What Is a Dai Pai Dong?

Eugene P.

A dai pai dong is an open-air restaurant in Hong Kong. A typical dai pai dong stall is a temporary structure containing folding tables and chairs and usually situated near a large amount of foot traffic. The cookware is often painted green and the food that is served caters to diners who are seeking an inexpensive meal. The food is normally eaten outside and is made to order, because there usually is no set menu.

Woman baking cookies
Woman baking cookies

Originally, dai pai dong stalls were found all over Hong Kong and other areas. They were frequently set up at ferry crossings because of the large crowds that would pass through. There was little regulation of the stalls at the time, and they became notorious for their poor hygiene.

Hong Kong's government enacted a series of regulations to remove any health risks from the restaurants. The name itself refers to the certificates that were issued to allow their operation. It literally means "large license stalls," because the licenses included photographs of the owners and were oversized compared to other licenses issued in Hong Kong.

The licenses, under strict regulation from the government, eventually dwindled in number because they were non-transferrable and for a long time were not being issued to new businesses. The government eventually began to issue new certificates. Over time, though, the number of dai pai dong stalls decreased dramatically, from thousands at their peak to just a few dozen.

There is not usually a set menu in a dai pai dong. Instead, food is made to order and can be drawn from several separate stalls to complete a single meal for a customer. The food is considered well made and satisfying, contributing to their popularity. Not all stalls have the same foods, though; one might serve only noodles, while another might sell only seafood.

Seating for the dai pai dong stalls traditionally has been communal and outdoors. This has changed as more stalls begin to operate indoors and provide customers with individual tables instead of communal seating. Long tables can still be found, however, with a number of customers sitting shoulder to shoulder at each one.

The government of Hong Kong started an effort to close and rebuild dai pai dong stalls to make them more sanitary, including updating sewers and creating access to cleaner water. Although relatively few of the stalls still exist in the early 21st century, there is an increased interest in their continued operation. The stalls continue to serve inexpensive food at nearly all hours of the day and night.

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