Shanghai’s upscale Da Vittorio brings back outdated ‘ladies’ menu’

Society & Culture

Chinese women don’t need men to pay for their truffle pasta, okay?

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Back in the old days of fine dining, it was not uncommon for upscale restaurants in Europe and America to provide separate menus for men and women, one with prices and one without. The practice was based on the assumption that ladies shouldn’t worry their pretty little heads about money. That was for the men they were with, who had more earning power and were supposed to show chivalry when on a date.

Thankfully, over the years, most establishments have eliminated ladies’ menus to reflect the shifts in gender roles. In the 1980s, there was a restaurant in New York that refused to drop the custom, and it was sued by three feminists who challenged it on grounds of gender discrimination and successfully forced it to make a change in policy.

After more than 40 years, you would think the tradition must have gone fully extinct. But the truth is, it’s still alive — at least at a high-end Italian restaurant in Shanghai, where the two-menu system not only exists, but appears to be popular among customers.

According to Orange Umbrella (in Chinese), a nonprofit organization that advocates for gender equality, Da Vittorio Shanghai — the first restaurant operated by the Cerea family outside Europe, where it runs several Michelin-starred establishments — still gives women a different, priceless menu when they are dining in the company of men.

On business reviews-and-ratings platform Dianping (in Chinese), China’s equivalent of Yelp, Da Vittorio Shanghai boasts a score of 4.94 out of 5, with the average price for a meal hovering around 2,125 yuan ($330) per person. Many patrons praised the expensive restaurant for its “attention to detail” and “emphasis on the traditional etiquette of fine dining,” saying that its “ladies’ menu” made them feel respected and at ease.

However, the reaction on Chinese social media has been quite the opposite. Many internet users criticized the practice as a subtle form of sexism under the guise of chivalry, which they said was particularly problematic and outdated at a time when Chinese women have more economic power and consumer influence than they have ever had.

“When you walk into a pet store with a dog, you will be the one who’s introduced to services and products. Not your dog. It’s basically the same reasoning,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese), while another one said, “If I were out with my partner and they gave me a ladies’ menu without asking about my opinion, I would find it insulting to my intelligence, and not chivalrous at all.”

This is not the first time that Chinese women have been treated like a special interest group when it comes to food and dining. Last year, in response to a national campaign on reduce food waste, a restaurant in Tianjin introduced different lunch boxes for different sexes, with the ones for women containing less rice. In December, a Chinese food company sparked a storm on social media with the release of its gender-specific snacks. On the other hand, it seems like eateries would face more serious repercussions when men are singled out: In November, a female-friendly hotpot restaurant was forced to close for rectification after refusing to serve two male guests because they came in unaccompanied by a woman.