Why are American Chinese takeout restaurants so similar?
July 11, 2008 12:36 PM   Subscribe

Wherever you go in the United States, Chinese restaurants are suspiciously similar. What's the deal?

Consider the menus: always the same shape (tall and skinny); always with the same layout. I've seen the exact same clip art on many of them: a little chili pepper next to the spicy dishes; a picture of a girl in a leotard, inside a scribbled heart, next to the low-fat options. The same style of map on the front. And, of course, pretty much the same selection of dishes wherever you go.

I've seen the same (or very similar) chairs and lacquered-ish tables at a bunch of Chinese restaurants. Then there are the backlit pictures of various dishes above the counter (never, of course, depicting actual dishes prepared by that restaurant); the same Kari-Out condiments; the same faux-green-marble countertops, the same flowers-and-pastels decor...

I have some hypotheses.
  1. There's some company/organization/program that specializes in bringing Chinese people to the United States and helping them start restaurants. It seems unlikely that every Chinese person who moves to the United States and starts a restaurant would coincidentally decide to set up their menu and their restaurant almost the same way. Doubly so when you consider that American Chinese food is very different from the actual Chinese food with which the restaurant owners are most familiar—somehow, they have to learn what "Chinese food" means in America, and it doesn't seem like each restaurant is finding the answer to that question independently. Maybe they're just imitating each other, but that still doesn't seem like a complete answer.
  2. There are a limited number of US companies who cater to Chinese speakers. (Let's face it; the English spoken by Chinese restauranteurs is not always great—and I don't mean that in a LOLIMMIGRANTS way; their English is still light-years ahead of my Chinese.) So the physical culture of Chinese restaurants reflects that limited marketplace.
  3. I'm imagining this, and Chinese restaurants are really no more similar to each other than, say, pizza parlors, or Mexican restaurants are to each other.
Any ideas? I've been wondering about this for years!
posted by greenie2600 to Food & Drink (35 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Most of these questions are answered in This Book.

I was disappointed in it, since it didn't focus on the actual food so much as the restaurants, but it was still interesting.
posted by bondcliff at 12:41 PM on July 11, 2008 [3 favorites]

Confirmation bias.

Almost none of the things you describe as "universal" fit with my experience with a majority of the Chi-Am joints I've ever been to.

"Then there are the backlit pictures of various dishes above the counter (never, of course, depicting actual dishes prepared by that restaurant)"

I'll admit I've seen this once, but only at one of those steam table lunch joints nobody goes to. Otherwise the remaining details you list: menu format, decor, furnishings, condiment branding; those things describe pretty much none of the Chi-Am places I've ever been.
posted by majick at 12:44 PM on July 11, 2008

I think you should start going to better Chinese restaurants.
posted by box at 12:46 PM on July 11, 2008 [14 favorites]

Also seconding the recommendation of the Jennifer 8 Lee book.
posted by box at 12:47 PM on July 11, 2008

Response by poster: Interesting, majick. I see you live on the West Coast; I live on the East Coast. Perhaps these are regional things, because I know I'm not imagining all of it—especially the menus.

I'll keep an eye out for that book, bondcliff.

On preview: hehe. I'd love to, box, but I live way out in the sticks. There's not much to choose from.
posted by greenie2600 at 12:50 PM on July 11, 2008

greenie2600: where do you go in the east coast for chinese?
posted by waylaid at 12:51 PM on July 11, 2008

The menu I have here from my local Chinese restaurant is printed by A Graphic Printing, with an address on the outskirts of Chinatown in NYC. Presumably they speak Chinese, do a lot of menus, and just have standard templates.
posted by smackfu at 12:52 PM on July 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Almost none of the things you describe as "universal" fit with my experience with a majority of the Chi-Am joints I've ever been to.

Seconding. Have never seen the "girl in the leotard" picture, for example.

