eat, pay, leave. it’s not that complicated.

January 11, 2013 |  Category:   cooking dining out favorite posts growing up half life nyc remembering




I don’t know why we don’t eat in Chinatown more often. Believe it or not, it’s been well over a year since we’ve eaten at any Chinatown restaurant which seems so utterly crazy since dumplings and dim sum are probably Mia’s favorite food (Claudine, not so much). We do eat plenty of dumplings and have even made our own quite a few times, but dim sum only seems to be a once a year thing for us. Why is that?
But sometimes when you have a craving there is no stopping it, which is what happened last weekend with soup dumplings. We decided to go to Shanghai Cafe again on Mott Street above Canal because we almost always get a booth and they have noodles in soup which Claudine loves (there is very little else on a Chinese menu that she likes). Like other restaurants in Chinatown, Shanghai Cafe has a reputation for some pretty bad service and if you read any online review you’ll see what I mean. It almost makes you not want to go. I guess I always temper my expectations and know to just eat my meal, pay and not linger, but maybe that’s because I just know that’s what you do. The waitresses are not your friends. They do their job and you do yours, which is to eat your food.
Can I tell you a little story? Back when I was working in an office and did such things as go out to dinner meetings with my coworkers, I would always secretly cringe when anyone suggested Korean barbeque. Not because I was doubtful that my coworkers would like Korean food, but because these dinners would inevitably end up being long, leisurely affairs. That’s fine in other restaurants, but not in ones in Chinatown or Koreatown. If my coworkers unanimously agreed on Korean, I would try to steer them towards the few restaurants downtown which were definitely more hip and had a more Americanized vibe where you could linger for awhile, but they always wanted to go somewhere in Koreatown because it was more authentic. Keep in mind that this was 10-15 years ago so Korean food as a cuisine, even in NY, wasn’t quite mainstream.
Being “The Korean” in the group, I always ended up having to recommend a restaurant which basically consisted of me searching online for reviews or reading Zagats like anybody else because I didn’t really eat all that much in Koreatown. I also always ended up ordering for the table because, well frankly, the waitress would always look at me when she came by for our order. This was fine and all, but I’m not fluent in Korean and so I would stumble through the order as best I could and then she would realize that I was a non-fluent Korean speaking Korean-American and I could just sense the air of disapproval even if she didn’t say a thing. She didn’t have to. This little exchange and slight shift in the power balance between me, the non fluent speaking Korean, and the waitress, a very fluent Korean, was always unnoticed by my dinner companions, but I will tell you that it most certainly transpired.
The meal itself was always enjoyable and I’d even forget for an hour that I was wearing the badge of shame as the non-fluent Korean in the restaurant. That is, until the end of the meal. See, this is where the dinner starts getting really stressful again, but this stress is only apparent to me. Usually when I’m out eating at a Korean restaurant with my parents, we pay and leave as the waitress is clearing the table after our meal. Dinner can be done in under an hour. But my friends and coworkers all want to stay and talk and linger and drink and talk some more. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but not at most busy restaurants on a Friday night in Koreatown. Let me tell you…I have been in some stressful situations in my life and trying to subtly nudge my coworkers to move our party elsewhere for an hour while the waitress keeps walking back and forth after putting down our check has got to be up there in the 10 top most stressful moments.
“Well, why didn’t you just say something?”, you might be wondering. And yes, you’re right, but how can I explain that at that moment, blurting out that the Koreans don’t want you to linger in their restaurant isn’t the easiest thing to do, especially when it’s loud and your coworkers are all in a heated conversation about a client or you know, Ally McBeal. It isn’t easy I tell ya. And maybe, just maybe for making me feel the Shame, I was subversively trying to get even with the waitress who you could tell was getting increasingly agitated by the table of Americans and the one non-fluent Korean-American who wouldn’t leave the table even though they finished their dinner an hour and a half ago. Because really, it was me she was glaring at, not them and I knew what she was thinking. “You know the drill! You eat, you leave! No lingering! Why you not tell your American friends that?”
There are always these differences that exist between cultures. Maybe a simple awareness of them, which is not always apparent I know, would go a long way. It goes both ways too, of course. Take my dad, for example. He never understands why dinners take so long to serve at non-Asian restaurants. He’ll inevitably mumble about how he’d already be done with his meal if he were at a Korean restaurant while waiting for his entree. He also doesn’t understand the bread thing. “Why they bring so much bread all the time? I finish bread, but they bring more. Why so much?”
Incidentally, the service at Shanghai cafe when we were there last weekend was quite good. I don’t know if the owners started reading those reviews or we just caught them on a good day, but our waitress was super nice, smiled at the girls and was overall really pleasant. They even thanked us for coming as we headed towards the door. Thanks Shanghai Cafe. We’ll be back, sooner rather than later.

