It's a given that no visit to Beijing would be complete without a walk, however brief or labored, on the Great Wall of China and a visit to the Forbidden City. Equally so, no sojourn in this magnificent capital city would be worth its stamp without experiencing the course-by-course wonders of a Peking duck dinner at one of the city's gargantuan duck houses.

According to legend, the first Peking duck dinner was served in 184 during the Tongzhi reign of the Qing Dynasty.

There is no reason to believe that the basic recipe has changed much in the intervening years: Take a freshly killed duck, immerse it in a traditional mix of condiments and spices, blow it full of air to separate the skin from the meat and then roast it over a fruit-tree wood fire until it turns date-red.

Once the duck is done, its skin oiled and crispy, the carver -- with a sanitary mask over his mouth and nose and disposable plastic gloves on his hands -- cuts the tender meat into slices, with skin attached, and serves them with thin pancakes, scallions and a thick plum sauce. It is the diner's responsibility to fold all of the ingredients, into a neat pocket for easy, if somewhat messy, eating.

Perhaps the best-known chain of Peking duck restaurants is that of the Qaunjude Restaurant, which include outlets familiarly known to locals as Big Duck, Small Duck, Wall Street Duck -- the connection, apparently, is nearby financial services -- and the so-called Sick Duck, located near the Beijing Union Medical College Hospital.

At the Wall Street Duck, framed photos of President Richard Nixon, Zhou Enlai and other 20th century political notables line the walls of the seven-story restaurant, where more than 2,000 guests can be accommodated in more than 40 separate dining rooms.

One can only guess how many ducks meet their maker on a daily, weekly, monthly or yearly basis here.

For more information on duck houses, go to www.chinaquanjude.com.

Other restaurants in Beijing are:

" The China Club: Don't expect to walk in here off the street and get a table. The China Club -- Beijing, an offshoot of an exclusive Hong Kong property and the former residence of former Republic of China President Yuan Shikai, is a lavish restaurant/inn set in a 400-year-old, courtyard-style Qing Dynasty complex of traditional palace rooms.

To become a member requires a $20,000 initiation fee and $1,500 in annual dues. Among the specialties at a recent banquet: marinated tuna with vermicelli; deep-fried sweetened-corn roll filled with shredded chicken; steamed sliced garoupa (fish) with Yunnan ham and black mushrooms; and sauteed cauliflower with chopped egg and garlic.

For nonmembers with an excess of free-enterprise bucks to spend, a good word from a knowledgeable concierge should be enough to get you a table for dinner.

" Wahaha Restaurant: This opulently decorated venue specializes in the seafood cuisine of Hangzhou, which is at once a major metropolis, the capital city of Zhejiang province and home to West Lake, reputedly one of the most beautiful locations in China.

The name of the restaurant means "giggling baby," of whom there are more than a few encountered on the streets of Beijing. With 80 dining rooms, it is a perfect place for a group get-together. It's also centrally located, close to the Forbidden City.

To contact reporter Joe Rosen, send e-mail to [email protected].

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For more details on this article, see "The Forbidden City: History with a dash of capitalism."

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