There are a limited number of US companies who cater to Chinese speakers. ... So the physical culture of Chinese restaurants reflects that limited marketplace.

Maybe they're just imitating each other

That said, I think your above two observations are spot-on, anyway. In any given city, there generally isn't a huge amount of wholesalers in each city catering to the Chinese restaurants in their territories.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:53 PM on July 11, 2008

I imagine the homogeneity is because they're serving food to people who are used to, above all, consistent experiences when eating out, and because most consumers of their product, especially in areas without a huge number of Chinese folks who also come in, expect to be able to order things like (say) Peking duck at any Chinese restaurant, even if the place is primarily Cantonese-focused, or if the chefs are from Fujian or Guangdong (where many members of China's diaspora in the US have come from).

If you're questing after novelty, though, the best thing I've done in any kind of restaurant where I'm not as familiar with the cuisine is ask the server what's really great that day, and often I'll end up with something that's not even on the menu at all; this is especially true at the Asian places near where I live.
posted by mdonley at 12:54 PM on July 11, 2008

Consider Chinese menu items as entities in darwinian struggle, with the average American's palate being the environment of survival.
posted by yort at 1:03 PM on July 11, 2008 [3 favorites]

I think these things are probably more regional than you realize. Where I grew up, all the Chinese restaurants served pretty much the exact same menu, but it's a different menu from the Chinese restaurants where I live now.

For instance, for some reason all the Chinese places in the MD suburbs of DC serve subs hamburgers, too. I haven't seen this either of the other two places I lived and ate Chinese food.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 1:03 PM on July 11, 2008

Response by poster: waylaid: I go in around the places I live/have lived, which mostly means Maryland/Pennsylvania/West Virginia.

I ordered the Lee book. It looks interesting and gets great reviews.

I think you're probably right, smackfu, and that was pretty much my thinking as far as the menus go. It just seemed like the homogeneity extended beyond the menus. Maybe it is just confirmation bias...I'll have to start being more rigorous with my observations :)
posted by greenie2600 at 1:05 PM on July 11, 2008

Greenie2600, I don't think you are crazy, in fact I've often thought about asking this question myself. The strip-mall-style Chinese restaurant we have here in my small South Dakota town is virtually identical to the strip mall Chinese restaurant I went to in North Carolina. Same menu, same clip art, same decor, same tables and same backlit take out menu. This same setup was also prevalent in other parts of North Carolina that I lived in with multiple restaurants in each city. I also saw this in West Virginia when visiting.

Anyway, I have no answers. I'm just a data point trying to prove that it's not just confirmation bias at work.
posted by bristolcat at 1:05 PM on July 11, 2008

You should read this book ASAP: The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food

It's a fun read, and absolutely has answers to all that you're looking for.
posted by xotis at 1:07 PM on July 11, 2008

It's not just the U.S. In my experience, they're the same all over Canada, England, Spain, Italy, South Africa (I once whiled away hours in a huge, deserted Chinese restaurant in Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State, waiting for a midnight train) - menu, decor, prices. It seems to be a formula which has been passed around as people moved from place to place.
The places that are different have actually been in the Chinatowns of places like Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary...
posted by Flashman at 1:11 PM on July 11, 2008

I'm curious about Fortune Cookie Chronicles. I haven't read it, but I have worked in the restaurant biz. My experience is that restaurant supply companies have a set number of dishes/ingredients that they carry, and given the limited selection there's only so many dish variations you can make. Since there aren't that many distributors, the options are cook what you can with what the distributors carry or shop for fresh ingredients at local stores and pay a premium for the privilege but have wider culinary options. Any restaurant that goes with the fresh locally-sourced ingredients is going to have to pass the cost on to the consumer though.

