“B liù shí èr! B liù shí èr!”
The automated ticket counter yells “B62” in high-pitched nasal Mandarin, as the five of us stand near the restaurant hostess willing the number to turn over to our ticket, B63. We have been waiting for about half an hour to try a new Uighur restaurant in the downtown district of Guangzhou.
Even with a throng of people filling up the restaurant waiting area, we know that the restaurant will seat us soon. Fortunately, this particular restaurant has live dancing that entertains us while we wait.
The restaurant is a feast of colors, decorations, and, of course, irresistible smells, as it features the culture and food of China’s North Western province- a place that resembles the Central Asian “-stans” and whose cuisine is reminiscent of Middle Eastern, rather than Chinese, food. We simply can’t wait to tuck in.
“B liù shí èr! B liù shí sān!”
“Yes!” We yell in unison as we wave at the server and enter the huge dining area, hundreds of roundtables overflowing with food piled onto lazy susans. As we walk towards our table, we sneak surreptitious glances at other diner’s plates to pick out dishes we’d like to try.
Once at the table, we take turns perusing the lengthy menu, looking more at the pictures than the names of foods. Recommended dishes are marked with a thumbs up – “hĕn hăo chī” (“good food”), and we quickly select some of those. Raising our hands, we gesture for a server to stop by our table and our friend A, his Mandarin excellent, orders for the table. Of course, the first thing is to select the tea and order a round of beer. China’s Qingdao get mixed reviews among foreigners, but it’s lightness pairs well with the heavy food.
The beauty of dining in China is that restaurants are often huge meaning that you never have to wait long to get seated. And, if you happen to wait for half an hour or more, you know it will be worth it. If that many people want to eat there, it must be good, right? That is certainly the case with this restaurant, which we’ve been dying to try.
Truthfully, there’s a lot that baffles, annoys, and angers foreigners (and likely locals) about restaurant service in China. Though all the negatives could fill their own post, what’s the point? A year and a half into my time in China, and I’ve come to appreciate the positives in dining and in general. There are aspects of service here that I’ve found myself missing on my travels outside the country.
Some of our Uighur eats – we tucked in before we remembered to snap a photo!
As my friends and I tuck into our delicious Uighur food here are several things that bring a smile to my face when dining in China:*
1) You’ll get a seat
As mentioned above, popular Chinese restaurants tend to be HUGE, because there are just so many people here. Given the sheer number of people, often these restaurants are full to bursting. But, you rarely have to wait all that long, even with a large group, because restaurants have ticketing systems. In some cases, you can leave and receive a text message when they’re ready for you. That said, there have been a few times when I’ve waited over an hour to be seated because EVERYONE wants to eat at that restaurant since it’s just that good. In those cases, it’s generally worth the wait. Since most huge restaurants are in malls in Guangzhou’s city centers, usually it’s possible to head off and do some (window)shopping for a bit until it’s your turn.
Also, respect for personal space is not really a thing in China. So, if you are by yourself or with a small group, the restaurant may seat you at the same table as other people. Once you get used to this, it makes so much sense. Rather than watching people eat at a huge empty table while you wait, you simply share and everyone gets to eat. This tends to especially be the case at smaller restaurants that don’t have multiple table sizes.
2) No tipping
Now look, I have no issue with tipping in the US or other countries where it is expected practice. For me, the bright side of no tipping in China, is that you don’t have a dedicated server. This means that any staff person can help you at any point, meaning that when you need something you don’t have to wait for your server to make their way back to you. And, no tax and tip means that figuring out the bill in a group of people is so much easier.
3) Embrace the wave
Again, in the US you generally wait for your server to come to you. In China, when you sit down at your table the servers generally leave you alone with the menu for as long as you need to figure out what you want. This is particularlly helpful when you’re trying to order the dishes you want and not chicken feet or fish head soup. Once you’re ready to order, you simply wave at the nearest “fúwùyuán” (waiter). Same for asking the bill. Just raise your hand and ask to “mai dan” (pay the bill).
