Food and Hospitality Workers Share Their Restaurant Red Flags

Food and Hospitality Workers Share Their Restaurant Red Flags

You have a choice when you eat out in your home town: go somewhere familiar, or try something new. But when you’re traveling, you don’t really have an option. If you’re visiting a city you’ve never been to before, every restaurant is brand new. Every meal is a roll of the dice. So how can you gauge whether you’re trying something worth your time? How can you protect yourself from food poisoning?

Luckily, these veterans of the food industry recently went online to share their restaurant tips, tricks, and red flags, to help you ensure you have the best chance to enjoy your culinary experience.

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40. As Go The Menus…

When the menus are super dirty and never cleaned, that means everything is super dirty and never cleaned.

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39. They Come From A Bin

Ask where your oysters come from. If they don’t know, you don’t want them.

Works for most seafood.

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38. Mr. Freeze

If a restaurant has a one-page menu that’s usually a pretty good sign, it means their line cooks have become specialists and can usually nail all the dishes listed.

Conversely, if a restaurant has a giant, multi-page menu that’s a gigantic red flag. The longer the menu the better the odds that you’re paying to eat a boiled bag frozen meal.

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37. The Team Is The Dream

Cook for a small Mexican restaurant here. I always look for how the staff interact with each other. If they all seem to enjoy being there, and coordinate well, more often than not it’s because everything is running smoothly and they have a good system, which usually means they know what they’re doing and you can expect good food. That’s how it always is for the smaller, family run restaurants I frequent anyway, which I believe always have the best food.

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36. I’m Special

Pastry chef here. As much as people say avoid specials, I can’t speak for everyone but at least in desserts/breakfast pastries, if you see something new its worth trying. Chances are it’s something the chef has been working on for weeks on their own time, there’s a lot of love and effort put into it.

Also, the standby if the menu is a book, it’s probably not great.

The biggest thing to keep an eye on though is the staff. If there are angry people, get out as fast as you can, obviously. If everyone is kinda apathetic and not talking to each other much, get out. That’s also a crappy environment, everyone is probably really passive aggressive, and that’s going to show. If people seem genuinely good with being there even if it’s busy or if there’s playful ragging going on, that’s where you want to be. The better the staff gets along, the better everything in the place runs.

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35. Ice Ice Baby

I have a family member who has worked in multiple different restaurants, and they always advise me never to get drinks with ice because too many places don’t keep their ice machines cleaned because it’s so often overlooked compared to other kitchen equipment.

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34. Free Samples

We have a sushi place me where the chef gives you free samples of future dishes. This usually means they take pride in their work and want to see peoples reactions before committing it to the menu.

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33. We’re Clean, By The Way

There’s a Chinese restaurant in my town with a sign out front that says: “Clean food. And fresh.” I still can’t help but wonder why they would bring that up unprovoked.

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32. The Red Carpet

If a restaurant has carpets. Yeah, I get it, it’s quieter and doesn’t get slick, but it is one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen. I saw them pull it up at a restaurant where I used to work when they remodeled (and put in more carpet). Vacuuming only goes so far in a restaurant and I know they never, ever shampooed it.

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31. Mexican And Icelandic

If there are different cuisines on the same menu, it usually means it’s not gonna be good. I don’t trust that people can do Japanese and Italian in the same kitchen.

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30. Hot Or Not

You can tell a lot by the temperature of the plates.

If one person’s plate is 300 degrees it’s probably been sitting under a heat lamp for the last 20 minutes because the kitchen didn’t time out their dishes properly. If it’s really bad, your food will have almost a dried crust to it from the lamp. This can also just be because of the dishwasher leaving plates hot though or because a dish had been baked on the dish it was served on.

Likewise be sensitive to any kind of microwaved food, this is usually pretty evident in texture but there are other signs as well. If you ever get a dish which is hot outside and cold or cool within nope out of there. This is most common with sides.

Cold food should always be unacceptable.

Finally some things are minor but for nicer more expensive restaurants are deal-breakers. Like serving risotto or something like an Alfredo on a cold plate.

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29. Ummmm, It’s Good

I’ve worked in restaurants for over a decade. A couple years in the kitchen and the rest as FOH.

If your server’s response to “how is the [item]?” seems disingenuous, that’s a big red flag. We know what goes on in the kitchen, we know the complaints, and we know which items to stress over when we deliver them. Servers who pause or seem uncomfortable with that question generally equates to a menu full of stuff we wouldn’t eat even as a free shift meal.

A GOOD sign is when servers hang out and eat at the restaurant post-shift. Generally we are getting a discount but not free food — if we are spending our nightly tips on it, it’s worth it.

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28. Greek To Me

My friend was a chef and he told me, unless they’re Greek, if you can hear the chefs yelling in the kitchen, get out. If they’re fighting they’re messing up the food.

I never thought to ask him about the Greek exception.

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27. Grease Is The Word

I clean kitchen exhaust systems. If you walk in a restaurant and can smell grease walk out. That means the place isn’t clean. From the exhaust system to cooking equipment.

We clean some places where grease drips off the hoods onto cooking surfaces.

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26. Lickity Split

I cook at a fancy casual fine dining restaurant here. If your food is out impossibly fast, it’s probably something to be concerned about. I’m talking ordering an entree and it’s out in like 10 minutes. This usually means it’s already been cooked and they just have to reheat it. Now something like a salad, okay that shouldn’t take any time at all, but you want to make sure your lettuce (or whatever green it is) is still crunchy and fresh, otherwise it’s been made before and has been sitting.

