Despite being in every guide book about Taipei in any available language, for me Din Tai Fung is probably the most overrated eating place in Taiwan ever.
The franchise currently has 12 branches all over the island, including one in the basement of Taipei 101, from 2004 to 2010 the tallest building in the world.
The brand started expanding internationally when it opened a restaurant in Japan in 1996 and since then has become a global phenomenon which spread to locations as different as the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom or the United States.
Unfortunately, on June 11th, 2020 it was announced that its first US location in Arcadia, California, would close permanently after two decades due to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
In January 2019, Din Tai Fung had already “voluntarily” closed its Westfield Sydney outlet after a big rat, displaced by nearby construction work, was filmed running through the venue, which had to pass rigorous health inspections before reopening.
The reason why I don’t like Din Tai Fung has nothing to do with a lack of hygiene or cleanliness at all. It’s rather their snobbish attitude, like if it’s a privilege to be served at such a well-known institution.
When I was still working for the Taiwanese government, many colleagues loved to go there regularly at noon. As there were inviting me, I had no right to reject their choice.
Depending on my entourage, the service would vary a lot. Higher-ranked officials were simply treated much better than “ordinary” guests from the same agency, even getting bigger discounts on their bills.
It sometimes was quite embarrassing and almost felt like experiencing the notorious Indian caste system or travelling back in time to the old class society in England.
But my aversion against this alleged gourmet temple actually dates back from my first visit there in 1999. My girlfriend at the time was a student and I wanted to treat her on her birthday to something we both thought to be special.
Well, the two of us ordered five little dishes and a large bottle of Taiwan beer. The waitress, who reminded me more of a security guard, still asked me in a very condescending tone if that was enough. I simply replied that it was and that we could always place another order later.
I was waiting for her to call me a stingy bastard for not spending more money on my extremely beautiful escort, who I guess wasn’t really fully aware of the awkward situation.
Some of the food was outstanding, some of it average and some of it simply disappointing. I remember paying almost 30 euros, which more than two decades ago was a lot for what we got.
Years later, a very good local friend insisted in taking me there and I failed to change her mind, despite vehemently stating my objections and given the number of nice alternatives nearby.
We arrived punctually, though the table wasn’t ready and the waitress suggested that we chose what we wanted before being seated in what felt more like a canteen-standing outside in the rain!
Nevertheless, I have to admit that their marketing strategy is brilliant and must have been copied from the French, which succeed in selling all kind of crab by suggesting that the client actually purchases a certain lifestyle.
I realized how well this propaganda works when an American friend, who had lived in Taiwan and spoke Chinese, came over from Tokyo for five days with his Japanese wife.
We went out for dinner almost every night. However, I had made it clear that Din Tai Fung wasn’t an option for me. So when we met on the third or fourth evening, he confessed that they had been there for lunch.
When I expressed my disbelief, his spouse told me that she just had to go. If she would have missed the chance, all of her relatives, friends and neighbors would have simply thought that she was crazy for doing so!
Although I respect other culinary preferences, much-trumpeted Din Tai Fung will definitely never be on my top ten list of places where I would take anybody who visits me after my return to Asia, scheduled for next month.