Sometimes living in places like the San Gabriel Valley, the San Francisco Bay Area, or New York City, which are the Meccas of Chinese dining in the United States, isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. No, it’s not that the Chinese food in these locales is overrated, as we’re talking about some unquestionably outstanding food. Rather it’s that quite often you can’t enjoy that great meal without waiting for an hour or two along with dozens of strangers crowded into the foyer of the restaurant or on the street outside.
Some people say that having an extended wait is just the cost of accessing a superior Chinese meal at prime eating times, generally lunch and dinnertime on Saturdays, or lunchtime on Sunday. In the case of some of the most popular Chinese restaurants, the issue extends into lunch and dinner on weekdays, too. However, an hour or two wait is not a price that I’m personally willing to pay. Furthermore, it makes planning events quite difficult. For example, my next door neighbor is originally from the UK and has never eaten dim sum. But he’s not available during the week, and with an active little boy, a long wait on Saturday or Sunday morning isn’t practical. So the dim sum lunch I’ve been talking about for two years has yet to materialize. Likewise, I like to drive to the San Gabriel Valley for dinner two or three Saturdays a month. But if I can’t get out there by 6pm before the restaurants fill up, I’m forced to resort to Plan B, whatever that might be. Worth the wait?
Outside the Chinese community, many high-demand restaurants will accept reservations, so as long as you plan far enough in advance, you can generally get the dining slot that you want. And even if a non-Chinese restaurant doesn’t accept reservations, there’s often a bar where you can bide your time with drinks and even appetizers. However, few authentic Chinese restaurants in Chinese communities accept reservations, and almost none I’ve seen provide a bar or other amusement for waiting patrons. This leaves you either with a long wait, an earlier-than-desired meal time (which, in the case of dim sum carts, will also equate to something less than a full selection of available items), or eating somewhere you’d rather not be.
One alternative for restaurants with extremely long waits of an hour or more is to send one person (preferably one who lives close by) ahead of time to put their name on the list and have everybody show up an hour later. But that can be risky since waiting times are hard to gauge, and your party might not all be there when your number is called. And early arrival isn’t always the solution either, as at extremely high-demand restaurants such as Din Tai Fung in Arcadia, CA in the San Gabriel Valley, and Koi Palace in Daly City, CA in the San Francisco Bay Area, prospective diners start lining up outside the restaurant well before opening time.
Now there are probably good reasons why so many Chinese restaurants do not accept reservations. First of all, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and one can never tell when a reservation holder won’t show up. This is particularly relevant when taking into account the low profit margins that many Chinese restaurants work with. Secondly, there are the noted prime eating times on Saturdays and Sundays where everybody in the Chinese community wants to eat out. So why accept a reservation when you have dozens of people camped inside and outside your restaurant waiting for the next table? The fact that so many patrons are willing to wait indicates that for many Chinese diners, food quality (or value) trumps inconvenience.
The reservation planning process is more difficult in Chinese restaurants because of the higher concentration of group diners, who are more likely to linger and chat (we like to say they have “sticky rice bottoms”) than diners at smaller tables. The lingering diners collide head-on with the restaurant’s desire to turn tables over quickly, often resulting in not-so-subtle hints from the restaurant to vacate the table. And lastly, because most Chinese restaurateurs are immigrants, reservations may not have been something they were thoroughly familiar with in the old country. On my first trip to Hong Kong in the 1980s, not only did restaurants not take reservations, but if the restaurant was full, you didn’t wait in the lobby for your name or number to be called. Rather, you lined up behind the table of your choice and waited for the patrons to clear out. Though this system no longer exists, and while some of today’s Chinese restaurants abroad may take reservations, the vast majority overseas do not.
The “no reservations” policy is not necessarily an absolute one. Some Chinese restaurants will take reservations for parties of a minimum size, usually at least a table of ten. But there’s usually a catch. A reservation for a table of 10 at 7pm doesn’t mean they’ve set a table aside with your name on it. Rather, it usually means that once you’ve arrived at the restaurant, you go to the front of the line and are entitled to the next table for 10 that opens up, which still might not be for a half hour. And Chinese restaurants are more likely to operate under the rule that your reservation will not be honored until everybody in your party is present.
If the group is large enough, say three or four tables, many more Chinese restaurants will take your reservation, particularly if the restaurant is equipped with private rooms. But still, there can be complications. I once wanted to have a family gathering of four tables for lunch on a particular Sunday with the proviso that it not be a dim sum lunch. The “no dim sum” part eliminated the largest Chinese restaurants which, in the San Gabriel Valley, all serve dim sum at lunch, leaving me to look for a medium-sized Chinese restaurant for our gathering. None of the restaurants I called was willing to reserve four tables on what apparently is their busiest lunch day, and the best we could do was to start our gathering at 2pm.
So yes, it’s great to live in Los Angeles and drive anytime to the San Gabriel Valley to eat at some of the best Chinese restaurants in the United States. But like the freeways we traverse to get there, there may be bumps in the road.
"No Reservations: Taking the Fun Out of Chinese Dining" originally published on The Menuism Dining Blog.