If you have a Chinatown or similar area within easy driving distance you owe it to yourself to go to an upscale Chinese restaurant (or one that caters to a Chinese clientele) because I guarantee you there will be a difference. You can go to any number of cheap chinese restaurants that have Chow Fun out of a boiler bag, but you're likely not to find Frog Porridge there.
posted by lekvar at 1:15 PM on July 11, 2008

In my experience, they're the same all over Canada, England, Spain, Italy, South Africa

I was going to say something similar. I was in Ireland, and looked inside a Chinese restaurant in a small-ish Irish town, and felt like I could've been back in DC.
posted by inigo2 at 1:15 PM on July 11, 2008

I personally have had shrimp fried rice at a Chinese restaurant in Cirebon, West Java, Indonesia, that could have been from LeeAnn Chin's here in Minneapolis.

But seriously, mdonley says it well--it has lots to do with customer expectations, particularly when reaching out to markets that are averse to culinary adventures (like suburban/rural Minnesota).

There was a restaurant review in the paper here several years ago where the reviewer went out to eat with Martin Yan (remember Yan Can Cook?) at a downtown restaurant that had a reputation for serving hokey faux-Chinese to Scandinavian families that didn't know better. Ha, ha, should be good for a laugh, right? Instead, Yan threw aside the menu, chattered off a long order to the waiter in Cantonese, and they had one of the best dinners the reviewer had ever had.
posted by gimonca at 1:16 PM on July 11, 2008

I've definitely noticed a lot of the same things as greenie2600 here in NYC, although it tends to be the greasy spoon take out Chinese food places that all look (and usually taste) alike. Here they'll also often have huge backlit photos of beautiful sites in China - waterfalls, mountains, etc - on the walls. I always just figured there were a few major distributors for supplies for Chinese restaurants.
posted by JaredSeth at 1:21 PM on July 11, 2008

Best answer: Because in the restaurant industry, especially on the small scale, there are very few distributors. If you were selling gyros in Chicago you'd probably hook up with Kronos who would sell you the gyros, sauce, pitas, etc along with the spinning cooker, and lots of signs, decals, etc. You would also sell Pepsi which would also give you promotional junk, signs, etc. On top of it you'd want a carry-out menu and the Pepsi guy or the Kronos guy would send you off to the same guy they send everyone too. The menu guy uses the same graphics, fonts, etc.

Or if you sold hotdogs you'd be with Vienna Beef and Coke. That's why gyros places and hot dog places in Chicago all seem alike. They also imitate each other. I imagine Chinese restuarants deal with the same distributors and such, but I cant comment on that as I dont have first hand experience.

This kind of thing is very common in small business. I was in NYC a couple of weeks ago and saw the same window graphic of a tailor stitching something on the window of a dry cleaners that I see everywhere in Chicago. I bet its a promotional or discount thing from one of their suppliers.
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:22 PM on July 11, 2008

Response by poster: JaredSeth: yup, we have those backlit landscapes here, too. Sometimes they achieve a fake-waterfall effect with the lighting. They're gloriously tacky :)

I think you're right—the similarities seem to crop up a lot more with the skankier joints. There's a reasonably classy Chinese joint I frequent (still nothing approaching authentic, but definitely a few notches up in quality), and while they do have the lacquered tables and the skinny menus, they don't have any of the other stuff.
posted by greenie2600 at 1:27 PM on July 11, 2008

I think you're right—the similarities seem to crop up a lot more with the skankier joints.

Thats because the cheaper (or poorer) you are the less options you have for distrubtion or supplies. A mid-sized family restaurant can pick and choose who they want meat from. A cheap take out place usually will go with whoever the big distributor is who keeps handing them goodies.

It can also be seen as a very informal franchise. All those chicago gyros places pretty much work just for Kronos.
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:34 PM on July 11, 2008

Best answer: I'm also on the West Coast, and I haven't seen anything like what you describe decor-wise. There is a similarity between menu items, especially in take out joints, but that happens in coffee shops, indian restaurants, sushi joints, thai places, hofbraus... I don't think that's a sign of a nationwide Chinese Restaurant Cabal.

