An establishment where you can dine on Chinese cuisine.
Sounds simple, right? Well, here's where I'm going to get all abstract on you.
In North America, Chinese restaurants range from the fairly authentic restaurants to the standard take-out. Note that I said fairly authentic. I emphasize this because you would be very hard pressed to find a TRULY authentic Chinese restaurant in North America. You want truly authentic Chinese cuisine? Come to my parents' home one day and feast on entrails, chicken heads, stinky salted fish, and more stuff that would make the participants of Survivor and Fear Factor squirm (props to Shi-Ann for making the most out of that chicken meal!).
Most of the fairly authentic Chinese restaurants in North America serve dishes that originate from Canton and Szechuan provinces. From the Cantonese side, you can expect a wide assortment of meat and greens dishes with a soy and oyster sauce base (and, therefore, somewhat sweet in flavour), usually stir-fried. These include Choy Sum, Chinese Broccoli, Straw Mushrooms, Bamboo Shoots, Baby Corns, along with beef, chicken, pork, or seafood.
From the Szechuan side, it consists of mostly (but not exclusively) hot and spicy numbers, utilizing dried red chilis.
Other fairly authentic Chinese restaurants may choose to be a bit more daring and serve dishes from the Northern provinces or cities, such as Tianjin or Shandong. This is where the flavours are a little more wilder and not for all tastes.
Of course, I haven't even started on the not-so-authentic Chinese restaurants. These include buffet houses, many takeout-only stores, and any place that calls itself Charlie Chan, Fu Manchu, or Wong Foo. At these places, you'll find crap - AKA chicken balls, garlic spareribs, egg rolls, chop suey. To call this stuff Chinese food is like calling KFC a fine example of American cuisine - it's just there to satisfy a bizarre craving, much like heroin. I won't get into the history behind this stuff because it's all debatable - suffice it to say, it doesn't come from China.
The running joke among us Chinese is that you can tell the quality of service at a Chinese restaurant by its clientele. If the client leans towards the non-Chinese side, service will be pretty good. The hosts will be friendly, the service will be with a smile, and the staff will be knowledgeable in the cuisine and gladly share that knowledge.
However, if the client base leans towards the Chinese population, you can expect the opposite. The hosts won't be as friendly (and may even ignore you when you walk through the doors), the service will most definitely be without a smile, and the staff will not even answer your questions because they really don't care what they serve to you.
Why the big difference? I'm not entirely sure but my father has told me that in Hong Kong, most people don't really care about good service because getting the product at a good price is all that matters - and, unfortunately, this applies also to dining out.
The MSG Factor
Ah, yes, what would a Chinese restaurant be without monosodium glutamate (MSG)? Chinese restaurants have long suffered the ignominy of using copious amounts of the flavour enhancer to perk up the dishes. Customers would complain of sensitivities to MSG, usually consisting of headaches to being thirsty for several hours after the meal.
To combat this stereotype, there has been a trend for many Chinese restaurants to declare that they are "MSG Free". This is complete and utter garbage. Unless the restaurant serves only organic foods, there is no way that it is MSG Free simply because of the fact that the use of oyster sauce and soy sauce already makes such a declaration moot - the popular brands of the sauces have MSG in them (albeit minute amounts in most cases).
What these restaurants should be saying is that they use considerably less MSG than their competitors. Instead of pouring teaspoons of the powder on the food, they may choose to use a pinch of it. In such cases, even the people who are truly sensitive to MSG can't tell the difference most of the time.
The best way to tell if a restaurant uses a lot of MSG is to take a look at how the meat dishes are prepared. If the beef is overly easy to bite and chew, it's because they've used a lot of meat tenderizer powder which kills the natural beef flavour. To counteract that, they're going to use a lot of MSG.
One more thing - many studies have shown that Chinese restaurants are unfairly targeted as heavy MSG users. In fact, restaurants based on other types of cuisine are also heavy MSG users, including Italian and American. Geez, you can't even eat a bag of chips these days without MSG being one of the main ingredients in them.
Don't come to my restaurant and ask me the following questions
Can I have Szechuan Beef/Chicken/Pork/Shrimp?
What you're probably looking for is something that's spicy. Contrary to popular belief, Szechuan does not always equal spicy. If you want something spicy, just say you want something spicy. Or go to Szechuan.
Oh, I love Chinese food! Can I have an order of chicken balls?
Everytime I hear people declare that they love Chinese food, my eyes light up and I begin to believe that they're really into the authentic cuisine or, at the very least, enjoy dim sum. Then the whole bubble is shattered when the chicken balls enter the picture, like some kind of Death Star. I'll give you the chicken balls, pal, but don't ever profess your love for Chinese food again or, so help me God...
Isn't rice free with my order?
Rice isn't a condiment - it's a side dish and the staple of every Chinese diet. So, no, you're not getting it free with your order.
What's the difference between General Tso's Chicken and General Tao's Chicken?
See General Tso's Chicken for my answer to this.
Why doesn't your Chinese tea taste like other places?
Probably because you didn't specify which kind of Chinese tea you wanted. Most places will serve you jasmine tea but I like to serve oolong. Next time, be more specific - kind of like going to Starbucks and asking for coffee.
Can you make me this dish but without any soy sauce, oyster sauce, garlic, nor ginger?
Go home and boil/steam your own meats and vegetables. Just don't call it Chinese food.
Sources: My own meandering existence.