The Chinese Restaurant Three-Ring Binder

“Ed”: and I were at a Chinese restaurant yesterday for lunch, and it struck me how much it resembled most of the other mid-range Chinese restaurants I’ve ever been to. I think it was called “The Golden Wok,” though it might have been “The Golden Dragon.” And it shared a common, perhaps universal, list of traits with similarly-named restaurants:

* Located in a strip mall or other low-rent location.
* Ornate, slightly garish wallpaper, with either a floral or a generic Asian pattern.
* Cushy booths, round tables, chairs with rounded tops, cloth napkins.
* A proprietor eager to greet people as they enter. On the counter by him or her is a bowl of mints for on your way out.
* Serving staff who obsessively refill your glass of water
* Americanized Chinese food, which, if not authentic, is definitely tasty, accounting for the large number of these sorts of restaurants.
* Those cheap little wooden chopsticks in the red paper sleeve. And of course the fortune cookies with lousy fortunes.
* The syrupy red sweet-and-sour sauce and the yellow spicy mustard sauce.
* UPDATE: How could I have forgotten the paper horoscope placemats? Thanks to “Jim Zoetewey”: for pointing that out in the comments.
* Most importantly: The Lunch Menu. A dozen or so dishes served with choice of soup, an egg roll, steamed or fried rice, and complimentary tea. It always amounts to an amazingly good deal for a lot of food for lunch, though the exact price varies depending on where you live.

You know the place of which I speak. You probably know of half a dozen such places in the city where you live. They could almost be a franchise, but of course they’re not — they’re all individually owned. So how is it that they end up so similar? Is there a three-ring binder, a la _Snow Crash_, that dictates the Successful Chinese Restaurant Decor and Business Plan?

A sideline for those not familiar with _Snow Crash_: the novel takes place in a fanciful near-future where everything, from the place where you order pizza to the burbclave you live in to the highway you drive on, is a franchise. America is a teeming multicultural soup of dozens of disparate languages and ethnic groups, so the way that brand uniformity is established for all these franchises is the ubiquitous three-ring Binder: a repository of all the information needed to create and maintain a given franchise unit. I’d quote some amusing scenes from the book here, but unfortunately I don’t have my copy with me.

Back to my point: maybe there exists a mythical Three-Ring Binder for Chinese Restaurants that lays out the idiotproof plan that makes them all so similar. But whether or not there’s an actual, physical binder out there, there must be a loose body of information — a collection of memes spreading virally, if you will — that has retained a remarkable degree of internal consistency across the country. (Question for international readers: do they have these places in other countries too?)

Fortunately, unlike a true franchise, there are plenty of points on which individual Chinese restaurants may distinguish themselves, with actual food quality topping the list. The Golden Wok was pretty good, but there’s a place on the Twinbrook Parkway in Rockville that has hunan chicken to _die_ for.

Chinese restaurants probably the only ones with a three-ring binder linking them together. In the past couple of months I’ve eaten at the Washington Brewing Company and the Grand Rapids Brewing Company, and you probably know of that other place by you that also does the Americana food thing and has the four or five brews that they make right there in the building. Don’t even get me started on Indian all-you-can-eat buffets. The real challenge, it would seem, is finding a restaurant that’s truly unlike any other.