You may enjoy this discussion on the differences between West Coast and East Coast style americanized Chinese food. I've never had East Coast Chinese, but the West Coast responses generally ring true for me.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:35 PM on July 11, 2008

greenie, I know what you're talking about, but those are just the low-end Chinese-American places. They seem homogeneous because they are guessing (correctly) that going with the stereotype acts like a type of branding and will sell food. They're not acting as chefs following their dream to create the finest Szechuan cuisine, they're business owners, making money by producing a product in a cost-effective way.

There are similar-to-the-point of eerie pizza/sub joints and kabob/falafel shops, too. Consider the pizza/sub joint -- the white formica counter, the yellowing lighted sign sponsored by Pepsi with the letters stuck in, the booths with the molded seats and the sticky red-and-white plastic tablecloths or yellow or orange laminate table tops, dingy white tile floor...getting the mental picture? Can you smell the faintly sour smell of the pizza boxes and floor cleaner beneath the smell of the food?
posted by desuetude at 1:37 PM on July 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Okay, I think I'm starting to feel satisfied with some of these answers.

1. Most of the similarities I've described are most characteristic of skanky Chinese restaurants, not Chinese restaurants in general.

2. Restaurants, and especially skanky restaurants, of any particular kind tend to share characteristics, for the economic (and other) reasons we've discussed.

3. But the only skanky restaurants I really go to are skanky Chinese restaurants, because those are (for the most part) the only Chinese restaurants to be found in my rural-suburban area.

4. So the Chinese restaurants I see are more likely to be similar, because they're skanky. My sample is not sufficiently randomized.

Dammit! I wanted there to be a shadowy Chinese Restaurant Cabal.
posted by greenie2600 at 1:47 PM on July 11, 2008

Here in NYC there are often two menus: the plastic coated one they hand you, and one written on the wall in Chinese. The first has chicken with cashews and orange peel, and the second has sea slug in rice gruel. They are reluctant to serve westerners from that second menu, even if you can get them to translate it. "You no like. No pay. Send back."
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:53 PM on July 11, 2008 [3 favorites]

I know I read an article about the phenomenon of regional American Chinese food restaurants and the indentured-servitude-like working conditions, but I can't find it now.

Here's a blog post that hits upon some of the ideas and links to a few similar articles:
illegal Chinese immigrants...are deployed as wait-persons, bus people or cooks to an entire network of Chinese restaurants all over the East Coast and Midwest via a handful of “work centers” operating out of New York City. ... Restaurant workers pay between $30 to $60 to be dispatched by area code to their next job, and more often than not, have no idea in what city or state they are working. They spend anywhere from a couple of weeks to a year at one location before going back to New York and back to the work center for their next assignment. Many of them have paid up to $60,000 to smugglers for the opportunity to come to American and work 12 hour days, six days a week, for tips only.
So one of the reasons those restaurants seem so similar is that they may be run by a kind of gray-market cabal of people-smugglers. Delicious!
posted by bcwinters at 1:53 PM on July 11, 2008

Response by poster: StickyCarpet: I used to work with a woman from China. Sometimes, our department would go out for a group lunch at this nice Chi-Am place nearby. It was her favorite restaurant—she'd order real Chinese food, in Chinese, that wasn't on the menu. She and the staff had a very warm and almost jovially conspiratorial relationship; it was fun to see her so excited to get a little taste of home.

bcwinters: okay, so maybe there is a shadowy cabal of sorts, and it doesn't sound like a very pleasant one. One of the reviews for the Lee book mentions the human-smuggling element, so I presume I'll learn more about it once I get the book.
posted by greenie2600 at 2:00 PM on July 11, 2008

I had a similar wonderment about the ubiquitous paper placemat that one always seems to find at stripmall Chinese restaurants. You've probably seen it a lot too, the one illustrated with the "Chinese Zodiac."

