Gourmet Chinese cookshop

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Bruce Balden sent in this photograph of a sign on a restaurant in the Vancouver area:

In Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), that would be pronounced gāo měi xiǎo càiguǎn 高美小菜館; in Cantonese, the pronunciation would be gou1 mei5 siu2 coi3 gun2. The individual morphemes mean "high beautiful small vegetable shop".

This establishment, which is at 221 Ioco Rd Port Moody, BC, has as its English name (not shown in the photograph) "Gourmet Chinese Restaurant". That's rather disappointingly generic, since it receives 1,050,000 Google hits. Most eating establishments that adopt this pretentious designation preface it with a modifier: Shanghai, Peking, Village, etc., so it's rather lame for this one to call itself simply "Gourmet Chinese Restaurant".

The Chinese name for the place is much more interesting and distinctive. As I'm sure all readers will have noticed, gāoměi 高美 is actually a transcription of the English (< French) word "gourmet", with the meanings "high" and "beautiful" having a nice, elevated ring. So with gāoměi 高美 ("high & beautiful"), they've killed two birds with one stone: they've conveyed the sound of the English name of the restaurant (with which they probably began) and come up with a catchy descriptor that means something appropriate.

We know from this Language Log post of just over a year ago that Chinese restaura(n)teurs worldwide often come up with the English (or other local language) name for their establishment first ("Me Old China") and then devise a Chinese name to match it. What could be more generic for a Chinese restaurant than to style it a "Chinese Restaurant"? As such, I won't spend any time discussing it.

There are a number of different Chinese words that mean essentially "restaurant".

cāntīng 餐厅 55,700,000 ghits

fànguǎn 饭馆 2,706,000 ghits

cānguǎn 餐館 3,470,000 ghits

fàndiàn 飯店 21,500,000 ghits
(also doubles as a common word for "hotel", so that's why it gets such a huge number of hits)

jiǔjiā 酒家 6,540,000 ghits

càiguǎn 菜館, in contrast, receives only 1,210,000 ghits, which right away makes it seem special. Many dictionaries designate it as a fāngyán 方言 ("topolectal") term, but it is very annoying that they don't tell us which topolect it comes from.

Adding xiǎo 小 ("small; little") in front of the already special càiguǎn 菜館 makes it sound even more intimate and unpretentious, just the opposite of the generic and hollowly pretentious "gourmet restaurant". As pointed out above, càiguǎn 菜館 literally means "vegetable shop". Since there are already so many other Chinese terms that are translated as "restaurant", I think that it is boring to render càiguǎn 菜館 the same way. A number of online sources translate càiguǎn 菜館 as "cookshop", which sounds about right to me.

The usual word for "gourmet" in MSM is měishí 美食. If the folks at Gāoměi xiǎo càiguǎn 高美小菜館 had called their place Měishí Zhōngguó cānguǎn 美 食中国餐馆 or some other such direct translation of the pathetic English name, that would have been dreadfully boring. Thank goodness they had better sense when doing the Chinese translation to display a bit of imagination. As a result, they devised a Chinese name for their shop that has sufficient pizazz to attract customers. If they had called it Měishí Zhōngguó cānguǎn 美食中国餐馆 ("Gourmet Chinese Restaurant"), both potential Chinese-speaking and English-speaking patrons would have been turned off / away.

As a bonus for devoted Language Log readers, here is a wonderful collection of Chinglishisms, many of them having to do with food. I've covered about a third of these, some classics, on Language Log before, but there are quite a few new and spectacular specimens in this collection. My favorite is suíbiàn 隨便 ("Whatever"), the name of a zònghé guǒzhī 綜合果汁 ("mixed juice") in some restaurant, but there are others that are absolutely hilarious.

I hope that the menu at Gāoměi xiǎo càiguǎn 高美小菜館 (Little Gourmet Cookshop) doesn't have any howlers like these!

[Thanks to Bob Bauer and Stephan Stiller]


It was only after I made this post and looked at the photograph the way it appears (so clearly) on Language Log that I noticed that the last two characters of the name of the shop had been pasted on later than the rest of the sign.  Here are several possible reasons for why the owners may have made the change:

1. the painter of the sign made a mistake and somebody caught it

2. they wanted to change from simplified (càiguǎn 菜馆) to traditional (càiguǎn 菜館) — but note that the traditional form of the character on the sign as it now stands is not the same as the one that I just typed; the grass radical (Kangxi 140) at the top of the character as typed has three strokes, but as written on the sign (which is the way I was taught to write it and the way I still do instinctively handwrite the grass radical at the top) it has four strokes (a still more formal way of writing the grass radical has six strokes, viz., 艸).

