On the banks of the Li river, in Guilin province, there stands a tall black tower built centuries ago to defend and control access to the town of Liugong. To reach it today, you cycle through paddy fields where dragonflies buzz and women in coolie hats chase buffaloes from their crop.

The town is 800 years old, with one paved road running through it. Apart from the occasional faded Mao poster, you could easily be back in 1920s Mei-tan-fu, the remote village where Walter and Kitty Fane were stationed in the Edward Norton/Naomi Watts movie, The Painted Veil, based on Somerset Maugham's novel.

Inside, the brick tower has been converted by Malcolm, a local hotelier, into a very chic restaurant known as The Pavilion. It has two large, plain rooms, one on each floor. Both offer wide open-air views of the river from their long tables. (There are no screens or glazing, so a pre-prandial dousing in insect repellent is recommended.) The décor is minimalist, with all the tableware and the chopsticks sleek and black. Beside the bar there is a black bookcase with a small library of coffee-table books. Everything is beautifully crafted and streamlined. Nothing is allowed to distract from the two things that matter: the food and the view.

There is no menu. A delicious set meal of multiple courses is presented in nouvelle-cuisine style. A single slice of tomato, halved and inverted to resemble a butterfly hovering above two dumplings serves as an amuse-bouche. Sweet-and-sour ribs fried in breadcrumbs follow, along with skewered prawns, sizzling beef, broccoli, sweet spring rolls, sliced lotus roots, and pork barbecued in small bundles of straw, which you have to unwrap carefully. The dessert is usually thin slices of watermelon.

Chinese wine is available, but Tsingtao beer is preferable.


The scenery is exactly like that in Song Dynasty pictures from the 12th and 13th century. A slow river winds past towering karst hills that look like tree-topped beehives. As the evening draws in, a solitary boatman punts his way along the river with a cormorant on the bow, ready to fish. The scene couldn't be more Chinese if you painted it on a vase.

Immediately below the tower, village children swim in the river, and buffaloes wallow with just their heads and horns showing above the water. A floating fish farm, buoyed up by some recycled oil drums, is the one touch of modernity. Miles from the nearest tourist centre (the backpackers' haven of Yangshuo), this is an almost timeless view of rural China.


A set three-course meal costs 50 yuan (£3.30) per person, 25 yuan (£1.65) for children. Bottled beers cost five yuan (£1).

The Pavilion, Liugong, Yangshuo, Guangxi, China (no telephone; to book, e-mail malcolmthe@ ). Open daily from 7pm.