The “banquet” style of Chinese restaurant may be a bit more familiar to American travelers. Banquet restaurants offer tasty meat, seafood, and veggie dishes along with rice, soups, and appetizers, all served family-style. Tables are often round, with a lazy Susan in the middle to facilitate the passing of communal serving bowls around the table. In the City, most banquet Chinese restaurants have at least a few dishes that will feel familiar to the American palate, and menus often have English translations.
The R&G Lounge (631 Kearny St., 415/982- 7877, daily 11:30am-9:30pm, $12-40, reservations suggested) takes traditional Chinese American cuisine to the next level. The menu is divided by colors that represent the five elements, according to Chinese tradition and folklore. In addition to old favorites like moo shu pork, chow mein, and lemon chicken, you’ll find spicy Szechuan and Mongolian dishes and an array of house specialties. Salt-and-pepper Dungeness crab, served whole on a plate, is the R&G signature dish, though many of the other seafood dishes are just as special. Expect your seafood to be fresh since it comes right out of the tank in the dining room. California-cuisine mores have made their way into the R&G Lounge in the form of some innovative dishes and haute cuisine presentations. This is a great place to enjoy Chinatown cuisine in an American friendly setting.
Another great banquet house is Hunan Home’s Restaurant (622 Jackson St., 415/982-2844, Sun.-Thurs. 11:30am-9:30pm, Fri.-Sat. 11:30am-10pm, $10-15). It is a bit more on the casual side, and it even has another location in suburban Los Altos. You’ll find classic items on the menu such as broccoli beef and kung pao chicken, but do take care if something you plan to order has a “spicy” notation next to it. At Hunan Home’s, and in fact at most Bay Area Chinese restaurants, they mean really spicy.
The Chinese culinary tradition of dim sum is literally translated as “touch the heart,” meaning “order to your heart’s content” in Cantonese. In practical terms, it’s a light meal—lunch or afternoon tea—composed of small bites of a wide range of dishes. Americans tend to eat dim sum at lunchtime, though it can just as easily be dinner or even Sunday brunch. In a proper dim sum restaurant, you do not order anything or see a menu. Instead, you sip your oolong and sit back as servers push loaded steam trays out of the kitchen one after the other. Servers and trays make their way around the tables; you pick out what you’d like to try as it passes, and enough of that dish for everyone at your table is placed before you.
One of the many great dim sum places in Chinatown is the Great Eastern (649 Jackson St., 415/986-2500, Mon.-Fri. 10am-midnight, Sat.-Sun. 9am-midnight, $15-25). It’s not a standard dim sum place; instead of the steam carts, you’ll get a menu and a list. You must write down everything you want on your list and hand it to your waiter, and your choices will be brought out to you, so family style is undoubtedly the way to go here. Reservations are strongly recommended for diners who don’t want to wait 30-60 minutes or more for a table. This restaurant jams up fast, right from the moment it opens, especially on weekends. The good news is that most of the folks crowding into Great Eastern are locals. You know what that means.
Official or not, there’s no doubt that the world believes that tea is the national drink of China. While black tea, often oolong, is the staple in California Chinese restaurants, you’ll find an astonishing variety of teas if you step into one of Chinatown’s small teashops. You can enjoy a hot cup of tea and buy a pound of loose tea to take home with you. Most teashops also sell lovely imported teapots and other implements for proper tea making.
One option is Blest Tea (752 Grant Ave., 415/951-8516, tasting $3), which boasts of the healthful qualities of their many varieties of tea. You’re welcome to taste what’s available for a nominal fee to be sure you’re purchasing something you’ll really enjoy. If you’re lucky enough to visit when the owner is minding the store, ask her lots of questions—she’ll tell you everything you ever needed to know about tea.