Why courtesy should ALWAYS matter: A commentary on the service quality in Chinese restaurants in the GTA

Confession time: I need to vent.

I visit an awful lot of Chinese restaurants. And by these I actually don’t mean the Manchu Wok kind (though as you can see here, there’s nothing wrong with that). I mean the ones owned and operated by Chinese people, serving authentic Chinese food, aimed at the Chinese audience. Living in Markham, Chinese restaurants are about as numerous as 14-year old girls in a One Direction concert.

On the other hand, I also visit a fair bit of Western restaurants. Some of these places are ones that I frequent and love. You will have to beat me up severely before I’ll let you have my remaining Montana’s pork ribs, for example.

And there’s really ONE big thing that separates the first group from the second. No, it’s not the fact that you can’t get Hainanese Chicken Rice at Swiss Chalet.

It’s the service. The average authentic Chinese restaurant here has no concept of what this is. Which is really sad considering Chinese restaurants in Indonesia seem to be just fine with the concept of politeness.

Even my dad, who’s probably the most Chinese person on the planet (yes, even more so than the entire population of China combined), even sighed once and said “This (the service) is why I don’t like going to Chinese restaurants”. It’s like if the Pope said that he doesn’t really like Sunday mass.

Walk into most traditional Chinese restaurants in Toronto (but ESPECIALLY north of Steeles Avenue- which I guess no longer makes it Toronto), and chances are you’ll be greeted by a Chinese person who only speaks halting English, if any, and if you look anything REMOTELY Asian then they will automatically assume you can speak Chinese – usually insisting that you MUST speak Cantonese, and pretty much treat you with indifference, if not outright contempt at the very fact that they need to serve you. The nerve of you, really.

Note that there are quite a few notable exceptions. A lot of the newer Chinese establishments (the Phoenix Restaurant chain being a notable example) have displayed much better service than the ones I mentioned above. By the word “traditional” I mean old-fashioned and well-established Cantonese restaurants that have been in operation for at least 15 years (guilty parties: Sam Woo, Ming’s, Golden Court, just to name a few).  I only picked the number 15 because that’s how long I’ve been in Canada for, and trust me when I say that going into almost any Chinese restaurant circa 1998 was akin to preparing yourself for a contest of hate.

Anyway. In these very well-established restaurants, you’re usually expected to speak Cantonese (never mind that the national language of China is Mandarin) and God help you if you want to ask your server anything or are unclear about the day’s specials. If you look non-Asian, you’re actually in a better position, because at least they won’t expect you to speak their language. But look anything like me, and you BETTER be conversant in Cantonese. Otherwise be prepared for a long and awkward night.

As an example, I very recently got into a huge argument at Ming’s Noodle, a very popular noodle joint on Kennedy just south of Steeles, where the server’s curt attitude and unwillingness to clarify our instructions lead to us getting the wrong order. When we told her about it, she was only too happy to argue and lecture us for not clarifying in the first place. All of this happened while the owner was watching us contentedly behind the cash register, not moving a muscle and not giving a damn. While this incident is, I admit, a rather extreme example, it is very symptomatic of the irrelevance with which the notion of service is regarded in these establishments.

You said RICE! Not FRIES! -just add an Asian waitress and it's pretty accurate.

You said RICE! Not FRIES! -just add an Asian waitress and it’s pretty accurate.

More worrying is the fact that not all of the newer restaurants are immune to this problem too. While a great deal of these modern joints have passable, and sometimes even friendly, service, there are still new cases like the large and new Dayali Restaurant (on Warden north of Steeles) featuring management that clearly views the patrons as nothing more than an inconvenience.

And you know what the worst part is? All of these places stay in operation and make money.

Then I started to notice something. People I know started telling me that I shouldn’t expect good service at a Chinese establishment. As far as Chinese restaurants are concerned, the category of “service” should apparently be labelled “Not Applicable”. So being treated like a sub-human should be expected, apparently.

There may be truth to this. Most Chinese restaurants that are operated by Chinese but are aimed at a more Western audience do NOT suffer from poor service. But more than 50% of Chinese restaurants that are both owned by AND aimed at Chinese people will have  surly waitresses that have a Ph.D in not giving a damn. So it’s almost EXPECTED that Chinese people here are going to be OK with crappy service.

I bluntly refuse to follow this suggestion. I admit that I lower my expectations for service at a Chinese restaurant, in the interest of my own sanity. But I can never buy the notion that treating people with contempt is ever acceptable.

