Where Do I Sit at the Table?Just as at a Chinese banquet, the seating at a restaurant table is extremely important. At traditional Chinese restaurants, tables are often round and seat eight or 10 people. The most senior person will sit furthest from the entrance and facing the door. The guest of honor sits to the most senior person’s right. The person paying the bill sits opposite the guest of honor and closest to the door. The remainder of the seats is filled in social hierarchy by placing the most important people closer to the most senior person.
How Do I Order Food?
Typically only one menu will be given because usually one person will do the ordering for the entire table as all dishes are served family style. Unlike in the West where each person at the table orders his or her own food, all the food ordered at a Chinese restaurant is meant to be shared. Sometimes, the host will order a few dishes and then pass the menu around and ask each person to order one additional dish.
It is not uncommon for the waiter or waitress to present the menu to the table and then stand at the table while the guests peruse the menu and decide what to order.
What Food Should I Order?
If you are put in charge of ordering the food, be sure to order a variety of dishes. This includes: cold appetizers, two or three meat dishes, a seafood dish like an entire steamed fish, one or more vegetable dishes, rice or noodles, additional dishes like dumplings, steamed buns or pancakes, and soup. A dessert of sliced fruit is often given compliments of the restaurant.
Even though all the food is ordered at once, it will arrive at the table as it is cooked. Therefore, the food will typically arrive in the following order: cold appetizers, meat, seafood and vegetable dishes, carbohydrate items like rice and dumplings, soup, and dessert.
When dining at a Western restaurant in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, the entrees will be brought to the table as they are prepared so it is not uncommon for one person to have his or her entrée and for the other person to still be waiting for his or her meal. Also, soft drinks and tea are often served after the entrees are served but servers will bring them with the meal if you request it.
A lazy Susan is often placed on each table to make passing and serving food easier. The most senior member of the table will be served by the wait staff or he or she will serve himself or herself first. Then, social hierarchy dictates who is served next. The honored guest, seated to the host’s right, will then serve himself or herself and so on. No one begins to eat until the most senior member of the table eats.
After ordering, it you want to get the waiter’s or waitress’s attention at a low- to mid-level restaurant in Mainland China, it is necessary to loudly shout fu wu yuan in Chinese. Unlike in the West, shouting for the server is not considered rude and it is often the only way to get his or her attention. At expensive restaurants or Western restaurants in China, it is not necessary to yell for the wait staff. A simple raising of the hand or eye contact will suffice.
Hot Chinese tea is often the drink of choice at meals. When the server or someone at the table refills your teacup, be sure to thank him or her by tapping your pointer and middle fingers or knuckles on the table. Why?
Tea Pouring Thank You – a Folk Tale
The tradition of tapping one’s knuckles on the table is based on a Chinese folk tale. There was an emperor who decided to travel around his empire in disguise with two aides to see the country. One evening, the emperor and his two aides were dining together at a restaurant. The two aides were very nervous because they had never eaten with the emperor.
When the tea arrived at the table, the emperor personally served the tea to his two aides, who wanted to kowtow to the emperor to show their gratitude but doing so would have revealed the emperor’s identity. Instead, each took his right hand and formed a fist and stuck out his index and middle fingers and bent them at the first knuckle, like knees. Then, they tapped the knuckles on the table to signify their kowtow to the emperor.
Who Pays for the Dinner?
When the check arrives, it is good manners to offer to pay for the meal. Not offering to pay the check is seen as impolite. If you are dining with work colleagues, going Dutch, or having each person pay, is fine but close friends will often take turns paying the bill. If someone pays for you, it is expected that you repay the favor by inviting and paying for him or her to dine at a similar or slightly more expensive restaurant. Men dining with a girlfriend and her family are expected to pay for the bill or at least offer to pay it.
More Chinese Etiquette Tips.