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Cafeteria Style Restaurants in China are Good for Travelers who Can’t Speak Chinese

Unfamiliarity with Mandarin or the Chinese writing system sometimes makes getting good, cheap meals in restaurants in China a challenge. There are probably three ways to overcome this hurdle: 1. Only go to restaurants with English menus in tourist towns and/ or eat street food. 2. Charge into the kitchen of a restaurant and point [...]

Unfamiliarity with Mandarin or the Chinese writing system sometimes makes getting good, cheap meals in restaurants in China a challenge. There are probably three ways to overcome this hurdle:

1. Only go to restaurants with English menus in tourist towns and/ or eat street food.

2. Charge into the kitchen of a restaurant and point to the food you want to eat.

3. Go to cafeteria style restaurants.

Before I could communicate what I wanted to eat in Mandarin and read menus I would often find myself searching for the third option: cafeteria style restaurants. An illiterate deaf-mute (pretty much what a traveler who can’t speak the local language is) could easily order food in this type of eating houses and has far more of a variety of choices than relying on street stalls alone.

Now that I can speak and read enough Chinese to order food I find that I still look for cafeteria style restaurants, as they are good, cheap (usually cheaper than the example in the video below), I can see the quality of my food before I order it, and I don’t have to waste time waiting for a waitress to take my order and cooks to make it. There are no surprises when using a Chinese cafeteria: you see what you get, take it or leave it. They also tend to be the most popular type of restaurant among working class Chinese people — and during lunch time they are often packed full of people.

Video of how to use a cafeteria style restaurant in China

Food from cafeteria style restaurant in China

Keep in mind that these cafeterias are often only open during meal times, and some only serve breakfast and lunch. The one in the video above is open 24 hours, but this is often not the case.

How to use a cafeteria style restaurant in China

  1. Buy tickets for how much money you want to spend. For a single person, 15 RMB is usually enough. You can get refunded for the money you don’t use.
  2. Walk up to the bar, pick up a tray and a set of chopsticks, and start pointing to the food you want. The servers will then tell you how much money in tickets to hand over, and they will pass over your food.

It’s that simple.

It’s my impression that most travelers in China who can’t speak Chinese often stick to the English menu restaurants in tourist areas. This is a real shame, as eating where and how the local people eat is a big part of the travel experience. If you’re looking for a good, cheap meal in China that requires no linguistic aptitude to acquire just look for a cafeteria.

Filed under: China, Food

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3547 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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