Traditional Cantonese small plates have become a big hit.
Dim sum restaurants have long been great places to eat out with friends or kids. You sit at big round tables and choose servings that are small, but numerous and varied. Cantonese for "touching the heart," dim sum refers to the collection of tasty dishes—filled buns, pastries, and dumplings, along with noodles, vegetables, and barbecued meats—that make up the meal.
Dim sum originated in Canton (now Guangdong) province as savory snacks at teahouses—places where people gather to socialize or talk business, much like cafés in the West. Ordering tea is still the first step of the meal, and you can show your savvy by asking for a specific type: tie guan yin (an oolong), jasmine, chrysanthemum, bo lei (a black tea), or guk bo (a mixture of chrysanthemum and bo lei). It's customary to pour tea for other guests before filling your own cup, and when your table needs a refill, slide the teapot lid off to the side. You may see customers tapping their fingers on the table when their cups are almost full—a gesture not of impatience, but of thanks.
Waiters push around carts loaded with steamer baskets from which you make selections. Servers announce the Chinese names of the food, but it's OK to request a translation, and even native speakers ask to peek inside the baskets. The server stamps a card indicating your choices so your bill can be tallied at the end of the meal. (Dishes range in price from $2.50 to $7, depending on their size.)
Classic dim sum offerings include har gow (shrimp dumplings), siu mai (shrimp or beef dumplings), and cheung fun (rice noodle rolls, available with different fillings such as shrimp, sausage, or beef). Don't forget to check out dessert. Egg custard tarts and tofu fa, a pudding, are typical sweets to be savored at meal's end.
San Francisco's Chinatown  is a classic destination for dim sum, but you might be surprised to learn that some of the best dim sum spots are found in the city's financial district and in smaller cities around the bay: East Ocean, Alameda, (510) 865-3381 • Fook Yuen, Millbrae, (650) 692-8600 • Hong Kong Flower Lounge, Millbrae, (650) 692-6666 • Koi Palace, Daly City, (650) 992-9000 • Ton Kiang, San Francisco, (415) 386-8530 • Yank Sing, San Francisco, (415) 957-9300 (Rincon Center) and (415) 541-4949 (Stevenson Street).
Photography by Mitch Tobias
This article was first published in January 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.