In China meals are really a communal event, so food in a Chinese home or restaurant is always shared—you usually have a small bowl or plate and take food from central platters. Although Western-style cutlery is often available, 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 shovel in the contents without any qualms. Noisily slurping up soup and noodles is the norm. Place bones or seeds in a small dish or on the table beside your bowl. 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 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.
Meals and Mealtimes
Food is a central part of Chinese culture, and so eating should be a major activity on any trip to China. Breakfast is not usually a big deal—congee, or rice porridge (zhou), is the standard dish. Most mid- and upper-end hotels do big buffet spreads, whereas café chains in major cities serve lattes and croissants.
Snacks are a food group in themselves. There's no shortage of street stalls selling grilled meats, bowls of noodle soup, and the ubiquituous baozi (steamed buns stuffed with meat or veggies). Many visitors are hesitant to eat from stalls—you'd be missing out on some of the best nibbles around, though. Pick a place where lots of locals are eating to be on the safe side, and bring along your own chopsticks.
The food in hotel restaurants is usually acceptable but vastly overpriced. Restaurants frequented by locals always serve tastier fare at better prices. Don't pass by establishments without an English menu—a good phrase book and lots of pointing can usually get you what you want.
If you're craving Western food (or sushi or curry), rest assured that big cities have plenty of international chain restaurants. Most higher-end Chinese 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.
At most restaurants you ask for the bill (mai dan) at the end of the meal, as you do back home. At cheap noodle bars and street stands you often pay up front. Only very upmarket restaurants accept credit cards.
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.
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
Forget tea, today the people's drink of choice is beer. Massively popular among Chinese men, it's still a bit of a no-no for Chinese women, however. Tsingtao, China's most popular brew, is a 4% lager that comes in liter bottles and is usually cheaper than water. Many regions have their own local breweries, and international brands are available.
When you see "wine" on the menu, it's usually referring to sweet fruit wines or distilled rice wine. The most famous brand of Chinese liquor is Maotai, a distilled liquor ranging in strength from 35% to 53% proof. Like most firewaters, it's an acquired taste.
There are basically no licensing laws in China, so you can drink anywhere, and at any time, provided you can find a place to serve you.