Chinese food, especially in the south, is divided into two parts: staple food (饭/fàn) and dishes (菜/cài). The former generally refers to rice, while the latter is further broken into three main sections: meat dishes, vegetable dishes, and soups. Larger menus might also be feature separate sections for cold (凉菜/liángcài) and hot dishes (热菜/rècài). Many—but not all—liangcai dishes are vegetarian.
Menus frequently start with the section for meat dishes, labeled 荤菜/hūncài. These dishes are usually stir-fries of some sort—look for the character 肉/ròu, which means "meat." Unless otherwise specified, the meat will likely be pork, at least in Chengdu.
Another major part of the menu will be the 素菜/sùcài section, where you'll find vegetable dishes. Though many of these will be purely vegetables, "su" can also describe dishes that are primarily vegetable but cooked with lard or minced meat. So if you're aiming to avoid meat, make sure that you ask about each specific dish. Vegetables commonly available here include cabbage, potatoes, eggplant, corn, beans, tofu, peppers, and leafy greens.
Near the end of the menu you'll probably find the 汤/tāng, or soup, section. Soup is customarily served in a big bowl instead of individual servings. It's usually not very thick and served as the last dish on the table.
Many dish names will reveal the main components of the dish and include a description of how it's cooked, so you can scan a menu looking for the characters you recognize. Other dishes are named after their creator, for instance, 宫保鸡丁/gōngbǎojīdīng ("Kung Pao chicken") and 麻婆豆腐/mápódòufǔ ("Mapo tofu"). Finally, other dish names describe a particular flavor, for instance, the tricky 鱼香/yúxiāng ("fish-flavor," which actually has nothing to do with the flavor of fish but rather refers to the spices commonly used to season fish dishes). See the tables on this page for more information.
Quick dishes like fried rice or noodles are a good option for the solo diner. Fried rice (炒饭/chǎofàn) can be made with a variety of meats, with egg (蛋炒饭/dànchǎofàn), or vegetarian (素炒饭/sùchǎofàn). They're usually sold by the plate (份/fèn), sometimes with big (大/dà) and small (小/xiǎo) options.
Noodles can come in a soup (汤面/ tāngmiàn)—such as fried-egg-and-tomato noodle soup (番茄煎蛋面/fānqiéjiāndànmiàn), fried (炒面/chǎomiàn), cold (凉面/liángmiàn), or 干拌面/gānbànmiàn, ("dry," meaning boiled, with the water strained out and mixed with spices and toppings of your choosing—sort of like western pasta). Another variety are fried rice noodles (炒河粉/chǎohéfěn). While fried noodles are likely to be sold by the plate, the others are generally sold by the liǎng (两/equivalent to 50 grams) with èrliǎng (二两) considered a regular portion. If you have a big appetite you can also request a portion of three or four liang.
You can ask your fúwùyuán to bring a bucket of steamed white rice, although recently some restaurants have started to charge per serving. You can also request pāocài (泡菜), a small dish of pickled vegetables (usually consisting of cabbage or radish) to accompany your meal.
Many restaurants will serve a small cup of tea or noodle broth for free and will also have a small selection of other beverages available, most commonly beer, which we won't translate as studies show that it's one of the first words most foreigners in China learn!
Helpful words for menu reading
Interacting with restaurant staff