By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
It’s funny, but nobody ever asks, “What’s your favorite ‘American’ restaurant?” Yet, many are dying to know my favorite Chinese or Asian restaurant.
I am a foodie. I frequent both Asian and mainstream American restaurants regularly. For a change of scenery, a yearning for a conversation without being disrupted, or a quiet atmosphere, I would venture to an American restaurant. Let’s face the facts, Chinese restaurants are known to be noisy.
What prompted me to write on this topic? I have an immigrant friend who enjoys steaks occasionally, but he hesitates to go to a steak restaurant with his family because of an interesting dilemma.
“What is it?” I probed when he first told me of this.
Living in America for decades, he speaks English — so it’s not language barrier issues. He can afford pricey steaks — so it’s not a financial issue. Of course, it has nothing to do with how the steak gets cooked — he’s a foodie, too.
The dilemma has to do with his perceptions of what the restaurant would think of him if he doesn’t follow certain conventions. Would the waiter say that Chinese people are cheap?
“We didn’t know how to order,” my friend finally admitted. He has a family of seven.
“Oh!” I was amazed.
It’s a burden to many of us, people of color. We are often scrutinized without good reason just because of our skin color. What we do reflects our community, whether we like it or not.
“Are we supposed to order a steak for each family member? Or …” he said, trailing off.
“Share?” I said.
The key phrase in American restaurants is “splitting an entree.” The phrase in Chinese restaurants is “eating family-style.”
“It’s too much red meat if we order everyone a steak!” he said.
“It’s crazy, isn’t it!” It’s ridiculous that restaurants expect every customer to order a main course or to eat so much beef in one sitting.
“Would it be embarrassing if we do not order everyone a dish? Wouldn’t they look down on us and think we Chinese are trying to save money?” he said.
My friend’s assumptions surprised me. In this competitive world, restaurants should worry more about not having enough business than resenting the fact that some customers have certain preferences. Doesn’t it make the restaurant look good to pack the place? Doesn’t it make the venue look desirable if the crowd is diverse and the staff welcoming?
The days of me devouring an entire steak are long gone. My digestive system just can’t handle so much meat. No doctor would recommend for just anyone to increase red meat in their diet.
It’s also that many of us, my Asian friends, can’t finish the big portions of many American restaurants.
We were at Seastar, a seafood restaurant in Bellevue, the other day. None of my female guests, who each ordered a salmon entree, could eat everything on their plate. I also didn’t care for any of the main courses, but preferred side dishes, such as Brussels sprouts.
Besides, is there anything wrong with saving money by not over-ordering? Being excessive and wasteful isn’t exactly cool either. Just think of Syrian refugees dying of hunger. Throwing away food habitually is as disgusting as someone showing off how filthy rich they are.
Some argue that if I prefer lighter meals, why not go for salad entrées? Frankly, I hate having salad as my main course. Variety has always been my aim in dining. Chinese-style, with bits of everything, including veggies, seafood, and meats, has always been my way of life.
America is a country without a lot of rules when comes to dining. Splitting food is fairly common. But some countries like England are totally different. When I was in Wimbledon, my former classmate who took us to lunch at an Italian restaurant, warned me not to ask for small plates for fear the waitress would shun customers for splitting food. So I told her that we would ask for small plates after the food arrived. It worked out fine even though I ordered only appetizers for myself.
Here is what diners should do when going for family-style in American restaurants.
Tell the wait staff when you order the food that you want to share everything. A smart server usually asks, “Do you want me to split it?”
With good service, a server will even bring you smaller plates so you can share, without being asked to. Ask the server to place all the entrees in the center of the table if you don’t want the kitchen to split the food.
Once at the Metropolitan Grill, we ordered two steaks, a 20-ounce bone-in and a Porterhouse to be shared among five of us. Also, we split a scallop appetizer, a soup, two salads, two side dishes of mushrooms and veggies. I don’t think the restaurant would accuse us of being cheap.
The Met Grill charges an extra $6 to split food on extra plates. Some restaurants like Capital Grille don’t charge for splitting food. The “perfect-split” restaurant we attended recently was Ivar’s Acres of Clam on Pier 54. The server offered to divide the clam chowder with two sets of spoons and bowls.
The lobster we split was plated like two separate entrees. It was a beautiful presentation! And there was no additional charge.
Unfriendly servers don’t bring us small plates to share unless we ask for them. Or some give us extra spoons, but no extra bowls for soup. So far, I’ve only had one bad experience. A rude server once said to me, “You should have ordered two bowls of soup instead of one.” I should have complained to his manager.
Now that more and more Asians are dining in downtown, I wonder how many realize that they can do family-style ordering. (Not very many, based on what I’ve seen when I peep at other tables.)
Perhaps, we can all do our share in educating restaurants, so they know to be open-minded when customers ask for family-style.
The point is, family-style makes our meal more balanced, fun, and varied.
Restaurants should remember the golden rule: “Customers are always right!” (end)
Assunta Ng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.