people. We had a lazy Susan set in the middle of the table. While the food was delivered promptly, it was simply placed on the lazy Susan. The wait staff did not serve us the dishes, as is often done in restaurants here. Typically, at a top-tier restaurant, the food is brought to the table, and then each person is served a portion. We had to serve ourselves, including the fish dish, which was served whole, head included. The presentation was beautiful, and the fish was delicious. However, one of my friends had to serve everyone else and remove the skeleton. She also had to ask a waiter to remove the head for us. By contrast, a few nights later, at Mainland China in Powai, the wait staff went out of their way to make sure we had enough of everything. I had to practically beg them to stop serving me crab fried rice. The service at McDonald’s is like the service at most McDonald’s: fine. It is certainly nothing to write a blog post about, but it is acceptable.

How do the prices compare? 

Honestly, a comparison on price would not be fair. Royal China would easily lose. For the price of one dish at Royal China, you could probably feed three very hungry people at McDonald’s.

Summary

Food quality: Royal China beats McDonald’s easily.

Service: Both restaurants receive an average grade.

Overall experience: The atmosphere at Royal China beats the screaming teenagers at the mall any day.

So, Royal China is not like McDonald’s. However, I do understand what the manager was trying to say. His only frame of reference was McDonald’s. A more accurate comparison would have been TGI Friday’s or Hard Rock Cafe, both of which we have in Mumbai. This moment was one of the many that happen here in Mumbai when a little something gets lost in translation.

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