Arhhh! Where to eat? How to order food when learning Mandarin? Here's everything to know about eating out in Chinese!
Eating out - we all do it. Most of us love it, some even hate it. But no matter how you feel about it, eating out is an important part of everyday life, especially in Chinese culture.
For some eating out simply signifies a time to fill one's belly! Yet for others, it represents an occasion for sharing and discussion or marks the celebration of an important cultural event - very often, it can actually be both!
As your studies in Mandarin Chinese progress and you become more familiar with the Chinese language and form friendships with more and more native Chinese speakers, you will no doubt find that you are also eating out and tucking into Chinese meals more and more as well!
From the way it is made to the way it is eaten, not only does traditional Chinese food embody local customs and traditions, in Chinese culture, eating out is also an important way of allowing family relationships, friendships and business partnerships to develop.
You may think that eating out in another country is a piece of cake (no pun intended!), but there is actually more to it than meets the eye - or indeed the tongue!
From knives, forks and dinner plates in the West, to chopsticks and bowls in the Far East, from the very outset there are crucial intercontinental differences in the etiquettes of eating out.
Having said that, eating out in Chinese is a brilliant way to make friends whilst improving your Mandarin and should above all be an enjoyable experience.
You can actually approach eating out as a free (and tasty!) Mandarin lesson.
Follow these six steps to ensure that you do not inadvertently offend your host as you happily chomp down on your latest bowl of dao xiao noodles!
Glamourous restaurant or scrumptious street food? Deciding where to eat ultimately depends on your budget!
1. Where to Eat
What's is the first step to eating out in Chinese? Why, deciding where to eat, of course!
Before you even beginning thinking about how to order in Chinese and jumbling some Mandarin sentences together, you will need to choose a place to grab some grub!
When eating out with friends, deciding where to eat is usually a light-hearted discussion and a quick show of hands to see who fancies traditional Chinese food or who would like a spot of gourmet cuisine will usually suffice.
However, if you are meeting under more formal circumstances, for example, dining with older acquaintances, colleagues or business associates and clients - remember the unspoken golden rule in Chinese culture that whoever makes the reservation pays the bill!
Thus, if you are the one deciding the restaurant and making a reservation, prepare to have some cash handy!
Where to Eat in China
When deciding where to eat out whilst in China you will find there is a plethora of dining options from which to choose.
Everything from mouthwatering arrays of street food snacks, BBQs, street corner restaurants and Buddhist diners offering up vegetarian meat dishes (composed of meat substitutes) to lavish buffets in extravagant hotels.
A good way of deciding where to eat in China is to choose places that serve local specialities - dumplings in the north, tangy crayfish and spicy hot pot in Chengdu, fresh noodles in Xian, Dim Sum snacks in Hong Kong, etc.
Surprisingly, more expensive hotels do not necessarily have the nicest Chinese meals - go for restaurants which are packed with people and they probably will not disappoint.
You could also test out your Mandarin skills by asking locals the following phrase:
能不能随意推荐几个你觉得很棒的餐厅？(Néng bùnéng suíyì tuījiàn jǐ gè nǐ juédé hěn bàng de cāntīng?)
Could you randomly suggest a few really great restaurants?
Eating out in countries outside China is often a little easier than in mainland China simply because there is not as much choice!
However, most towns have some sort of local Chinese restaurant, which can make for fun trips with friends as you try to learn Chinese by deciphering what's on the restaurant menu!
If you want to try authentic traditional Chinese food then its always a good idea to head to your nearest 唐人街 (Chinatown Tángrénjiē).
Chinatown restaurants very often have the most authentic cuisine as they are run by local people rather than supermarket chains.
Don't forget that shops, cafes, restaurants and coffee shops all use the measure word 一家(Yījiā) rather than 一个(Yīgè).
中国饭馆 (Zhōngguó fànguǎn)
中国食堂 (Zhōngguó shítáng)
吃中餐 (Chī zhōngcān)
To eat Chinese food
Trying to order traditional Chinese food in Mandarin is not as hard as it seems!
2. Order Food
The first part of ordering food in a Chinese restaurant is like any other - getting the waiter's attention. Guests shouting the words 'waiter' or 'waitress' across the room at full pelt is actually quite a common way to start ordering food in Chinese restaurants.
Rather than trying to keep as quiet as possible in order not to disturb your neighbour's candlelit dinner, eating out in China is usually a lively affair.
Having animated conversations with your dinner party guests shows that you are in high spirts, enjoying the experience and the company.
Listen out for the words 服务员 meaning waiting staff or literally serving staff next time you are about to order food.
Instead of shouting, it is usually polite to make eye contact though. You could also refer to waiting staff as a family member, such as 姐姐 (sister, jiějiě)，哥哥 (brother, gēgē)，阿姨 (aunt, āyí) or 叔叔 (uncle, shūshu), which you can learn more about here.
When it comes to ordering food from the restaurant menu, learn a few of your favourite Chinese dishes, like 西红柿炒鸡蛋 (Fried egg and tomato, Xīhóngshì chǎo jīdàn) in case you are unlucky enough to come across a menu without pictures.
