25 February 2014

Beginners Guide to Eating at Sydney Chinatown Food Courts - Tips and tricks for first timers

Eating out in one of the busy food courts in Sydney's Chinatown can be a mysterious and wonderful adventure. This is our guide for first timers or out-of-towners to get the best out of your visit.

Shawn's parents are an intrepid couple for a pair of 70 plus year olds. They travel a fair bit and have eaten a lot of different food in their time, and love a good bit of Chinese fare.

We recently went with them to some food courts in Sydney's Chinatown, where we happily went off to our favourite stalls and asked them to have a look around and see what they liked. Easy, we thought.

What we didn't realise was a food court in Chinatown can be a daunting experience, and not just for a 70 year old. They didn't know where to start, the best places to sit, or how the whole system worked. We've often felt the same way when we find a new food court.

So inspired by them here are some simple guidelines that would have made it a whole lot easier for their first time.

Find a seat first
If you are with someone else, find your seat first, or at least spy a section of the foodcourt you know will be easy to get a seat at later. Walking around with a laden tray of hot soup and drinks is not a fun adventure. Either tag team to hold the seat (one person sits and guards and the other goes off to forage) or leave something not valuable to hold the seat - a jacket or umbrella. In Singapore you use a packet of tissues to hold a table, but that doesn't seem to really work in Sydney. If you're on your own it's easier to wing it, just grab your tray and squeeze in with another happy punter.

Tables close to entry points will be busy, and around the most popular stalls. More then two people might be harder at peak lunch and dinner times and you might have to share a table if it is really busy.

If the table is covered with used trays, plates and bowls, a cleaner should come around and collect them, so often if you just wait a little while you'll get a clean table too.

At Sussex Centre and Market City, we like to sit near the windows that give you views out over Chinatown. Try to avoid sitting near Gumshara in Eating World at peak dinner times, there's lots of people standing around waiting for their order or sitting gulping that thick ramen near by.

Have a good look around
Once inside have a walk around the whole food court to get an idea of what is being sold, what is busy, where are there queues. Look at what people are eating, is there something you see repeated on a lot of tables? Look at what people are carrying away on their trays as well.

We like to look for stalls that have unique dishes, or are a specialty cuisine. Look for stalls that don't have a really huge menu and that specialise in a few types of dishes or are explicit in the style of food they sell, a too broad range can be a little hit and miss.

Make the decision
Give yourself a break and try and decide what you might feel like when you are looking around, is it a noodles kind of day, is stir fried with rice a dish that appeals, deep fried morsels or maybe a bowl of steaming soup is what you need to get through the rest of the day or into the night. You can focus on scanning for those dishes.

Most of the food will be priced the same or within a similar range. It's a highly competitive environment, so price needn't be a big deciding factor unless you are really on a tight budget.

Try not to be distracted by the suggestions the stall holders might throw at you. They are just trying to get you to buy something, anything and it might not be their best dish. We've often walked away when they try the hard sell, especially if it's for lemon chicken.

Order a plate of steamed green veg where available if you are sharing dishes, they are usually cheap and add a good balance to the meal.

If you are by yourself and think you might not finish up all your food, buy a takeaway container at the same time as your meal, they usually cost about 30c. This means you won't lose your plate of noodles to someone 'freemealing' (eating someone else's leftover meal). We've seen people doing this, it's not such a bad practice, at least the food isn't wasted.

Food for kids
Get them in early and indoctrinate them in the joys of the food court as early as possible. Dumplings for your little dumpling are always a good choice (try Oriental Dumpling King in Dixon House) or a few fried spring rolls for a treat, or get a few dishes and share. There's sushi in Sussex House which kids love cause they can grab them and shove them in their gob, especially the ones with just carrot or cucumber in them. Making a mess in a food court is far less embarrassing than in a restaurant, but they don't have high chairs so you'll have to make do. Eating World can get cramped and busy so taking a pram in might present some problems, Market City is nice and open and has lifts.

You can buy drinks at all the food courts, including beer and wine. They aren't cheap but a cold Tsing Tao with your noodles is a beautiful thing. There's a bar/drink stall at each one that sells soft drinks and alcohol.

Our favourites are a big glass of cold barley tea from Woorree BBQ in Sussex Centre or freshly made sugar cane juice from Dixon House. There's also Singha, Asahi and Tiger and some places, as well as good ol' VB.

The extra bits
More and more food courts are dispensing with real cutlery and issuing bamboo chopsticks and plastic forks and spoons. This is a real tragedy, as disposable plastic just doesn't make the food taste great. Eating World still has reusable cutlery, but for how long who knows. We have been known to take our own if we know in advance we are going somewhere with only plastic spoons. Worse to come will be the day the melamine bowls are discarded.

A small pack of tissues is a blessing, napkins aren't issued freely. Especially important if ordering something like cumin lamb ribs from Eating World.

Bathrooms can be a bit hit and miss (literally). Sussex Centre probably has the best ones, Market City shares theirs with the rest of the shopping mall. Dixon House has thankfully just given theirs a make over and they have improved..

Most importantly, clean up after yourself. Make your Mum proud of your table manners.

What can we eat there?
Chinatown food courts turn over tenants, sometimes an old favourite will close up overnight which makes it hard to keep up! Here's a run down of some of our favourites in each Chinatown Food Court to help you decide what you might like to eat.

Dixon House Food Court
Eating World
Market City
Sussex Centre Food Court

Food courts are a great way to get to know new dishes you haven't tried before and to experiment a little, it doesn't break the bank to eat here. They are great for sharing lots of dishes with a gang or having a solo eating out adventure, for having a beer with your food or a sugar cane juice. If you haven't been for a while, get back down there now.


  1. I have NEVER seen anyone freemealing, and I think I'd be horrified to see someone plonk themselves down at a table after the previous occupants had just departed and start digging into the leftover contents. I agree that it results in less wastage, so it's overall a good thing, but certainly not something that I could stomach. It's an interesting strategy really, because what if you sit down at someone's leftovers and they have some hot chilli concoction and you hate spicy food? Or, god forbid, you hate cumin and sit down for lamb leftovers? Do you see freemealers wandering around the food courts and being picky about which leftovers they will eat and which they will not? All very interesting indeed!

    1. We have seen it a lot, and at quite a few different food courts. It's often people you wouldn't expect too, one fellow sat down with a newspaper and enjoyed a meal, others are more furtive and secret. We've also seen a guy walk along a few tables and drink the last of any drinks left behind - it does happen!

    2. The freemealing fellow with the newspaper was sporting a fairly snazzy suit and tie...

    3. I saw a homeless looking person do it in Eating World once.

  2. The food court is really something different isn't it. Very reminiscent of how Asian foodcourts are like overseas to be honest. Gives you a really more authentic feel.

    1. Sydney seems to do them well, they really do have a good overseas vibe. That's why we love them!

  3. '@Ev, actually in Sydney, I tend to see most people rather diligent and conscientiously putting their trays and leftovers away into bins so I'm shocked that there would be "scavengers" around. As much as we wouldn't do so, I'm also not surprised that there are people who do it. There is actually a scary amount of homeless that we sometimes just close one eye about...

    1. At one foodcourt which I won't name I've noticed the cleaning staff often share a joke and even box up food to go for some homeless looking freemealers, rather heartwarming methinks.


Thanks for your comment joy - please keep your musings happy - if you want to complain about a restaurant please do it on a restaurant review site (or your own blog) - we're all about celebrating cultural diversity and the great eats that come along with it :-)

Our ethics: We pay for all our own meals and travel (though sometimes Mum shouts us).