Beijing Maxim’s: a miniature of China’s reform and opening-up

By Zhang Hongpei Source:Global Times Published: 2018/10/28 18:43:40

Restaurant evolving from a ‘crazy move’ into affordable dining

Top: A view of the opening ceremony of Beijing Maxim's in 1983. Photo: Courtesy of Beijing Chongwenmen Hotel

 A view of Beijing Maxim's restaurant on Tuesday. Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Opened at the beginning of China's reform and opening-up in 1983, high-end Western restaurant Beijing Maxim's, the first outlet of French Maxim's De Paris, has witnessed and grown alongside the country's economic and social changes over the past decades.

When a century-old French restaurant chose to land in Beijing in the early 1980s, a time when China's reform and opening-up policy was just implemented for a few years, it had not only brought a culinary breakthrough in the Chinese mainland, but also served as the model of a fashion and cultural enlightenment.

The first overseas outlet of France's Maxim's De Paris - Beijing Maxim's  - made its official debut in 1983 on the second floor of Beijing's Chongwenmen Hotel, an affiliate of State-owned Beijing Tourism Group. Behind the astonishing move at that time was Pierre Cardin, a famous fashion designer and owner of Maxim's De Paris.

"Cardin's determination to bring Maxim's to China was very brave since the country's door had just opened to the outside. It was like investing in the current North Korea," Dong Tongsheng, head pastry chef at Beijing Maxim's, told the Global Times.

Dong is one of the first batch of Chinese culinary students who were sent to Paris' Maxim's for cooking training and stayed there for about three months before Beijing's outlet was opened.

Zheng Siti, chief representative of Maxim's De Paris in China, told the Global Times on Friday that Cardin's bold decision to invest in China was seen as a "crazy move".

"It also needed courage from government authorities at that time to nod to the French restaurant's entry," Zheng said.

Under a bilateral agreement, the Chinese side held  a 51 percent stake in the business of Beijing Maxim's while the French side held the remaining 49 percent. And its registration fund was over 7.31 million yuan, while the average monthly salary in Beijing was around 50 yuan at that time.

"The restaurant's interior decoration was required to be the same as that of Paris's Maxim's. Hundreds of experienced workers in decoration were imported from Japan and all the material came from France and Italy that was rarely seen in China then," Zheng recalled.

"The total decoration costs were worth $3.5 million," she noted. "Although some of the naked female figures were covered by curtains under requirement by the authorities when Beijing Maxim's first opened, it has kept the style and flavor of the original French restaurant."

Survive and thrive

Dong, the chef, said the fresh and exotic flavor of Western cuisine was hardly accepted by the Chinese in general in those days. "But compared to food, the restaurant, which was like the second French Embassy in China, attracted people more with its fashionable elements and culture salon."

Ding Tongxin, a former general manager of Beijing Maxim's, said 70 to 80 percent of the customers were from embassies and foreign tourist groups from the US and France, while entertainers were also frequent guests.

"A dining experience at Maxim's was quite a scene then given the situation that it cost about 200 yuan per person at the restaurant for a meal," Ding told the Global Times.

In addition to the limited customer sources, imported raw materials also added to the entire costs of the restaurant's operation, Ding noted.

However, Dong said, the restaurant's revenue at the initial period was not put as the top priority as what Cardin - the owner and designer - intended was to bring and promote his same-name brand clothing to China via the restaurant.

The monotony of black, blue and grey uniforms that were prevalent in the streets of China during the beginning of the 1980s was then shattered by Cardin - the first international fashion master who brought trendy designs and colors to the country.

As China's economy developed rapidly during the reform and opening-up, the Chinese began to become the main consumers in the restaurant around 1993, a decade after it was opened, according to Ding.

"Chinese companies dealing with foreign trade would like to choose this place to treat their foreign clients. Meanwhile, some individual consumers, who were among the first batch of  people 'getting rich' thanks to the policy, also chose to spend their own money to have a decent meal here."

It was not until the late 1990s when ordinary Chinese could afford a meal in the French restaurant, as their pockets started filling up.

"Expenditure worth 300-400 yuan a meal became a few tenths or even one-tenth of their monthly earnings," Ding said.

Now dining at Beijing Maxim's costs about 513 yuan per person, according to domestic on-demand online services provider Meituan Dianping, and the average monthly salary in Beijing for white-collar workers has surged to 10,521 yuan, according to data shown in a report released by Chinese online job-hunting platform Boss Zhipin in April.

Looking ahead

Along with the reform and opening-up policy, many other foreign cuisine brands have made foray into the country and attracted their targeted consumers, which, to some extent, has pressured the time-honored Maxim's in the fierce competition in the catering market, especially in such a metropolis as Beijing, Dong conceded.

A bunch of high-end Western restaurants opened in the 1990s in China as the economy took off. For example, Brasserie FLO, the French high-end restaurant landed in Beijing in 1999 as a chef named Jean Paul Bucher turned his eye to Asia, opening China's first brasserie in the capital because he felt "it shared, with Paris, the same axes of an ancient culture and a focus on the future," according to a report from

Beijing Maxim's annual revenue increased modestly year-on-year over the past few years, said Wang, without giving the details.

The restaurant is ramping up efforts to lure the attention of the rising Chinese middle class, especially those born in the post 1980s and 1990s who have strong purchasing power, Wang noted.


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