Dining out during the festive season is a relatively new concept for mainland China. Traditionally, the eve and first two days of the Lunar New Year were reserved for family, eating large meals prepared by an army of relatives, like a Thanksgiving or Christmas feast in the West. Restaurants were often closed during the period as well.
But in recent years, restaurateurs say the festivities -- and the luxurious dishes that have become a staple for many wealthy Chinese -- are now taking place in their dining rooms.
In Hong Kong, affluent locals have been feasting on shark's fin and abalone in gilded restaurants during the New Year for some time -- the result partly of tiny apartments that are unable to host dinner parties.
At Fook Lam Moon in Hong Kong, pricey signature dishes for the festive season include a braised turtle number that costs 1,000 Hong Kong dollars (US$129). Reservations have bounced back this year after a dip in 2009, said Michelle Chui, a manager at Fook Lam Moon, which operates nine high-end Cantonese restaurants across Asia.
The chain's two Hong Kong restaurants are booked solid over the New Year season, and Ms. Chui says demand is largely fueled by mainland Chinese diners holidaying in the city. 'This is a new phenomenon for us, only in the past two years' said Ms. Chui. 'The mainlanders have a lot more money these days.'
Some wonder if the rush to the restaurants is killing the true spirit of new year. Chen Hangfeng, a 35 year-old artist in Shanghai, loathes the obligation to eat numerous new year's meals at large banquet halls around the city and the fact that the new dining procession has replaced the family feast of years gone past.
'I don't like it at all,' said Mr. Chen who recalls large spreads that were hosted at the homes of relatives, where everything was made from scratch by the family -- even the grinding of the flour to make sticky rice balls for desserts.
'People try to order the expensive things to try to impress you and it just doesn't taste very good,' he said. 'By eating in restaurants, we're losing our authenticity.'
Mr. Chen, however, is fighting a losing battle.