You know when a restaurant isn’t good. They serve you a cold entree or the staff is surly, and you’re not going back to that place anytime soon. Chefs, though, they do it differently. Between their experience and excruciatingly high standards, they are really good at predicting when a dining experience is going to go bad. And they can do this within minutes of entering the lobby, sometimes even from the parking lot.
Limp parsley? An every Wednesday two-for-one? Aprons where they ought not to be? Chefs say all of these are tipoffs, at diners or at the finest establishments. These pros (along with a couple of bartenders and even a random health inspector) are sharing their insights, so read on. They’re weird tips, sure, but when you can spot red flags, you can save your budget for the places most likely to make eating out a true pleasure.
35. All We Ask Is Obvious Use Of Soap, Water, And A Comb
I don’t care what you are wearing if I walk in and you have stained clothing, a rumpled apron, an outfit that looks like you grabbed it off the floor, crazy hair, unkempt beard, and a general lack of hygiene, I’m not eating there. I’ve been to three-star Michelin places that you expect perfection, and I’ve been to the mom and pop down the street, and in both cases, the staff looks presentable. Just be clean and presentable. If it isn’t, the staff doesn’t care and the management doesn’t either.
34. Chef Of All Cuisines, Master Of None?
Huge menus. Very few restaurants can do many things great. And I don’t want to go somewhere that does a lot of “okay” meals. Depends on the kind of restaurant of course. Just use your brain— if they sell burgers, tacos, sushi, Indian and a full eight pages more… don’t expect much.
33. That Menu Item That Makes You Start Humming ‘One Of These Things Is Not Like The Others’
Any place that has items that are on the menu that don’t fit. The Chinese takeout place that has french fries. The American place that has tacos and spring rolls. The diner that has lamb couscous.
32. Spouts With Mildew Near The Mountain Dew
I worked as a server and an occasional line cook for several years. Number one red flag is the spouts on the soda fountain. Those things are one of the easiest things to clean in the entire place, so if they’re mildewy that kills my interest in eating there. I’m fine with a bit of mess elsewhere, especially in a high volume place since it will get messy over the course of the day. But those spouts take multiple days of no washing to get to a point where they are noticeably disgusting.
31. If The First Thing You Think Of Is The Bathrooms, This Chef Says ‘Same’
Having worked in multiple restaurants, I’ve always said, sketchy or dirty bathrooms. Not messy bathrooms that just need a good wipe down at the end of the night. But ones that smell like old water. And have caked on grime behind the door hinge where they don’t want to mop. And have broken appliances and off-kilter toilet seats. You know, those bathrooms.
If they’re not cleaning the bathroom, and maintaining it in some semblance of decent repair, and the bathroom is in the public space, they are most definitely not cleaning or maintaining the kitchen. I have worked in many restaurants. This rule has proven universal.
30. Don’t Get Sassy About Half-Full Salt Shakers
I personally always kept a very tidy bar and insisted my bartenders do the same but refilling a salt shaker in the middle of a busy shift would never be a top priority of mine. Dirty/sticky salt, pepper, or condiments that are clearly just left on the tables every day, on the other hand, would be a red flag to me.
29. Even Though They’re On The Menu, Act Like They Aren’t
A diner will have just about everything on its menu, including spaghetti and lobster. But the reality is you only want to order a narrow bunch of stuff at a diner— burgers, breakfasts, grilled cheese and maybe a Greek salad if it’s Greek-owned.
28. Fancy Restaurant Servers Should Make The Menu Sing
Former server here, mostly at more formal restaurants. There was absolutely no excuse for not being able to describe a dish, as I was expected to take a test (at each place) where I could list every main component and pass with 90%. And again, if for some reason I was not able in that first couple weeks I would immediately explain that I hadn’t gotten to try it yet, but let me ask a friend who has and would immediately come back with an answer from the chef. I believe it should be this way. The last place I worked wasn’t so strict, and honestly, I never ate there. If you allow your servers to just make up stuff to tell people or be unable to describe a dish properly you clearly don’t care about the food you are serving, and honestly, with allergies on the rise, you are asking for a medical and legal disaster.
27. Two-Word Wisdom: Beware Buffets
I’m very cautious about any buffet at all. Whenever I’ve had to replenish food out at the buffet, the customers just mess everything up with the utensils, and sometimes the utensils for dishing the food is clean, so that means they’re using their own forks or spoons that they’ve had in their mouths.
Then you have the little kids that the parents aren’t paying attention to, that are just grabbing food with their bare hands or spilling into other foods. Old people, like 80-year-olds that frequent the buffets are gross enough when they’re constantly coughing and clearing their throats, and spitting while talking in the lineup. Smacking their lips, it makes me squirm. Judge me for being judgy, but I’ve seen it first hand at nearly every buffet I’ve worked, but I won’t go near one that isn’t manned by a cook or server at the stations.
If I see customers in sweatpants and a t-shirt at a buffet, I order from the menu.
