In China meals are a communal event, so food in a Chinese home or restaurant is always shared. Although cutlery is available in many restaurants, it won't hurt to brush up on your use of chopsticks, the utensil of choice. The standard eating procedure is to hold the bowl close to your mouth and eat the food. Noisily slurping up soup and noodles is also the norm. It's considered bad manners to point or play with your chopsticks, or to place them on top of your rice bowl when you're finished eating (place the chopsticks horizontally on the table or plate). Avoid, too, leaving your chopsticks standing up in a bowl of rice—they look like the two incense sticks burned at funerals.
If you're invited to a formal Chinese meal, be prepared for great ceremony, endless toasts and speeches, and a grand variety of elaborate dishes. Your host will be seated at the "head" of the round table, which is the seat that faces the door. Wait to be instructed where to sit. Don't start eating until the host takes the first bite, and then simply help yourself as the food comes around, but don't take the last piece on a platter. Always let the food touch your plate before bringing it up to your mouth; eating directly from the serving dish is bad form.
Beijing's most famous dish is Peking duck. The roast duck is served with thin pancakes, in which you wrap pieces of the meat, together with spring onions, vegetables, and plum sauce. Hotpot is another local trademark: you order different meats and vegetables, which you cook in a pot of stock boiling on a charcoal burner. Baozi (small steamed buns filled with meat or vegetables) are particularly good in Beijing—sold at stalls and in small restaurants everywhere, they make a great snack or breakfast food.
Meals and Mealtimes
Food is a central part of Chinese culture, and so eating should be a major activity on any trip to Beijing. Breakfast is not a big deal in China—congee, or rice porridge (zhou), is the standard dish. Most mid- and upper-end hotels do big buffet spreads, whereas Beijing's blooming café chains provide lattes and croissants all over the east side of town.
Snacks are a food group in themselves. There's no shortage of steaming street stalls selling kebabs, grilled meat or chicken, bowls of noodle soup, and the ubiquitous jiaozi (stuffed dumplings). Pick a place where lots of locals are eating to be on the safe side.
The food in hotel restaurants is usually acceptable but overpriced. Restaurants frequented by locals always serve tastier fare at better prices. Don't shy from trying establishments without an English menu—a good phrase book and lots of pointing can usually get you what you want.
Lunch and dinner dishes are more or less interchangeable. Meat (especially pork) or poultry tends to form the base of most Beijing dishes, together with wheat products like buns, pancakes, and noodles. Beijing food is often quite oily, with liberal amounts of vinegar; its strong flavors come from garlic, soy sauce, and bean pastes. Food can often be extremely salty and loaded with MSG. If you can manage it, try to have the waitress tell the cooks to cut back. Vegetables—especially winter cabbage and onions—and tofu play a big role in meals. As in all Chinese food, dairy products are scarce. Chinese meals usually involve a variety of dishes, which are always ordered communally in restaurants. Eat alone or order your own dishes and you're seriously limiting your food experience.
If you're craving Western food, rest assured that Beijing has plenty of American fast-food chains, as well as Western-style restaurants on the east side of town. Most higher-end restaurants have a Western menu, but you're usually safer sticking to the Chinese food.
Meals in China are served early: breakfast until 9 am, lunch between 11 and 2, and dinner from 5 to 9. Unless otherwise noted, the restaurants listed in this guide are open daily for lunch and dinner. Restaurants and bars catering to foreigners may stay open longer hours.
At most restaurants you ask for the bill at the end of the meal. At cheap noodle bars and street stands you pay up front. Only very upmarket restaurants accept payment by credit card.
Reservations and Dress
Regardless of where you are, it's a good idea to make a reservation if you can. In some places (Hong Kong, for example), it's expected. We only mention them specifically when reservations are essential (there's no other way you'll ever get a table) or when they are not accepted. For popular restaurants, book as far ahead as you can (often 30 days), and reconfirm as soon as you arrive. (Large parties should always call ahead to check the reservations policy.) We mention dress only when men are required to wear a jacket or a jacket and tie.
Wine, Beer, and Spirits
Walk down any side street with outdoor restaurant seating and you'll find gaggles of men socializing around an armada of empty green beer bottles. Beijing is a beer-drinking town. Yanjing, Tsing Tao, and Snow are the local brands of choice. The bars around Sanlitun, Houhai, and Nanluguoxiang have a bigger selection of imported brews. If you are invited to a banquet or special dinner by Chinese friends or colleagues, you may be in for a long night of gluttonous eating and drinking. The spirit of choice for these occasions is baijiu, a noxious 56-proof rice wine that can sometimes taste of liquid blue cheese (better quality) or an old gasoline-soaked athletic sock (not so good quality). If your companions are a table of Chinese men, expect much machismo to accompany the festivities. When one of them yells "Ganbei!" you are expected to finish the entire shot. The best option for a nondrinker is to refuse any alcohol from the beginning and turn the shot glass upside down; or alternatively, if you drink, but don't think you can stomach the baijiu, have the waitress pour wine or beer into your shot glass. None of these actions are rude except backing down once you've started in on the baijiu shots.