Most of us have probably enjoyed more than a handful of meals at Chinese restaurants around Metro Vancouver. From casual Hong Kong–style cafés to no-fuss Shanghainese eateries, and from popular Szechuan spots to traditional Cantonese dining establishments, there are Chinese flavours for all types of palates.
The majority of diners usually order à la carte items (especially for dim sum), or choose from set menus for convenience. Branching off from the often budget-friendly set meals, there are the Chinese banquets: multicourse Chinese meals usually found in Cantonese seafood restaurants.
This type of reserved, pre-ordered feast is usually set aside for the most festive occasions, specifically weddings, birthdays, and a newborn’s one-month or 100-day celebration (significant milestones in Asian cultures).
If you grew up in a traditional Chinese household, it’s more than likely you’ve been dragged along to a few of these underrated meals. In retrospect, these celebratory dinners are a treat, and when you know it’s going to take place at a reputable restaurant, it’s usually something to look forward to months in advance.
So, what’s the big deal about Chinese banquets?
For starters, they can range from 20 to 30 people (in a private dining area) all the way to 200 guests (which would require booking the entire restaurant). Each table can comfortably accommodate 10 to 12 guests, depending on the size of the establishment. In terms of cost, a banquet can range between $50 and $80 per person, and more if the menu includes pricier ingredients.
As for the food, Chinese banquets follow a certain structure. The meals are usually between eight and 10 courses, and dishes are served family-style. Banquets vary, as customers have the option of tailoring the menu. But for the most part, guests are happy going with the pre-arranged picks.
At Red Star Seafood Restaurant, a popular Chinese dim sum and dinner joint in Marpole, signature banquet creations include king crab, Chinese-style roast suckling pig, roast squab, and Beijing duck.
“In comparison to western restaurants, Chinese restaurant menus offer a much wider range of dishes,” Andy Cen, manager of Red Star Seafood Restaurant, told the Straight in an interview at its Granville Street location. “From specialty seafood to other veggie dishes, it’s definitely a bigger selection.”
A traditional Chinese banquet will start off with an appetizer platter, before serving up a few hot plates. A hot soup, usually shark fin, will follow shortly—but Cen acknowledges that the shark-fin ban takes effect this month, and Red Star will switch to using bird’s nest. Seafood items like crab, lobster, abalone, and sea cucumber means you’re halfway into the meal. Next come fish and/or chicken, and usually noodles and rice.
It’s important to note certain plates embody specific meanings, depending on the type of celebration.
“A suckling-pig platter signals a strong and healthy year, which is extremely popular for birthday meals. For weddings, double lobster dishes have an auspicious meaning because having a pair is promising for newlyweds,” explained Cen. “Fish and chicken dishes always signify an abundance of health and wealth.”
At Fisherman’s Terrace Seafood Restaurant in Richmond’s Aberdeen Centre, the perennially busy kitchen team has been serving banquet meals for more than two decades.
The restaurant is known for seafood items like lobster and typhoon-style fried crab, and it maintains a regular clientele because customers know dishes will be consistent here.
Its manager, David Ngan, believes Chinese banquets are a steal when it comes to multicourse meals around town.
“I think Chinese dinners are affordable compared to its western counterparts if you were to order the same type of dishes,” Ngan told the Straight in a phone interview. “If you’re ordering seafood like lobster and crab, it will definitely be cheaper at a Chinese restaurant. The cost of a meal can be very reasonable.”
Some of the most popular banquet items, he added, are a deluxe suckling pig and barbecued meats combo, crispy chicken, and steamed rock cod.
While there’s a lengthy list of destinations for consumers to choose from when it comes to finding a place that serves Chinese banquets, that also means those restaurants are operating in a highly competitive industry. But that’s not a bad thing.
“Healthy competition is good. A single restaurant cannot handle all the business,” explained Ngan. “Without competition, if it’s a monopoly, you won’t want to better the business or want to do better. You’ll always strive to improve your standards if there is competition.”
There are many reasons why Chinese banquets are go-to meals for special occasions, but besides good food, it’s also because of good company. It can be a little noisy and the dinner might go on for longer than expected, but enjoying tasty dishes while chatting with your family and friends is something that no one could get enough of.