One of the best things about any visit to China is the food, at least for the independent traveler. Tour groups are often treated to a relentless series of cheap, bland dishes designed to cause no complaints and to keep the costs down for the Chinese operator, so do everything you can to escape and order some of the specialties.
Supplement these lists with the bilingual menu from your local Chinese restaurant at home. The characters will not be quite the same as those used in Beijing (more similar to those used in Hong Kong and Macau), but they will be understood. Don't expect the dishes to be the same, however. Expect them to be better.
Any mainstream nonspecialty restaurant can and will make any common Chinese dish, whether it's on the menu or not. But don't expect Beijing cooks to manage the subtler flavors of Cantonese cooking, for instance, unless the restaurant advertises itself as a southern-food specialist.
A surprising number of restaurants now have English menus. In the past, this was a warning of inflated prices, but now an English menu is often used to brand a restaurant as "classy" in the eyes of the locals.
Dishes often arrive in haphazard order, but menus generally open with liang cai (cold dishes). Except in top-class Sino-foreign joint-venture restaurants, you are strongly advised to avoid these for hygiene reasons. The restaurant's specialties also come early in the menu: They have significantly higher prices and if you dither, the waitress will recommend them, saying, "I hear this one's good. Waitresses always recommend ¥180 dishes, never ¥8 ones. Some of these dishes may occasionally be made from creatures you would regard as pets or zoo creatures (or best in the wild), and parts of them you may consider inedible or odd, like swallow saliva (the main ingredient of bird's nest soup, a rather bland Cantonese delicacy).
Main dishes come next; various meats and fish are followed by vegetables and doufu (tofu). Drinks come at the end. You'll rarely find desserts outside of restaurants that largely cater to foreigners. A few watermelon slices may appear, but it's best to forgo them.
Soup is usually eaten last. Outside Guangdong Province, Hong Kong, and Macau, rice also usually arrives at the end; if you want it with your meal, you must ask.
There is no tipping. Tea, chopsticks, and napkins should be free (although if a wrapped packet of tissues arrives you may pay a small fee); service charges do not exist outside of major hotels; and there are no cover charges or taxes. If asked what tea you would like, know that you are going to receive something above average and will be charged for it. Exercise caution--some varieties cost more than the meal!
Most Chinese food is not designed to be eaten solo, but if you do find yourself on your own, ask for small portions (xiao pan), usually about 70% of the size of a full dish and about 70% of the price. This allows you to sample the menu properly without too much waste.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.