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  • Claire January 11, 2013 at 1:17 am

    I will be emailing this post to many friends. Thank you.

  • Helle January 11, 2013 at 3:34 am

    Hehe, you take me right back to my years in China where it’s exactly the same, at least in the non-upmarket places. You eat, pay and get out. These days if you go to more expensive places, you do see even groups of Chinese sitting and chatting, drinking tea or beer after the food is finished. It used to be only the “waiguoren” foreigners, who didn’t understand the subtle and not so subtle hints.
    I wish we had restaurants like Shanghai Cafe here, I love dumplings and would go often.

  • susanna January 11, 2013 at 5:01 am

    as the only korean among friends, i also feel a similar anxiety at a korean restaurant. the thing that slightly annoys me is the expectation that i tell everyone what to do or how to eat things, and in a bbq setting, that i’d be the one stuck cooking the meat! *sigh* ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Christine Somers January 11, 2013 at 5:34 am

    Because of your post, we will be having dinner in Chinatown this weekend AND we will just eat, pay and leave. Thanks for the insight.

  • Jocy January 11, 2013 at 6:01 am

    This was great. I get that look of disapproval often in this region of the world because people often realize I speak only English. Nevermind that I’m Asian American and not Thai, Cambodian, Laotian, Burmese, Malaysian, Chinese – or whatever else ethnicity and expectation they place on me. It gets annoying so fast.

  • Annie January 11, 2013 at 6:25 am

    Wonderful post. Even without the cultural differences and pressures, I don’t like to linger long after dinner, either–fifteen minutes, tops. The waitstaff may need the table!

  • Kiana January 11, 2013 at 7:35 am

    Being half-Persian married to a non-Persian, I’m very familiar with the cultural misunderstandings. When I first started bringing my husband to Persian gatherings, the hosts would always ask him if he wanted something to eat or drink and my husband would always accept with alacrity. I would always cringe! I had to repeatedly tell him to refuse their offers a few times before accepting. Say “no” at least three times! I’m glad to know the Korean customs and I’ll be sure to eat and run next time we go out for Korean food!

  • CCC January 11, 2013 at 8:51 am

    “Cultural misunderstandings,” as Kiana (above) put it, is spot on. It’s one of the top reasons why my husband jokes with me every time we drive to NY if I brought the passports.
    BTW, the way you described being looked at by the Korean waitress, is the same thing I have witnessed my children being looked at for not speaking or understanding Italian. The eyes actually go from them to me, where the biggest disappointment lands.
    **i know you do the mixed race series (WHICH I LOVE–it is my favorite!!), but you should seriously consider doing a project on cultural differences: Being born and raised in the USA, but being held to another country’s cultural standards. I’m in! if you ever decide that.**

  • cantaloupe January 11, 2013 at 10:16 am

    I love soup dumplings!!!!

    And I’m totally with your dad on why the heck it takes so long to get the food on the table. Bring me my entree already!

  • jaime @ sweet road January 11, 2013 at 10:22 am

    This is really interesting… I find little cultural differences like this to be fascinating. I know I have encountered them when I travel, but it’s so much more interesting to see these differences brought back to America, or even find differences that range from city to city, state to state.

