One of the best things about any visit to China is the food, at least for the independent traveler. But outside Hong Kong and big hotels and expat cafe ghettos on the mainland, few restaurants have English menus.
Menus generally open with liang cai (cold dishes). Except in top-class Sino-foreign joint-venture restaurants, you are strongly advised to avoid these cold dishes, especially if you’re on a short trip. The restaurant’s specialties also come early in the menu, often easily spotted by their significantly higher prices, and if you dither, the waitress will recommend them, saying, “I hear this one’s good.” Waitresses always recommend ¥180 dishes, never ¥18 ones. Occasionally, some of these may be made from creatures, or may contain an odd material like swallow saliva (the main ingredient of bird’s nest soup, a rather bland and uninteresting Cantonese delicacy).
Main dishes come next, various meats and fish before vegetables and doufu (tofu), and drinks at the end. There are rarely desserts, although Guangdong (Cantonese) food has absorbed the tradition of eating something sweet at the end of the meal from across the border in Hong Kong, where all restaurants have something to offer of this kind, if only sliced fruit.
Soup is usually eaten last, although dishes arrive in a rather haphazard order. Outside Guangdong Province, Hong Kong, and Macau, rice usually arrives toward the end, and if you want it with your meal you must ask (point at the characters for rice, below, when the first dish arrives).
There is no tipping. Tea, chopsticks, and napkins should be free, although if a wrapped packet of tissues arrives, there may be a small fee. Service charges do not exist outside of major hotels, and there are no cover charges or taxes. If you are asked what tea you would like, then you are going to receive something above average and will be charged. You should be careful, since some varieties of tea may cost more than the meal itself.
Most Chinese food is not designed to be eaten solo, but if you do find yourself on your own, ask for small portions (xiao pan). These are usually about 70% the size of a full dish and about 70% the price, but they enable you to sample the menu properly without too much waste.