Chinese like to eat out and there are restaurants on every corner of a Chinese neighborhood, from hole-in-the-wall to multilevel banquet halls. In Beijing restaurants you can explore authentic Chinese food (not what is served as Chinese food in Western countries) or fall back on the more familiar Western cuisine.
Is a Chinese menu really that long?
Most Chinese restaurants have a huge menu with hundreds of items from different Chinese cuisines. These menus resemble big books with pictures for each dish and sometimes also with English names (those don’t always make sense but better than none, and sometimes quite entertaining).
The small local restaurants, often not bigger than a living room (actually smaller than the typical American living room) usually focus on a few signature dishes. Menus there are often written in characters without any pictures. Here you have to do your homework and research the names of recommended dishes beforehand. Reviews in Beijing expat magazines are a great source for that. You could also ask the waiter for recommendations, if you speak a little Mandarin.
How to order if you don’t speak Mandarin?
If there is no English or “picture” menu and you want to try a specific dish that you read about, bring your source and show the waiter the name of the dish in characters. You can also look around at the other tables and see what appeals to you and order by pointing. Lastly, I recently came across an iPhone App named Waygo that translates menu items from characters into English.
Eating in small local restaurants is one of the situations where speaking at least some basic Chinese makes a huge difference. It makes you feel more independent and less of an ignorant idiot.
Dining etiquette in a Chinese restaurant
In most restaurants you will be offered water after being seated. Don’t worry, the water is safe to drink. Just be warned that in winter the water is hot, not cold. Chinese often don’t like cold drinks, especially when it is cold outside.
In winter, beer is usually served warm, at room temperature – not garage or basement temperature. If you want cold beer you have to specifically order it cold. Still, some restaurants may not have it. It is polite to refill other people’s glasses or teacups before filling you own.
Dishes are ordered family-style for the entire table to share, unlike in the West, where everyone orders his/her own dish. Every person has their own small plate and/or bowl in front of them and helps herself with her chopsticks to mouthfuls from the shared dishes. It is not uncommon for a Chinese to put a nice piece of food onto your plate for you to eat.
Does the idea of everyone poking in the common food bowls with their chopsticks that they just licked off make you cringe? You can ask the waiter for “common chopsticks” (gōng kuà zi) for the shared dishes and have everyone use those to load food onto their own plate. Chinese usually don’t do this but I have seen returnees (Chinese returning to China after living overseas) do this, and waiters oblige.
Chinese meat dishes often have many bones. (My husband often jokes that being a butcher in China must be the easiest job, just swinging down the big cleaver.) It is totally acceptable to spit the bones onto the table, although I prefer to place them with my chopstick onto or next to my plate on a napkin. Silly me.
Looking for some home-style comfort food?
Need a break from all the Chinese food? Non-Chinese cuisine is readily available in the main expat areas and some other parts of town, with restaurants ranging from simple to high-end. Generally, the menu is also in English and English is spoken at least by some of the wait staff.
American fast-food chains such as McDonald, KFC, Pizza Hut, are ubiquitous. The service staff rarely speaks English but often pulls out a picture menu with English names from behind the counter to make the ordering process easier for the occasional foreigner stumbling into their store.
Tip about tips: Tipping is not common or expected in China, not even rounding up the bill a little. The waiter will come running after you with 2 kuai change… This takes the guess – and math – work out of settling the bill. Only in more upscale and Western restaurants, a service charge may get added to the bill.