26. The Nose Knows, Or Strongly Suspects
Former Health Inspector here: The first thing I notice is a smell. Everything has a unique odor and after doing it long enough, you can pick it out pretty quickly. Drains that aren’t cleaned have a smell, standing water has a smell. Mice and rats have a smell. Cockroaches have a smell. Within five feet of the entrance, I know what kind of sanitation a restaurant has. After that, I look for “personal items”. If there are personal items strewn about the bar, wait stations, pass-through window, kitchen, etc, I’ll leave. Purses, drinks, and food from outside are nasty. People do some weird stuff at home. I don’t want that stuff all over my restaurant. I was in three restaurants across the US every day for over three years. I’ve seen some stuff, but you never forget the smells.
25. Bars Where You Don’t Want To Know What’s On Tap
Bartender here. When I sit down at a bar I watch how the bartenders pour from their taps. If they stick the tap into the beer while they’re pouring I stick with a bottled beer.
I was taught very early on not to do that and having worked at a lot of places where I’ve seen the smegma of built up moldy, beer residue, dead fruit flies that come out of those things when they’re cleaned, usually after many many months or years has passed in some cases…I’ll always pass on tap beer if I see that.
I don’t yell at the bartender, I don’t make a scene, I just order a bottle because that isn’t being handled by that establishment other than when they open it.
24. Who Wants A Server Who Can’t Pronounce The Menu Any Better Than You Can?
In nicer restaurants, servers who don’t know the menu. A server should be able to describe any dish on the menu (in basic terms). If they can’t, there are some fundamental communication problems among the staff.
23. Visible Stress Up Front Means 10 Times More In Back
Former cook here (I can’t bring myself to describe my previous job as a chef as I merely warmed up food). I always watch out for stressed-out staff. If the staff are overworked and not coping in the customer-facing side of the business, then things could very well be much worse behind the scenes. People will cut corners and will do anything to get rid of backed up meals and tickets. Cleaning and hygiene can go out the window in a stressful situation.
22. The Mark Of A Microwave In Action
If anything comes out steaming hot that shouldn’t be hot. For example Jacket potato, if that comes out and it’s erupting with enough steam that the glass wear gets condensation, then it’s been zapped in the microwave.
Melted cheese which hasn’t got brown or burn marks on it (except on a burger) it’s been microwaved instead of a flame.
21. Wait, Have You Ever Even Tasted This?
If I’m at some little local place, or Pizza Express or something, I wouldn’t expect the staff to know much about more than the prices, they’re just there to bring things in and take them out again. But at decent restaurants, my friends or I frequently ask where the meat is sourced from, how sharp/buttery the sauce tastes, whether the sorbet would go with the wine, etc. The only time people haven’t known have been if they’re new and, honestly, if a non-new person didn’t know I’d be a little wary of going there again unless the food was really good.
20. What A Server’s Attitude Will Tell You About The Owner
Service can tell things about the restaurant. If you enter the restaurant and servers don’t pay attention to you, it can mean two things. They are too busy, or they are not motivated to work. If they are too busy, it means the owner doesn’t want to hire more people, which means the owner wants to save money or does not pay attention to his place. If he wants to save money by not hiring enough, he will do so in the kitchen. If they are not motivated to work, there are problems among staffs or they are not getting paid enough.
19. What You’re Really Asking Is ‘Would You Eat Here?’
Ask the staff what do they recommend. If either they haven’t eaten anything on the menu or they don’t know what to say it’s a red flag. There is a reason why they don’t eat the food there.
18. The Bar Won’t Keep The Kitchen’s Secrets
I don’t have a culinary degree, but I did spend 10 years of my life in professional kitchens.
Show up early and grab a drink at the bar. If the bar smells like dirty mop water, get out. If the bartender has to ask you what goes in an Old Fashioned, get out. If the bartender is a rude prick, get out. If the front of the house is bad, the back will be even worse. I consider the maitre d’ as simply the guy who greets me, not necessarily how I judge front of the house.
You can only tell so much from polished silverware. That’s not hard to do and almost every place stays on top of it. Doing things like making sure there isn’t any dust on the bottles behind a bar, even the ones that hardly ever get used and need a ladder to reach, that takes real dedication and attention to detail.
17. When The Lime’s Looking Limp
Sure signs of trouble at the bar are last night’s garnish. If your lime doesn’t look and feel like it was cut in the last hour, get out. Conversely, if they use the good Luxardo cherries instead of the day-glo red abominations, you’re probably at a place that cares about ingredients in the kitchen as well.
16. Hats And Aprons Should Stay Behind When The Chef Comes Out To Accept Compliments
The chef should never leave the kitchen in his hat or apron. It should be a reflex habit to remove and put them on at the door, along with washing hands. If they do not then I’d say they are likely to be super unclean.
15. No ‘Happy Happy Birthday’ Please And Thank You
If a place has a dedicated birthday song/dance they force the staff to perform— I run.
14. How To Predict Slothlike Speed From A Restaurant
Take a look at the tables that are seated. If most of them don’t have food and haven’t eaten yet, your service will most likely be slow. If the seated guests’ drinks are mostly empty that’s a sign of you’ll probably have slow service.