3. they had some prosaic term for "restaurant" in this position but decided later to adopt something that was jazzier or cuter, hence càiguǎn 菜館


  1. Dwayne Bartles said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 1:17 pm

    I don't get the (n) in the middle of restaurateurs. It's like, you know how to spell it, but you want us to know that you know that we probably don't know how?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 1:53 pm

    @Dwayne Bartles

    No, it's that you can spell it both ways.

  3. John Swindle said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 3:25 pm

    When 高美 gāo měi (2,140,000 ghits) 'high beautiful' isn't a cutesy way of saying "gourmet," would it mean "exquisite"?" Exquisite Wetlands? Exquisite Cleaning Equipment? Exquisite Dental Clinic (their English name says "dainty"), Urological Clinic, Cookshop?

  4. Victor Mair said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 4:19 pm

    @John Swindle

    If you put "高美" in quotes like that, you'll get 1,870,000 ghits.

    It's the Chinese name for this company: CALMAC


    It's part of the Chinese name for this group: Socomec



    It can sometimes mean "tall and handsome".

    And, yes, it can sometimes mean some of the things that you say it does.

  5. Rubrick said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 5:10 pm

    In the linked Chinglish site, I strongly suspect that "Soup for Sluts (cheap, fast and easy!)" was deliberate, and in its own way, brilliant. It takes advantage of the phenomenon that you can often get away with more in a foreign tongue.

    The obstetrics sign, on the other hand… oh dear.

  6. Tim said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 5:33 pm

    Restaura(n)teur: of course you can spell it both ways; its just that one is wrong. (OED: 'an erroneous form' of restaurateur).

  7. julie lee said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 6:07 pm

    If I'm not mistaken, cai菜 in caiguan菜館 (restaurant) on the sign also means "dishes" (culinary dishes or menu items).
    So, for example, the traditional middle-class home meal (lunch or dinner) in pre-Mao China was typically si cai yi tang 四菜一湯 (four dishes and a soup– four dishes placed around a soup–which everyone at the table shared). This may still be typical today, as I read in an article in the London Financial Times not long ago that a lunch in a school in China visited by the reporter consisted of "si cai yi tang" (four dishes and a soup). The school cook changed the menu every day.

  8. Dwayne Bartles said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 6:14 pm

    @Victor Mair

    Ah, I think I see, then. I take it that you are so anti-prescriptivist that you wouldn't want, by just omitting the n, to allow people to think that you even *might* be a prescriptivist about spelling. (Nor, of course, by including the n, to cause them to think that you didn't know how to spell.) I have been reading your posts for a long time, but I don't recall seeing you write "isn't (ain't)," "colo(u)r," "eyes (een)," or the like.

  9. Eric P Smith said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 6:35 pm

    My father wrote school textbooks on reading and writing English, intended for children with learning difficulties with English as a first language. One cartoon picture of a restaurant appeared in the first proof with a sign above the shop saying RESTERANT. Dad drew attention to the error, and the second proof said RESTERAUNT.

    He would turn in his grave at RESTAURANTEUR.

  10. JS said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 7:46 pm

    Here is a distant view of the old signage via Google Maps street view, but no clue as to why it was changed:

    Gaomai Xiao Caiguan

  11. Victor Mair said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 8:19 pm

    @julie lee

    You are quite right to point out that cài 菜 can mean "dishes (served at a meal)". It can also mean "non-staple food; edible wild herbs; greens", etc. (Bing Translator has a pretty good listing of definitions), but the basic meaning is "vegetable".

  12. Victor Mair said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 8:48 pm


    Thanks much for providing that Google Maps street view of the sign before the change was made, even though it is too blurry to tell for sure what made them put up the pasted on version of the last two characters. At least we know that it hasn't been changed to càiguǎn 菜館 from something else.

    I suspect that the change may be due to the way the cài 菜 was written. People can get very fussy (or sloppy) about the way the four strokes right beneath the grass radical are written. Notice that, in the photograph at the top of this post, the three strokes beneath the horizontal bar are written with very pronounced brush strokes. See here for the basic strokes: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stroke_%28CJKV_character%29#Basic_strokes

    Just last week, I had an M.A. student from the PRC in my office who asked me to sign one of my books for her mother. When I asked how to write the characters for her mother's name, one of them was cǎi 彩 ("color[ed]; variegated"). But she wrote her own mother's name incorrectly. For the 采 part, she wrote a mǐ 米 beneath a piě 丿. When I pointed out that she wrote the character in a nonstandard way, she was terribly embarrassed, but I told her not to be so, since I've seen many other people write it the same way.

    Another thing that I hadn't thought of before is that the last two characters might somehow have been defaced and needed to be fixed.

