It's Sunday, just after midday, and the queue is already spilling out of the door. The lobby is jammed with a cross-section of Londoners; old gents leaning on sticks, elegant Indian ladies, American brunchers glowing from their power-walks, Chinese families of all descriptions. As the numbers swell, voices rise, tickets are waved, small children trampled underfoot. How good can the food here be, that these otherwise rational people put themselves through this ordeal?
The answer, as the thousands of people who regularly throng one of the Royal China's several restaurants around London will attest, is pretty damned good. The scene above, witnessed recently at Royal China's Baker Street branch, is replicated at the Bayswater branch, where every weekend there's a stampede as soon as the doors open. The Royal China group is widely considered to serve the best dim sum in London, and they don't take bookings for weekend lunchtimes; cue these scenes of fanatical dumpling-based devotion.
There is, however, another way to sample the Royal China experience. Considerably more expensive, yes, but much less stressful. Just up Baker Street from the more famous branch, there's the Royal China Club, launched a couple of years ago as a more luxurious sister restaurant to the already upscale group. It's a "club" in name only; no membership is necessary, although an offshore bank account might be useful. Here, at weekend lunchtimes, you're greeted not by grim-faced queuers, but a smiling maître d' with a reservations book.
I took a couple of high-maintenance girlfriends for a Saturday-night birthday celebration, and expectations were high. If the Royal China group serves some of the best Chinese food in London, went my reasoning, and this is the group's upmarket offering, it's got to be fantastic. Well, that was the theory.
We liked the room, which has a swagger and moneyed gleam that put us in mind of a New York restaurant from the Fifties; all lacquered black surfaces, and delicate traceries of deflected golden light, with a huge tank of live lobsters dividing bar from dining room. Even the tables have been super-sized; ours could easily have accommodated five extra people, meaning I had to bawl across at the (slightly deaf) friend opposite me, while the other (slightly long-sighted) friend squinted at the menu. In this company, speaking no evil was my only remaining option, but sadly that wasn't going to happen.
Because our meal just didn't quite come together. Yes, there were some good individual dishes from the mainly Cantonese menu; a starter platter of delectable steamed dim sum, showcasing the seafood in which the RCC specialises; soft shell crabs fried in greaseless batter and smothered in chilli and garlic; a seasonal special of delicate winter melon, hollowed out and filled with a rich seafood soup. But others sounded more interesting than they tasted; a bland stir-fry of wild mushrooms and white marrow dusted with "golden sand" (crumbled, salted egg yolk); fresh strips of eel stir-fried with baby chives that turned out to be just a variation on the regular garlic, spring onion, ginger combo; slices of veal skewered with lemongrass and smothered in a chilli-ish sauce that demonstrated why you don't normally encounter veal in a Chinese restaurant.
The overall impression was of competence, rather than brilliance, with none of the vivid flavours delivered by Hakkasan, probably the RCC's nearest equivalent. This felt like a restaurant for a banquet, rather than an intense and intimate sensory experience; indeed many of our fellow diners were multi-generational families celebrating special occasions.
When not staggering to neighbouring tables laden with huge platters of lobster and whole fish, the waiting team, impeccable in black Nehru suits, were more communicative than is the norm in Chinese restaurants. But somehow they seemed less of a well-oiled machine than their harassed but super-efficient colleagues down the road at the Royal China, who bring wave after wave of dim sum without breaking sweat. Here, we had to ask several times for them to turn off the air conditioner that was doing its best to turn us into an impromptu ice sculpture of the three wise monkeys.
They were breaking the tables down around us as we prepared to leave; not something you expect when you've just paid nearly £70 a head, with just two glasses of wine and a couple of non-alcoholic cocktails. And that was us trying to keep the price down. On the plus side, I did take away a doggie bag, which I calculated probably held leftovers to the value of at least 50 quid. Just enough, that is, to buy a splendid dim sum lunch for three down the road.
Royal China Club, 40-42 Baker Street, London W1 (020-7486 3898)
Arguably Manchester's most famous restaurant, Yang Sing serves impressively authentic cuisine - ask for the Chinese menu if you want to try more unusual dishes.
34 Princess Street, Chinatown, Manchester 1 (0161 236 2200)
Cardiff's finest Chinese restaurant is consistently crowded with diners from as far away as Bristol queueing for the fresh seafood and excellent dim sum.
233 Cowbridge Road East, Cardiff (029-2039 7531)
Dishes such as chicken with sautéed apple and pineapple in a lemongrass and chilli sauce reflect the inventive cuisine at this cool, contemporary restaurant near the Theatre Royal.
311-313 Hope Street, Glasgow (0141 332 7728)
Vast Brighton restaurant on the seafront serving impressive dim sum during the day (make sure you try the scallop dumplings); during the evening the atmosphere gets smarter – and pricier.
88-91 Preston Street, Brighton (01273 325124)