  • Tina January 11, 2013 at 10:56 am

    I am Chinese and just the other day at a Chinese restaurant, my husband, who is Caucasian, was about the order, when the waiter told him that it would be best if I placed the order. I then gave him the order mostly in English and a little Chinese. My Chinese is horrible but what little I remembered I used. It was both rude and hilarious! I grew up eating in Chinatown so I’m used to it. It doesn’t faze my husband anymore.

  • nichole January 11, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    What an interesting post, Jenna. I had to adjust to the differences in France as well. It was hard to be in a hurry there, and eating is a very leisurely activity. There were a few times we wanted to eat, pay and get out so we could get on with our day, and it takes forever to get your check. We know this, and plan accordingly. I think it’s even considered rude for the waiter to rush you in anyway. You can sit for hours after eating dinner in Paris.

  • Carolyn January 11, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    This made me laugh because I have been there too many times to count. This was exacerbated when I moved to Korea, and did not know a word of Korean. Being the child of immigrants means always having one foot in two different worlds and this post is a great example of that.

  • Caroline January 11, 2013 at 2:00 pm

    So great that you talked about this. The cultural differences *are* big even if people think someone’s been in the country for a long time. That doesn’t change things.

    I also have been in your shoes many times. But thankfully in Toronto a lot of Chinese resto staff Ive noticed are much more accepting of us overseas bananas. Even with stilted Chinese I get smiles, and even some pronounciation help! I suppose they are now used to us who do exist in great numbers! The best food is always in the dumpy restaurants too, where the food is the focus. Not ambience, not decor, not manners, not any of the things people expect when they go for good cuisine. Love it….

  • Amber, theAmberShow January 11, 2013 at 2:46 pm

    Shhhhh! Don’t tell EVERYONE about Shanghai Cafe!

    I’ve decided I will only take a guy there if I really, really like him. It’s my favorite.

  • Kyra January 11, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    I know EXACTLY how you feel! Except I’ve verbalized it saying that we’re being rude and they would get offended like why? we’re paying customers. It sucks as a server cause most restaurants allot certain amount of tables per server so if you’re just sitting there forever that’s one less new table of customers you could be serving and getting paid for. And it also sucks if you’re a customer at a busy restaurant with a long line and there are people hogging the table long after they’ve finished eaten. Go to a bar or a dessert cafe!

  • Jill January 12, 2013 at 12:36 am

    The whole time I was reading your story, I was watching this episode of Korean Seinfeld in my head. And I mean that in the best of ways. Thanks for sharing, Jenna. Now I want soup dumplings! Never been to Shanghai Cafe for soup dumplings — will have to try!

  • Andy January 12, 2013 at 12:26 pm

    My family is Latino, and we actually think Americans take too fast too eat and leave. In Latin America everyone sits and chats for hours after the meal has been eaten and served. Interestingly enough a Korean friend took us to eat at her favorite restaurant in CA, and while the waitress was pleasant, we were getting death glares from the other patrons. We were a group of mix raced Asians and Latinos, and while part of me found it funny, the other part was saddened to know how much there was still a lack of inclusion.

  • Jeanne January 12, 2013 at 2:29 pm

    Oh wow. As a English-only speaking Asian, I get exactly what you’re talking about on so many levels. I explain to my friends that the food is cheap so to make a profit, the restaurant expects to turn over more tables.

  • Jenna January 12, 2013 at 9:51 pm

    @Amber, theAmberShow haha! I don’t know. I was actually surprised at how uncrowded it was at lunchtime on a saturday.

  • Jenna January 12, 2013 at 9:51 pm

    @Andy Yes, I could totally see that. Look at Nichole’s comment above!

  • Roseann January 13, 2013 at 3:00 am

    Great story, well told.