    Perhaps Bruce Balden or someone else in the Vancouver area can ask the restaurant owner why the last two characters have been painted anew.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 8:52 pm

    To all those who are getting vexed about "restaura(n)teurs":

    Of course, you know and I know that "restaurateur" is the correct way to spell the word, but a lot of people spell it "restauranteur", and some Americans have been doing so since at least 1859.


    Furthermore, many dictionaries (e.g., American Heritage, for which I have the highest regard [http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4326]) list both spellings without telling their users that the latter is wrong, nonstandard, informal, slang, etc. This makes it very different from "ain't" (nonstandard), "colour" (British spelling), and "een" (Scottish slang).

    See especially the discussion here:


    restauranteur 686,000 ghits

    restaurateur 2,470,000 ghits

    The former accounts for more than one out of every five occurrences of this pair. That's a lot of people to be dead wrong.

    I think it would be best not to try to type me as being either prescriptivist or anti-prescriptivist, because I am neither.

  14. Dave Cragin said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 10:28 pm

    The writers of the 1st dictionaries thought they would stop language from changing, but it continues to evolve and it sounds like "restaura(n)teurs" is in the midst of change. "Correct" grammar changes over time. A grammar from 1818 lists "awoke" as improper, "awaked" as proper, "built" as improper, "builded" as proper. Swam vs. swimmed, drew vs. drawed, etc. It's a long list of "proper" words that we would think are "wrong" today.

    For surprisingly engaging account on the 1st attempt to define every English word and its usage, I highly recommend "The Professor and the madman, a tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary." The book will give much insight into how words and their definitions make it into dictionaries.

    I say surprisingly because I wouldn't have thought a book on writing a dictionary could be interesting, but it definitely was.

  15. maidhc said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 10:48 pm

    Gourmet Chinese Restaurant is a particularly poor name for a restaurant. What's going to happen when potential customers try to look it up on Google to find the location, check out the menu, etc.?

    Slightly more specific names like Hunan Gourmet or Mandarin Gourmet are pretty common though.

  16. Rich said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 1:32 am

    I thought it rather interesting how the comments on the spelling of the word "restaura(n)teur" paralleled the discussion of the (possibly) incorrectly written character 菜 on the sign.

    Could the owner no longer tolerate the snide mutterings of the local community over the nonstandard writing? Or perhaps someone walked into the Gourmet Chinese Restaurant and engaged the owner in an angry, violent row over the incorrectly written character outside, pointing accusingly and shouting that his father would turn in his grave?

  17. julie lee said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 2:02 am


    Gourmet Chinese Restaurant is what I call a spirited name. Like Potala Restaurant, which I saw in a rather seedy area in Berkeley, Calif. the other day. It looked like a tiny little place, anything but "Potala". When I drove past again and looked more carefully, it looked a little bigger, but nothing like "Potala". It makes me chuckle to see such spirited names.

  18. Ethan said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 2:05 am

    @maidhc: I take your point, but in fact if you type '"gourmet chinese restaurant" Vancouver BC' into Google the top 5 hits all refer to this very establishment. So in practice it seems to work just fine as a name. On the other hand, the reviews the search pulls up don't exactly make me want to go there, so maybe a little more anonymity would not hurt much.

  19. Matt_M said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 2:54 am

    @Professor Mair:

    It seems a bit odd to refer to "een" (for "eyes") as "slang" rather than just "non-standard". It's a much older form than the modern English "eyes" — you can trace it all the way from proto-Germanic *augōnō "eyes", through to Old English eagan and Middle English ien (and variants thereof). It's only in the late fourteenth century that the innovative (and no doubt slangy-sounding at the time) plural ending in -s started to become dominant.

  20. Rodger C said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 8:26 am

    @Eric P Smith: In London, KY, there's an Appalachian-themed restaurant that calls itself a RESTERNT. I had a dean from Massachusetts who cringed every time she passed it.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 8:33 am


    I am grateful to you for pointing this out to me. I was misled by a number of dictionaries and other online resources I checked that referred to "een" as Scots or Scottish "slang". For the historical and statistical reasons why they probably classify it this way, see in this Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scots_language


    By the end of the twentieth century, Scots was at an advanced stage of language death over much of Lowland Scotland.[49] Residual features of Scots are often regarded as slang.[50] A Scottish Government study in 2010 found that 64% of respondents (being a representative sample of Scotland's adult population) "don't really think of Scots as a language", however, "the most frequent speakers are least likely to agree that it is not a language (58%) and those never speaking Scots most likely to do so (72%)".[9]
    And see reference no. 50.

    Also in this article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modern_Scots


    It has recently taken on the nature of wholesale language shift towards Scottish English, sometimes also termed language change, convergence or merger. By the end of the twentieth century Scots was at an advanced stage of language death over much of Lowland Scotland.[2] Residual features of Scots are often regarded as slang.