You can use the same phrase structure you just learned for asking about recommended restaurants where to eat in order to ask the waiting staff for recommended dishes.
Learning Mandarin doesn't seem so hard after all! ;-)
能不能随意推荐几个你觉得很棒的菜？(Néng bùnéng suíyì tuījiàn jǐ gè nǐ juédé hěn bàng de cài?)
Could you randomly suggest a few really great dishes?
If you forget all your Mandarin Chinese vocabulary and all else fails, then you can always fall back on using hand gestures to communicate in Chinese.
Table manners are not to be sniffed at wherever you are eating out!
3. Table Manners
Steaming hot and delicious, an array of Chinese dishes await before your very eyes - time to tuck in!
But, wait - stop!
You may have thought that getting to grips with the best Chinese food ends once it has been served up at the restaurant. However, unfortunately for most people, it doesn't!
Table manners are an important part of etiquettes in most countries and just something you need to get used to in order to avoid making a fool of yourself or offending somebody.
Chinese Meal Etiquettes - Warm Cloths
A really nice tradition in most Chinese restaurants is for the waiting staff to give you a warm flannel (热毛巾 Rè máojīn).
This is not a serviette, but should be used to wipe your hands and mouth or face before the meal whilst it is still warm.
Obviously, it is not intended to be used to wipe your feet, shoes or legs!
Chinese Dishes - Chopsticks
If you know the ins and outs of eating with chopsticks, then great! But for most people who are not all too familiar with eating Chinese dishes, there are a few things to remember.
The first being that you should always use shared chopsticks for adding food to your plate (if they are available) and only use your own chopsticks for actual eating.
If you are not using shared chopsticks, then be sure to wipe any rice or food from your chopsticks before adding more from the Chinese dishes on offer. Having leftover rice on your chopsticks shows a lack of table manners - you don't want people to think you have no decorum!
Lastly, remember never to leave you chopsticks pointing up in your rice! This is a taboo as it is said to resemble incense used in temples and therefore signifies death.
If you are a sucker for table manners and etiquettes then you will probably be interested in learning the best oral techniques for showing politeness in China.
4. Splitting the Bills
Splitting the bills is somewhat of a rare occurrence in China as paying the bill on behalf of all guests is a sign of politeness.
You may well have already witnessed attempts to pay the bill in a Chinese restaurant and noticed that they can be akin to trying to make a rugby touchdown - grab and run as fast as you can whilst getting rid of anyone in your stride!
Fighting over the bill is fairly common in Chinese restaurants as guests want to show appreciation for one another by treating each other to a meal.
If you do not manage to 抢单 or have been invited out then there is usually no need to squabble over who will pay, but you could politely thank your hosts and promise to treat them next time.
If you are with close friends then you can also suggest splitting the bills.
To pay the bill
抢单 (Qiǎng dān)
To grab or 'snatch' the bill
我请客! (Wǒ qǐngkè)
It's my treat!
下次我请你！ (Xià cì wǒ qǐng nǐ!)
I'll treat you next time!
我们AA吧！(Wǒmen AA ba!)
Let's split the bill!
5. After-meal Etiquettes
As the evening draws to a close, you are probably tired after a whole Chinese meal of learning Mandarin whilst trying desperately to remember all your table manners.
However, before you leave there are a few after-meal etiquettes to adhere to...
Unlike across the Mediterranean where people can remain chatting long into the night hours after all food has been eaten, many diners in Chinese and Chinatown restaurants are happy to leave fairly soon after eating.
This is quite handy if you lead a busy life and need to get on to do other things or run some errands!
You may also notice that there a pot of toothpicks sitting on the table in front of you as you get up to leave - feel free to take some and remove any unsightly food from your teeth! Toothpicks are often available to use in restaurants in China or even in Chinatown restaurants.
Finally, you may be deliberating over how much to tip the waiting staff, but tipping is not usually necessary in most restaurants unless it has been requested.
给小费 (Gěi xiǎofèi)
To leave a tip
6. Too Tired? Chinese Delivery!
It's been a long day of learning Chinese. Your brain is crammed full of Chinese phrases that you have just learnt and you may simply just be too tired to spend the evening cooking or talking in Mandarin Chinese.
Luckily enough, China has some of the fastest, most advanced and above all, tastiest online Chinese delivery platforms!
If all you want to do is curl up on the sofa with some Chinese takeaway then you can order online or download a Chinese delivery mobile app.
Meituan is a 6 billion dollar enterprise and probably the largest Chinese delivery platform - think China's answer to Deliveroo. But if you want to branch out, there are also other online Chinese takeaway options such as Are you hungry? (饿了么? Èle me) or Enjoy.
If you want to practice your Mandarin Chinese then you could always learn Chinese for ordering over the phone too!
送外卖 (Sòng wàimài)
To make a fast food delivery
点外卖 （Diǎn wàimài）
To order takeaway food
美团 (Měi tuán)
Meituan - Chinese delivery company
Still not enough? Read more about Kevin's guide for Chinese food and delicious dishes.