Turns out they are carried by Smart & Final (and every other restaurant supply place) in packs of 1,000, along with the Greek Restaurant placemat and the Mexican Restaurant placemat.
posted by jamaro at 2:33 PM on July 11, 2008

greenie2600: Try the Chinese section of Tyler Cowen's ethnic dining guide for listings of more authentic places. And be adventurous with your ordering.

Note, I haven't actually been to any of these places but coming from a Chinese guy born overseas, the descriptions and photos of the restaurants and what he orders look pretty good to me.
posted by junesix at 3:02 PM on July 11, 2008

Here in Portugal all skanky Chinese restaurants are very much alike (which is about 99% of them). However, they are different from those in the US, at least from what I see in the movies and tv shows. They definitely "regionalize" their cooking, just how they manage to do it so consistently in each area is really weird to me too. My best friend is Chinese (or rather, her parents are), and I know real Chinese food has very little to do with what they serve in restaurants, and to some extent I understand... Some of it is pretty out there (like the root soup... iiik, the smell...). However, it could only be good for business to be a bit more daring, and why they don't go there ("You no like. No pay. Send back.") is most likely cultural.
posted by neblina_matinal at 3:40 PM on July 11, 2008

A few years ago I had a job that had me traveling up and down the east coast on a very regular basis. I can confirm that anywhere from Boston to Miami, these restaurants exist; little strip mall chinese joints with the same neon sight in the front window and the same backlit menu with the same General Tso's chicken nuggets surrounded by overly-green broccoli and the same tall paper menus and the same piss-poor seating options.

I even had one a short walk away from home, so I'd never have to jones for crappy, yet somehow intensely satisfying chinese fare.

I'll agree with the suggestions above that limited distributors led to homogeny between different restaurants, however the simple fact that so many of them all over the country are using the same menus/signs/etc leads me to agree with you that there's probably some overseeing company/organization/family somewhere out there that these shops are at least loosely associated with, if not direct franchises of.
posted by phredgreen at 9:58 PM on July 11, 2008

I'm trying to figure out where I read this, but I recall reading that there is actually a Chinese restaurant 'package' which comes with the menus, etc. As for "You no like. No pay. Send back.", I have to say that I'm a little disappointed that in 2008, people are still expecting, as Steinbeck put it "pidgin and a shuffle".
posted by Comrade_robot at 6:04 AM on July 12, 2008

If you want a different Chinese restaurant experience, try dim sum. You´ll start by not examining the menu, because there is no menu. I´ve also seen a Chinese buffet, where I declined to try the whole cooked crayfish that were displayed next to the shrimp, although the pizza was alright.

Nth-ing that the clip art, decor, dishes offered, and countertops I´ve encountered are not like what you´ve seen. For instance, Mar Far Chicken is not a dish I can find where I live now, nor can I find a bottle of ketchup mixed with mayo on the table. In a certain limited geographic area, all Chinese restaurants have these things.

If you are talking about actually sitting at a counter to eat instead of a table, every Chinese restaurant I´ve ever been to has tables and booths, not counters.

You may as well ask why all diners are so much alike, what witih always offering huevos rancheros and green chile cheeseburgers.
posted by yohko at 8:48 AM on July 12, 2008

Chinese restaurants in Hawaii are definitely different than the mainland Chinese variety. No such thing as crab rangoons nor general tsao/gao/tso's chicken. Having worked in a Chinese restaurant, white mainland American tourists would come in trying to order General Tso's chicken and practically drop dead in our response to not having that available, and not possibly being able to make that because we have no idea what it is, nor having the ingredients (cream cheese??!)

When I moved to the east coast for college, I finally encountered those two, and finally learned what real American-Chinese food was. In Massachusetts/Connecticut/New Hampshire I definitely experienced what you call the slutty low-grade Chinese restaurants... they were EVERYWHERE.
posted by Jimmie at 11:12 AM on July 12, 2008

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