Look at your daily life. How would you feel if everyone greeted you in a manner which basically tells you to go fuck yourself and that your very existence is a burden on their lives? I’m guessing it would suck HARD. Then why should we expect any less from our servers? Especially since (no matter how trivial the amount may be) they’re getting PAID to talk to us. That middle-aged lady on the corner of the street may give me a contemptuous look as if I was going to vomit in her handbag, but at least I’m not PAYING her for that privilege. But in a restaurant environment, I actually am.

So that’s my beef. And that’s my long-winded rationale that I will never, ever tolerate rudeness in my service. I’m not even asking for the sort of “let’s be BFFs” service you routinely get at Montana’s, The Keg, or any other similar establishment. Some adequate level of English proficiency (just know the goddamn numbers on the menu, that’s all I ask) and a rudimentary grasp of the concept of courtesy is all I’m expecting.

And if we all, especially those of us who frequent Chinese restaurants, start demanding good service and less passively resgining ourselves that crappy services are acceptable, maybe slowly things will change (they kind of already are, to be honest, as 50% is already pretty good compared to 1998). If a restaurant gives you shitty service, don’t go there again, no matter how good the food is. It’s as simple as that.

Either that, or I’m just going to open a small Chinese restaurant where I yell at you, slam the wrong order on your table, spill your water everywhere, and kick you when you leave. I will expect to retire rich before 40 because clearly people don’t mind it if the food is halfway decent.

PS: I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Leave a comment! Maybe I’m delusional and maybe I’m the only one who notices these things, or the only one nuts enough to care.

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11 thoughts on “Why courtesy should ALWAYS matter: A commentary on the service quality in Chinese restaurants in the GTA

  1. you are not the only one!!! i too have noticed the difference in service between western and eastern restaurants, lets both hope they will realize their faults

    • Thanks for reading and thanks for the support! Let’s hope so too. First world problems, I know. But everyone should treat others with respect and courtesy.

  2. Surprisingly, the few in Hamilton are pretty good. They’re kind and very helpful. Not to mention the vietnamese and thai restaurants are always very pleasant. I’m sorry to hear that you have to deal with awful services.

    • Nice to know! I actually only went to Vietnamese restaurants in Hamilton and yes, they are indeed very nice. With regards to the Chinese restaurants in the Hammer, I suspect it may be because they’re more targeted towards a multicultural, if not Western, audience (a point I touched on briefly). The whole feel of the restaurants there are very much unlike the “holycrapsoChinese” ambience you get at many GTA establishments.

      • Not really…jade garden and barvest moon, not to mention only one as well as rouge river in downtown are quite catered twd the asians…perhaps it’s time you take a trip down to H-town!!!’ 😀

  3. markham’s middle name should be PRC (ehm, not PSY 😉 People’s Republic of Canada. whoa! usually chinese restaurants served by HK or mainland china people do that kind of rude service (not all, though). especially if they don’t mingle with the local people in the country they live. but if the servers are not from those places, it’s more polite.

  4. I share your feelings Darren! Cantonese restaurants don’t have service,period. But sometimes I feel bad for the waiters/waitresses who gave crappy services as they are earning minimum wages, working long hours and don’t get a penny of the tips which are meant for them! So I always make sure I clearly communicate what I need and have a lot of patience in waiting them to get me what I need. At the end of the day, I don’t go to those restaurants for experience, I go there for a meal and basically get out as soon as I am done.

    I guess it’s the expectations that get you disappointed, which I don’t have any. But I do agree with you if I ever had a bad experience, will never go back again, no matter how good the food is.

    • Great reply, thanks Sherry. I agree that waitresses in Cantonese restaurant really do have some tough working conditions. That’s why I never expect them to go the extra mile. But at the same time, it’s no reason for them to be outright rude. Also interestingly, in Indonesia, servers get paid quite little too, but you don’t see them throwing plates in your face 🙂 In any case, thanks for the feedback. Always appreciated.

  5. Your words are spot on. I’ve been noticing this a lot and wondering if we (my family) were the only ones feeling this way and experiencing terrible service. Sometimes, I’m afraid the servers are going to break the dishes because they have attitude when they throw them on the table. And if I’ve asked for something, I don’t always know if they’ve heard me because they don’t acknowledge that I’ve spoken. It’s really quite frustrating. How do I let them know I’m less than impressed with their rudeness and disrespectful behaviour? Leave them spare change for a tip.

    • Thank you for your comments. I agree with what you say and must say that it’s not a bad idea to leave spare change for a tip. I understand not everybody can be friendly to you (or us, as patrons), but EVERYBODY can be NOT rude. It’s a basic tenet of everyday life. Hope you keep on reading my blog and let me know what you think!

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