Watch out for large parties, too. Unless a restaurant is specifically designed to handle banquets if you see a lot of parties over 15 people turn around and walk out. They can bring a kitchen line to its knees. If the place has private rooms for large parties, they usually have a special line producing food for those events.
13. When They Order In Bulk, The Specials Aren’t So Special
Two-for-one Wednesday, etc. It usually means they bulk order/cook foods and freeze them to just reheat. If they can basically give you food for “free” its almost definitely not quality food.
12. The Three Servers To Avoid: Stressed, Stained Or Scratching
Stressed waiters/stressed chefs. More likely to make mistakes. If their uniform is dirty (and I don’t mean a small stain. I mean a stain that is at least several hours old. Bonus point if there’s more than one.)
You see waiters, or chefs scratching themselves, touching their face, any part of their body. I can guarantee you they are not suddenly rushing to the bathroom to clean their hands after every face pat.
11. Could Be That’s Not Real Kobe
Culinary student here: Kobe beef anything. If you can afford it, chances are it’s not the real thing.
Real Kobe beef was only very recently approved for sale outside of Japan, on an extremely limited basis. And it’s several hundred dollars per pound. So if you see “Kobe Beef Sliders” for $6.99, or an 8 oz “Kobe Filet Mignon” for $80, that means whatever place you’re in eating in thinks you’re a dimwitted sucker. Which means they’re probably inflating a lot of the other food on the menu, too.
10. Each Cuisine Has Its Own Clue
BBQ places where you can’t smell wood smoke. Tex-Mex places where you don’t see any old ladies making tortillas. Sushi places where you don’t see anyone Asian making sushi. Indian places where none of the customers are Indian.
9. A Roach Acting Alone Is Not Necessarily A Red Flag
Mice droppings is a huge deal, but to be completely honest with you there are always roaches in every restaurant you have ever been to. Roaches appear where there is food.
Spotting one still generally means a free meal but unless you’re seeing them in several places they really aren’t anything to worry about.
8. You Can Only Wait So Long For The Service To Improve
Consistently poor wait staff. It is the cornerstone of your restaurant. Your front and center. I don’t care how great your food is. If it is served by someone unwelcoming, no thanks.
That being said, being in the industry you understand a lot and forgive a lot. I pay attention to things like how many servers are working, how many tables they are managing, how those customers are. So I am pretty forgiving.
7. Recent Marinade Is A Must
I’ve been a chef and used to work as a fishmonger/meat cutter. One of the things I watch out for is any pre-marinated meats/fish. That stuff is far from fresh and is on its way out. You usually end up paying more than if you were to buy the fresh stuff and marinate it yourself at home for a few hours before you cook it.
6. If The Ice Is Already Melted You Know What You Have To Do
Cook here. If you have long enough to drink two cups of water before you see your server again (unless it’s the height of rush hour and even then it’s still sketchy) the restaurant is understaffed and probably cutting corners because of it. If they can’t even hire servers something’s probably up with the place.
5. Your Local Restaurant Is Not The Place You Want To Strike Oil
How oily does everything feel? I used to work at a family restaurant for years and I know when something is dirty just by the touch. Anything that is caked in oil or grime will have a noticeable feel to it (surface will not be smooth but feel greasy). It takes minutes to clean a table, chairs, booths, and menus. If it’s busy then I can give the place a pass but if the place is rather empty and the tableware or furniture are still dirty then the people working there probably don’t care about how clean anything is (mainly people will just take a dry or wet cloth and go over the table with just water and no cleaning or disinfectant materials).
4. No Oyster Should Be Opened Before Its Time
If you’re at a place that serves raw oysters and you can’t physically see them shucking them, don’t eat the oysters! I worked at a place where we had a guy come in every day from two-to-five and shuck in the back. He would open the top, and put twelve on a tray and then stack them on top of each other in the refrigerator so the bottom of one tray was touching the RAW oysters.
When we served them to people, we were told to take the older ones first and we had a bottle of salty water that we would pour over them to make them look juicier and fresher.
3. Give Them One Chance To Clean Up Their Act
If you see anything even remotely dirty, alert a server or manager, and if it isn’t handled promptly and you aren’t apologized to, GET OUT. If they don’t care about you seeing something gross then the kitchen is not clean.
2. Look For Warm Hearts Not Hot Plates
Plates should only be warm if they’re fresh out the dishwasher. If they’re warm on the edges that means they’ve been sitting under a heat lamp, indicating the food has been ready for a while and waiting for a server to come pick it up. If the food is hot, and the plate is a normal temperature, then you’re in a good, fast, efficient establishment.
1. Be Willing To Wait For the Kitchen To Catch Up
If a restaurant is on a false wait, you will have a good experience. That means a host will tell you there is a 15-minute wait, but there are three or four tables open. The host or manager is helping control the flow of orders to the kitchen. A kitchen can only produce so much food. Once a guest is sat, they expect prompt service and their entree to only take 20-25 minutes once it is ordered (I’m talking American casual dining here. Think Olive Garden). I have had my hosts hold tables many times because the kitchen was running slow for various reasons.