When I was back in the US and the UK last year, I found myself feeling quite impatient and aggressive in restaurants, because I had to resist the urge to wave at the servers.
4) Family-style dining and timing
Most restaurants in China are designed around family-style dining where one person orders a lot of dishes for the group to share. For that reason, restaurants usually provide just one menu and expect one person to order for everyone. Servers tend to bring dishes out as they’re ready because, ultimately, everyone will be eating everything together. This can be deeply frustrating at first when you’re waiting for your personal or preferred dish to come out or when the dessert arrives before the dinner. That said, there’s a lot to enjoy with this method of service.
First, you don’t have to wait for all the dishes to be cooked to eat. Instead, you’re able to eat quick dishes while you wait for the main or more time-consuming dishes to be finished. Second, when you do dine family-style, it spaces out the food and generally leads you to eat slower throughout the meal. Third, it drops some of the formalities of dining. As a child, I was taught to always wait until everyone’s food has arrived before eating. This is polite and reasonable in many countries but doesn’t work in China. As such, people are released from the burden of waiting to start. That sounds a bit callous, but at the same time, I hate being the person causing everyone to wait to eat. Just eat! This can certainly get old fast when one person is waiting for ages while everyone else eats, but since most meals involve at least some shared dishes, the waiting party rarely has nothing to eat. Again, I’m focusing on the positives here. Generally, I find that eating as the food comes has more pros than cons, though I’m sure some of my friends would disagree!
When I was back in the US most recently I remember being very confused when Amaury and I ordered a salad and main dish to share and then waited forever for our food to come out. We had become so used to sharing food that it didn’t make sense to us why the salad was taking so long. Of course, the restaurant assumed we were eating individual dishes and gracefully brought both out together. Next time, I’ll try asking for the salad to come out first.
Most menus in China are quite lengthy and overwhelming, but almost invariably come with pictures. This not only helps with understanding what you want but in ordering it, because even if you can’t read the Chinese characters, you can get by remarkably well by pointing at pictures and saying “I want this.” I have learned that after “ni hao” and “xie xie” the most useful words to learn in Mandarin are “zhe ge” and “na ge” (this one; that one).
6) All the tea you can drink
It should come as no surprise, but every Chinese restaurant and even most international ones here serve tea. One of the first questions you’ll usually answer when you sit down is what type of tea you want to drink. Common options include “hong chá,” “lu chá,” and “huā chá” (Chinese black tea, green tea, and Jasmine tea.” I have experienced some confusion at restaurants that offer many more types of tea, but generally you’ll get by just fine knowing those three basic ones. Interestingly, black tea that is commonly served in India and the Western world, doesn’t traditionally exist here and even then is known as “hong” or “red” tea. Chinese black tea is lighter than the black tea most of us Westerners are used to and doesn’t need any milk.
7) Hot water
If tea doesn’t tempt you, you can always ask for “yi bei shui” (a glass of water). Just be prepared to receive hot water. Many foreigners are surprised by this at first and may go out of their way to order it cold or with ice, but ultimately I have seen so many people end up embracing hot water. Personally, I actively order hot water now, because I prefer it for my throat since I often come down with colds or sore throats in China. Drinking hot water is also relatively safer as it has likely been boiled.
My friends and I lean back stuffed after devouring huge plates of delicious Uighur food. The dishes came out in a slow trickle, satiating our appetites with skewers, soup, lamb, flatbread, dumplings… and yet more dumplings we forgot we’d ordered and that arrived, at last, as a piping hot final treat. Patting our full bellies, we raise our hand to summon the check. The server runs over with the bill and we quickly divide it evenly among the five of us, no tax or tip. As we get up, we all agree that Uighur food is mouthwateringly good and best shared.
*Caveat- the above observations come from my limited experience in this giant country. Some of these may be unique to Guangzhou and other cities I’ve visited. As always, take my views with a grain of salt!