Pandemonium vs tranquility: notes from Chinese and Japanese culinary experiences

As an ethnic cuisine aficionado, I have developed a particular fondness for Japanese and Chinese food.  I have also noticed the dining experience at these establishments can be quite distinct from one another.  For the uninitiated, I've shared some of my observations.

Waiting for a tableSam Woo Barbeque | photo by Nathan SolisChinese restaurant (C) = A Chinese restaurant is brightly lit and the atmosphere is noisy, controlled pandemonium.  Children are running around and the patrons are talking into their cell phones with loud voices.  The restaurant doesn’t have a separate waiting area, or if it does, it is much too small, so patrons are most likely pushed into the dining area and bump up against the diners, who surprisingly don’t seem to mind as they are accustomed to it.  The ratio of those who are waiting to the number of available chairs in the waiting area is about 8 to 1.

Japanese restaurant (J) = A Japanese restaurant has a subdued, mellow ambience.  The lights may be turned lower, voices are hushed and the children sit quietly and obediently in the waiting area, which is sufficiently large to handle any overflow crowd. 

Being SeatedC = You’re in the waiting area and the hostess yells, “26!” You tense up and quickly raise the scrap of paper that has “26” scribbled on it as numbers 27-40 look on jealously. The hostess glares at you, points to a waitress and snaps, “Go!”  Before you can react, the waitress, without looking at you, is already sprinting away from you toward your table.  Squeezing between the other dining tables that are packed much too closely together, you scurry after the waitress, trying not to fall too far behind her. 

At your table, you find that the busboy has only partially cleaned the remaining dirty dishes from the previous diners.  So, standing and waiting next to the table with no busboy in sight, you wipe up the rice crumbs, stack up the remaining dishes, set them on the adjacent empty table, and sit down.

Yama Restaurant | Photo by Nathan SalisJ = In a Japanese restaurant, the hostess, in a gentle tone of voice, asks, “Number 26 please?”  As you become tense and jump up to catch her attention, the hostess politely smiles and quietly says, “Please follow me. Thank you.”  This calms your jangled nerves and she slowly, but firmly, leads you to your clean, immaculate table.  You sit down, exhale and relax.

Preparation for the mealC = For visits to a Chinese restaurant, the savvy patron will carry a handy 10-pack of Kleenex tissue.  Some of the meal plates may have an oily residue or a food stain that needs to be wiped clean with a tissue that has been moistened with the tea from your teacup.  The dishes may have “dings” or cracks and may not match each other.  You also hope you won’t cut your lip on the chipped rice bowl.

J = Everything is clean and matching.

ServiceC = In a Chinese restaurant, service quality ranges from sporadic to less than sporadic.  Finding a waiter is easy; finding your waiter is difficult.  For instance, after 25 minutes of fruitlessly trying to get your waiter’s attention to obtain extra napkins, you realize that your efforts are to no avail.

You eventually must resort to searching for the restaurant’s supply area where the plates and utensils are stored.  Once you find it in the rear section next to the bathroom, you notice that there are several other restaurant patrons near the supply area who have the same slightly desperate expression that you have and who are also clutching extra napkins, chopsticks or take home containers.

J = Service is impeccable as your waiter silently appears at your shoulder, regularly refilling your water glass and inquiring if he can be of additional assistance. 

SoupSam Woo Barbeque | photo by Nathan SolisC = Prior to serving the main entrees, a waiter will drop a large gallon bowl of soup on your table, along with several empty soup bowls for your party to serve themselves.  The soup will contain several mystery ingredients such as mystery meat chunks, mystery bone chunks and a mystery vegetable.  For fun, you and your friends try to identify the soup’s contents.  Everyone guesses incorrectly. 

J = Each diner has their own piping hot bowl of miso soup, which is covered to preserve the perfect serving temperature.  The soup is slowly sipped and enjoyed.  When you’ve finished, the waitress promptly removes the empty bowls and you all eagerly await the main dish.

EntréeC = In a Chinese restaurant, entrées are served “family style,” meaning each is placed on a rotating, circular Lazy Susan in the center of the dining table and is to be shared by everyone.  The entrées are crowded together on the Lazy Susan until there is no more space and are then stacked on top of each other.

Yama Restaurant | Photo by Nathan SalisThroughout the meal, you must constantly, in a subtly aggressive manner, spin the Lazy Susan toward yourself, so that the last portion of tasty roast duck or mixed vegetables will rotate to a position directly in front of you.  At the same time, you must keep in mind that there are 5-8 other hungry, plotting diners at the table who are also desirous of the roast duck and/or vegetables.  During the meal, you notice your entire body is tense and that you’ve unconsciously clenched your hands into a fist.  A phrase pops into your head:  Survival of the Fittest.  How appropriate.

J = Each diner receives his or her own immaculately prepared and presented meal.  You notice that the individual salad, vegetable and entrée portions are all neatly segregated into their own area on your dinner plate to prevent any unnecessary intermingling of sauces and seasonings.  The presentation is nearly as important as the end product, with everything on the serving dish, from the main entrée to the garnish, perfectly aligned and in its place.  Free of distraction, you then enjoy your meal at a leisurely pace while exchanging pleasantries with your fellow diners.  Ahhhh . . . a feeling of tranquility fills your inner spirit.

Food qualityChinese restaurant = Delicious.

Japanese restaurant = Delicious.

2 thoughts on “Pandemonium vs tranquility: notes from Chinese and Japanese culinary experiences”

  1. I agree with you but you forgot one VERY IMPORTANT CONSIDERATION:

    Chinese: $10 a person max

    Japanese: $20 a person minimum

  2. Nice job as usual Joe. You nailed the differences in the food cultures of both countries and both have given us lots of good dishes to enjoy. The Japanese prefer the concept of “eating with eyes first” and therfore give more attention to the presentation.

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