    These attitudes go back to at least 1826; see p. 200 here (near end of poem and beginning of following article).

    They are a problem among Scottish people themselves; see p. 203 here.

    I pay particular attention to these issues because we have exactly the parallel situation in dealing with the non-MSM (MSM = Modern Standard Mandarin) topolects of Chinese. For example, even speakers of Cantonese, Sichuanese, Shanghainese, etc. will refer to their own language as lǐyǔ 俚语 ("slang"). This always bothers me greatly, and I try to tell them that they shouldn't think of their mother tongue in that way.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 8:41 am


    "…shouting that his father would turn in his grave…."

    Brilliantly put! You've made my day.

  23. Eric P Smith said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 12:44 pm

    @Rich, @Victor Mair

    I am so sad that you would make fun of my father's memory.

    Victor Mair, I have always had the highest regard for you, but today you have gone down in my estimation.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 1:01 pm

    @Eric P Smith

    I feel sorry that you think your father would turn in his grave, but I don't think you should feel that he would do that. Your father "drew attention to the error", RESTERANT, and rightly so, and he probably would have done so when the second proof came back with RESTERAUNT. Fair enough. But, given all the evidence that has been adduced above, are you sure that, in your words, "He would turn in his grave at RESTAURANTEUR"?

    I certainly did not mean to "make fun of [your] father's memory", and I'm confident that Rich did not mean to do so either.

  25. Eric P Smith said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 1:33 pm

    @Victor Mair

    Thank you. Leaving aside metaphor, I am fairly sure that my father would have reacted strongly against RESTAURANTEUR. I knew him pretty well, after all. He would probably have exclaimed “O tempora, O mores” or some equivalent classical proverb. He was strongly prescriptivist, as were 99% of school teachers of his generation, and he complained long and hard about what he saw as the English language going downhill.

    I accept your reassurance about the intentions of your previous comment.

  26. hanmeng said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 4:42 pm

    Every time a Chinese dictionary labels something as fāngyán 方言 without any indication of where it comes from, I imagine the writer laughing and thinking, "I heard it somewhere, but _my people_ don't use it." Speaking of prescriptivism.

  27. Stephan Stiller said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 5:27 am

    So, folks:

    I don't understand the aggressive tone of the two comments by Dwayne Bartles. The way I read the "restaura(n)teurs" was simply to draw attention to the fact that the word "restaurateur" is confusing from a present-day point of view.

    A very similar example from German is "Travestieshow" (drag show). One would expect this word to be "Transvestieshow", but surprisingly it isn't – though some people will use it in that form.

    Finally, there is no need to be binary about what's correct and what isn't.

  28. Zubon said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 8:27 am

    Stephan Stiller:
    Strong emotional reactions are not unknown on Language Log.

  29. julie lee said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 11:34 am

    I just googled Potala restaurant. It's in Albany, Calif. , very close to Berkeley. Full name is Potala Organic Cafe. It is vegetarian, and has rave reviews. One reviewer wrote: ""if you are choosing between here and Shangri La, pick Potala."

  30. Bruce said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 4:48 pm

    I visited the Gourmet Chinese Restaurant and they told me the sign was patched due to vandalism, more precisely somebody threw a stone through the original.. Thus the sign's characters have not changed.

    I asked the owner why he chose that word for restaurant, but since I'm not Chinese he felt I was asking what the words meant. So no progress on that front.

  31. Victor Mair said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 7:53 pm


    Thanks for asking the owner. That confirms my supplementary suspicion that the sign had been defaced and needed to be repaired.

  32. Jessica Schein said,

    January 30, 2014 @ 11:11 pm

    Just a lurker who enjoys LL, I'm surprised noone here enlightened Stephan Siller about "Travestieshow."

    Mr. Siller does not seem to be a fan of the theater

    Travesti is the theatrical term for cross-dressing. Shakespeare's women were played by men en travesti. Cherubino in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro is a travesti role.

    Transvestite is a more recent coinage.

  33. W. Sun said,

    February 1, 2014 @ 11:27 am

    The moment when I see the sign, I did not interpret it as [np [adj 小][np 菜館]], but as [np [np 小菜][n 館]] . 小菜 as small dishes(food), cf. 家常小菜, (not as appetizers, i.e. 開胃小菜.)
    But either way it would signify a place that sells small and simple dishes, I guess.

  34. Smith said,

    February 2, 2014 @ 6:25 am

    Thank-you, W. Sun. My first reaction also on seeing the sign was that here was a "小菜館", a place to go for "小菜". Seemed pretty obvious. A Google image search also gives many, many examples of similarly-named establishments (all of which are rather mouth-watering for a poor exile miles from any one of them!).

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