I have thought of Zhang Tao frequently in the years since I met him in 2004. The website that he launched in April 2003 has steadily grown to become my indispensable resource for dining information. Dianping.com is now the largest restaurant review site in China with over six million unique visits per month. I recently chatted with Zhang, a native Shanghainese with an MBA from Wharton, about how his big idea developed into an influential industry giant.

Zhang launched dianping.com envisioning a hybrid of Zagat, Amazon.com, and Wikipedia, focused on the Shanghai dining scene. "Originally I just asked my friends and even my dad–who is 70 and had never gone online before–to write reviews," he says, smiling. Now, times have changed. "We cover over 160 cities. We publish over 20 guides. We have over three million reviews." From his perch as CEO, Zhang has a hawk's eye view of the industry. "The dining scene has become more professionally managed," he says, "and people are more focused on not just going out for good food, but on the dining experience."

One phenomenon which surprised Zhang is the success of chain restaurants like South Beauty (Sichuan), Haidilao (Hot Pot) and Babela's Kitchen (Italian). "I had thought the best restaurants could only be family-owned. How can you hire so many chefs and still ensure that the food is good? But actually the chains usually get higher ratings and are more consistent. So, even though chefs are important, management is even more important. I believe that in five to ten years Shanghai will have the best managed restaurant industry in the whole world. Shanghainese people love to dine out and they are very demanding. It's survival of the fittest."

I was intrigued by Zhang's views of the differences between Chinese and Western diners. "In the U.S., dining is a social event. You may dine for three hours and have five courses with wine, but for a lot of Chinese people that's too long and it's boring. I have an appetizer and then have to wait half an hour for the next dish? Chinese want all the dishes to come at the same time, so the ideas of what is good service are very different."

An example of this divide is the wild popularity of hot pot chain Haidilao. "Among nearly 20,000 restaurants in Shanghai, Haidilao is always in the top three. But Westerners would not think it's the top," says Zhang. "Chinese really don't want too much formality or stuffiness. To Chinese people the food quality itself is really important, even more so than to Americans and British, maybe more on par with French people. They demand food quality and food variety."

So where does the man himself dine out? "I go to Zhizhen (Contemporary Chinese) a lot. I like places where every dish is good and consistent, not a place like a one-trick pony. I like A Yi Baoyu (Cantonese / Dim Sum), the Xiao Nan Guo (Shanghai) on Hongmei Lu and Pasta Fresca da Salvatore (Italian)." And Zhang's a big believer in dianping's perennial favorite. "Haidilao has the best service I've ever had, even better than in a five-star hotel, because they are very attentive and warm. They even polish your shoes!"

Dianping is now so big that it moves the industry. “Many restaurants read dianping to do their performance reviews, improve management, and watch competitors,” says Zhang. And of course, millions of people rely on dianping to decide what's for dinner–and what's not even an option. Says Zhang, “If I try a new restaurant it must have a good rating on the website. Otherwise it's too risky.”

Read my full interview with Zhang Tao here.

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