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Why So Many Chinese Restaurants in America Have Similar Names

Chances are, you’ve already got an idea of what to look for: words like “Golden,” “House,” and “Dragon” are a good bet that you’ve found yourself a Chinese restaurant. It’s statistical!
Photo via Flickr user Christopher Edwards

Thanks to Seamless, GrubHub, the good old Yellow Pages, and America's army of delivery men (and women) who brave rain, sleet and snow day or night, food is no further than a phone call away when hunger strikes. The hardest part of the ordering process is deciding what to eat and—if you're old-school and calling up the restaurant rather than using an app—conversing with another human.

But if you were to scan a list of restaurant names in hopes of choosing one that serves a particular type of cuisine, what would you look for? If you're in the mood for French, perhaps "Le," "Les," or "Belle" would steer you in the right direction, or a spot named "Taj Mahal" might indicate beyond a reasonable doubt that a place serves Indian. But if you're looking for Chinese, chances are you've already got an idea of what to look for: words like "Golden," "House," and "Dragon" are a good bet that you've found yourself a Chinese restaurant. It's statistical!


The Washington Post's Wonk Blog teamed up with Yelp to study the lexicon of Chinese restaurant names in America, and it turns out that among the 40,000 Chinese restaurants in Yelp's US database, there are, perhaps unsurprisingly, quite a few repeats. "China" and "Chinese" show up in the names of about 15,000 restaurants, while "Wok" pops up more than 2,500 times. "Express" is in the name of more than 3,000 restaurants, and "Panda" graces 2,495 storefronts. (Panda Express accounts for just over 1,500 of those instances.) Other popular words included "House," "Restaurant," "and "Garden."

Photo via Flickr user portland_mike

Photo via Flickr user portland_mike

This all probably sounds familiar. Yelp also provided the Post with the location of the restaurants, and unless you live in the Chinese food wasteland that stretches from North Dakota down to West Texas, there's likely at least one Chinese food restaurant in your county (and probably more). Their distribution largely reflects that of the general population, but there are particularly dense Chinese food hotspots in the Northeast, San Francisco, and elsewhere. A few years ago, the New Yorker wrote about the extensive network of agencies that place restaurant workers from China throughout the country. No matter where you grew up in America, you are likely familiar with this shared lexicon of Chinese restaurant names.

The Post's study was released just four days after one of America's preeminent food writers, Calvin Trillin, found himself in hot water for a poem that bemoaned the trouble of keeping up with different regional styles of Chinese cuisine. Internet critics accused the New Yorker staff writer of a sort of casual racism or xenophobia for his poem "Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?"

Trillin would no doubt recognize some of the names on the Post's list. He once wrote about a group of obsessive fans as they tried to track down a Chinese chef with a cult following, Peter Chang, as he moved from China Star in Northern Virginia to Hong Kong House in Knoxville to Taste of China in Charlottesville.

Photo via Flickr user Christopher Edwards

Photo via Flickr user Christopher Edwards

Whatever the name of your local Chinese spot, you can count on them to bring you dumplings, General Tso's, and egg rolls at a moment's notice. Fortune cookies are on the house. It's 2016, and it's great to be alive.