  • Ula January 13, 2013 at 5:52 am

    I really like Shanghai Cafe! Though, I’ve had some bad experiences from NYC Chinatown restaurants in terms of the service…
    Thanks for the post, it was really interesting to read about this topic from your point of view ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Naomi January 13, 2013 at 2:10 pm

    Wonderful post made me smile.(and now we’ll know to eat, pay and leave next time we go)

  • T January 14, 2013 at 12:24 am

    Another non-fluent Korean here, and let me tell you… I avoid Korean restaurants like the plague. Unless, of course, I’m with my parents. The few times that I have gone with friends, the waitress is typically rude and ignores our table. It’s pretty sad because sometimes I get a serious craving for Korean food, but I’m too scared to go to an authentic Korean restaurant to get it. ๐Ÿ™

  • Anh January 14, 2013 at 8:43 am

    Great post! As a non-fluent Vietnamese myself, I totally get it. I noticed though that our mixed-raced toddler gets all the attention from the waiters now, with his super long lashes and all…

  • baekdoe January 14, 2013 at 1:47 pm

    i love this place also! it’s become one of our favorites in Chinatown, and i love that it’s not too crowded in general.

    and i’ve also been the “token” Korean for a few work dinners myself. my former boss would love to organize meals at Korean restaurants, because she thought it would be fun for all the non-Koreans, and i would have to explain every step of the process. i felt like i had to represent all of Korea and Koreans.

    i also don’t look typically Korean, so 99.9% of the time Korean people in Koreatown automatically speak to me in English (which I don’t mind) and my non-Koreans friends always semi-jokingly try to push me to speak Korean thinking that I’ll get us some secret for-Koreans-only discount or free food. (I’m not saying this never happens, but it’s rare and more about being friendly and not likely to happen in Manhattan’s Koreatown where there are so many Koreans).

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience!

  • Jenna January 14, 2013 at 3:46 pm

    Glad to hear that so many others share my experience. Sometimes you feel like, “am I imagining this??”

  • gina January 14, 2013 at 7:11 pm

    Jenna- this post just hit it! I went to a birthday party at a Korean place last week and we ended up staying to cut the cake. The waitress was so annoyed at one point she told the birthday girl that they had no extra dishes… and that she wanted a 20% tip straight up!

  • Jenna January 14, 2013 at 7:15 pm

    @Gina That is too much!!!!

  • Jme January 15, 2013 at 10:29 am

    As a server working her way through graduate school, I second Andy’s observation about customers who linger too long when others are waiting – including the server who, unlike French servers, completely depends on tips. French restaurants pay their employees a decent wage and the tip is typically built into the cost of the meal, thereby partially eliminating the concern over guests who might overstay their welcome. Ultimately, in my opinion, it all comes down to simply being aware of your environment and practicing good manners. Sadly, some people are too wrapped up in themselves to notice or to care.

  • Jme January 15, 2013 at 10:31 am

    Er, I meant to second Kyra’s comment ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Summer January 18, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    Such a well written post. I too have been a server, but I too have been a lingerer. When i do it, i’m usually still ordering drinks, thus raising their raise, and clearly I leave more tip for taking more time. That being said, if it gets remotely crowded, I’m out. I know I hate it when i’m waiting for a table and no one’s moving!

    Funny side note: I don’t think I look latina in any way (although flattering), and I’ve been spoken Spanish to – as though I was a native speaker – 3 times in my life, and gotten “the shame look” for not speaking my “native” language. I’m like, “I am zero percent hispanic.” There was one funny time though, when a white woman, who shopping at Neiman’s, came up to me and said slowly and loudly, “EX-CUSE ME! DO…YOU…SPEAK….ENG-LISH?!” Classic.

  • katrina January 18, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    This post was great. My favorite restaurant in all of LA is in Koreatown, and I’ve always suspected there was a subtle vibe of “Eat, pay, then leave!” I wondered if it was because I’m the only white person in the room, so it’s good to know it’s a larger cultural thing. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Also, some times I will order my entree, and an appetizer to split with my friends, and the waitress looks at me in amazement and says “ALL of that is for YOU?!” But if I order just the entree, they’ll say, “That’s IT?!” I have yet to perfect ordering the proper amount of food in a Korean restaurant. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Louise February 24, 2013 at 3:20 am

    I’ve never really noticed, but that’s actually really true. Perhaps I’ve never noticed because my family isn’t the type to linger at dinner…although when I went for pho with a friend last Friday, we got into a lengthy discussion about philosophy after our meal and I felt that the staff were wondering why we were taking so long.