At a Chinese meal, dishes are served one by one in the middle of the table, and you need to pick up food from the plates and bowls shared with others seated at the table with you. We have summarized how a Chinese meal is served...
Ordering and Service
When you walk in a restaurant, an employee will lead you to a table. After you are seated, the staff member will give you a menu and help you order. You can ask the waiter to recommend some popular dishes. Most staff in Chinese restaurants don't speak English.
If you have no idea how many dishes you should order, you can ask the staff. Alternatively, count how many people are seated at the table and order one dish per person.
You can call a waiter/waitress anytime by saying 'service employee' (服务员 fúwùyuán /foo-woo-ywen/). Some local people may call waitresses 'pretty woman' (美女 měinǚ /may-nyoo/) and waiters 'handsome guy' (帅哥shuàigē /shweye-ger/).
Serving Sequence: Tea, Cold Dishes, Meat, Vegetables, Soup, Fruit
After you have ordered, tea or a different drink and cold dishes will be served first. Hot dishes are then served one by one. Soup is often the last dish of a meal, followed by fruit for dessert.
Tea/drink: Usually, restaurants offer free tea when you are seated. If you want other drinks like juice, soft drinks, wine, or beer, you can order from the menu.
Appetizers — cold dishes: Pickled vegetables and salted meats are popular cold dishes among Chinese people, and some restaurants offer customers small cold dishes for free.
Entrée (main dishes) — meat and vegetables: Waiters serve hot dishes one by one and usually meat dishes are served first, then vegetable ones.
Rice/noodles: Rice and noodles are staple dishes for Chinese people. Most restaurants offer rice, especially in southern China. Some restaurants also offer fried rice and sausage rice. However, in restaurants in northern China, noodles are often the staple dish.
Soup: Soup is not an essential dish if you have had enough food, but Chinese people usually drink a bowl of soup after (or before) a meal. Soup may be served after all hot dishes have been served. It's served in a big bowl, and the waiter can help you spoon it into your bowl.
Fruit: After a meal, some restaurants offer free fruit. Apples, watermelons, pears, oranges... are served sliced on a big plate.
Serving Space — Seating Arrangements
If you have a meal in a private room, then the place for serving dishes is near the door. If you have a meal in a public hall, then the place for serving dishes is near the walkway or kitchen.
When staff serve dishes, they should warn you to get out of the way. It's wise to leave a seat/space vacant to give the waiter/waitress access to the table.
The place for serving dishes is a specific point of dining culture, which is adhered to when planning a seating arrangement for a Chinese meal. The guest of honor and host avoid sitting near this place.
If you visit a friend's home, this may not be so important. However, it's always good to know basic Chinese table manners. Read more about Chinese dining etiquette.
Tableware — Rice Bowl, Plates, Cups, Chopsticks, and Spoon
Restaurants have tableware sets prepared for customers before they are seated. Usually there are seven items:
- A rice bowl (some restaurants in northern China don't provide a rice bowl)
- A plate under the bowl (Chinese cooks don't remove bones so you need this plate for bones, etc.)
- A small dish for dipping sauce
- A tea cup
- A small (beer) glass (some restaurants may offer a glass for wine)
- A pair of chopsticks
- A spoon for soup
If any item is not to your satisfaction (chipped, dirty...) staff will help you to replace it for a new one, if needed.
Restaurants provide tissues/napkins, usually in small restaurant brand plastic wallets or cardboard boxes, when serving the first dishes.
Enjoy Chinese Food and Experience Chinese Dining Culture
If you are interested in Chinese food and dining culture, our food tours offer tourists a great chance to experience China's interesting dining culture in person. Below are our most popular China tours for your inspiration:
- 8-Day Beijing, Xi'an, and Shanghai Tour — the Golden Triangle
- 12-Day Beijing, Xi'an, Chengdu, Guilin, and Hong Kong Cuisine Tour — the Flavor of China
Our tours can be customized. Just tell us your requirements and interests, and we will help you create your China tour.