Generally speaking, watch the wait staff. If the majority of them seem disgruntled or upset, things probably aren’t great. This often translates to the kitchen so they probably don’t care about your food if they aren’t being treated fairly. Another thing to look out for is the cleanliness of the place. If the restaurant seems dirty or unmaintained, the kitchen is in similar shape most of the time. I’ve heard people say “never order the fish on a Monday” or “don’t get any specials because it’s probably product that’s about to go bad,” but at my restaurant that’s not the case. We get orders all throughout the week and our specials are things we are playing around with to see if it could be added to the menu. So I would say just be cautious about that sort of stuff.

Also it helps to read reviews. I like to read the one star reviews to see why it was rated that way, if a majority of the reviews are for some really stupid stuff, and all the other reviews are great, you’re likely going to get some top notch food and service. You all know the ones I’m talking about… Some Karen who left a one star review because her water ran out once during a huge crunch or something else totally ridiculous.

How does the place actually smell? Does it smell like good food? Then it likely is. Does it smell like perfume or too sterile when these is clearly food on the tables? That could be a bad sign that they are trying to hide something less than pleasant.

That’s pretty much all I can think of at the moment.

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25. The List

When my boss (the owner) used to host and people would complain to her about the hour wait on Saturday night at 7pm and then threaten to leave, she would tell them, “If the restaurant you choose does not have a wait on a Saturday night, you may not want to eat there.” And then turn her biggest crap-eating grin on them.

“Can I add you to the list?”

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24. Save On Sushi

This isn’t so much about sanitary red flags like most of these, but more about saving you money.

If you’re going to get sushi rolls, make sure you read the ingredients. A lot of places have what amounts to a California roll for a premium price.

I worked at a Japanese restaurant for a while and we had this thing called a Volcano roll and it cost $7.25. A California roll there cost $3.75. The Volcano roll was a Cali roll cut into the shape of a triangle and topped with spicy mayo that has been heated up with about $0.10 worth of fish, literally just a few bits that was not worth it. You are much better off ordering a Cali roll and paying $0.50 extra for spicy mayo on the side and asking them to heat it up.

I had one guy come in with a girl and he ordered a couple of regular rolls like spicy tuna and yellowtail, along with a Volcano roll. When served in the restaurant, unless they ask us, we would put the sauce on top so it looked nice, like a Volcano. When I brought that roll over he was like, “Oh, I didn’t know you guys put the sauce on, I’ve only gotten it for pick up and the sauce is always on the side. I don’t really like it, could you bring me one one without it?” I tried not to laugh and said sure.

So I went back and the sushi chef asked what was wrong. I told him that he didn’t like the sauce and want one without it. He laughed and said alright, so he took a Cali roll, cut it up, and put it on the plate. I brought it back to the guy and he was super pumped.

Basically this guy paid $7.25 for a roll that would have cost him $3.75 and me and the sushi chef got to split a free volcano roll. Normally I would have just told him about it, but the dude was being so arrogant the entire time, I’m guessing to act like he was a sushi expert to impress the girl he was with.

I’ve seen this at a couple of other places too where they slightly dress up a California roll and jack up the price. You don’t want to end up like that guy just because you didn’t take a few seconds to go over the ingredients.

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23. One For The Road

My grandfather was a long haul trucker, and always told me on road trips to look for the places truckers congregate. They all talk to each other and will find the best places along the highways. It’s always worked out for me so far.

This is for greasy spoon places and I don’t count gas stations. Also this advice was given a few decades ago so things have probably changed since. Still find pretty tasty, horrible for you food, though.

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22. Brunch Is The Worst

Businesses with a bunch of signs/specials out front. “Lunch special: 4.99$!”, “free appetizer from 5-8pm weekdays!”, “BOGO main course Wednesdays all day!” That kind of thing. Usually means they’re going under and are trying to drum up business. Unless they’re a chain.

Regular lunch/dinner restaurants that start to offer brunch. #1 brunch service is the worst, chefs hate it, and are usually disgruntled, #2 brunch is a money maker, companies charge over the top for thin pancakes and orange juice with a splash of 4$ champagne. Sudden brunch means the place is trying to make more money, charging double and using chefs that don’t want to be there.

Reviews where the owner is arguing with the reviewer. I saw an argument on Yelp where a lady complained her chopstick or something was moldy and gave them 1 star. While it was super unfair to give a 1 star over something they didn’t do, the owner got into it with her and they started fighting on Facebook. Owners that are willing to yell at people who are spending their money are likely to treat their staff the same or worse. Meaning their employees are either pissed, or the turnover is high and no one is trained well.

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21. On The Sauce

If you see any food coming out that’s messy and theres sauce all over the rim of the plate, etc, it’s likely to mean that the chefs aren’t putting much effort into their meals and they therefore will not be very good. All the chefs at my work find it SO important that everything is presented well and I agree, so if they miss something I’ll check the plates and point it out which they always appreciate as it reflects well on them.

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20. This Is Deadly Accurate

Every episode of Kitchen Nightmares:

Voiceover: “Tonight, on Kitchen Nightmares! We go to Los Angeles, the home of Hollywood stars, California sun, and Paul’s Italian Restaurant. The restaurant’s owner, Paul has been cooking up Italian home cooking for 20 years.”

Maria: “Hello, I’m Maria. Welcome to Paul’s Italian Restaurant.”

GR: “Oh, wow. This menu is… 5, 6… 9, 10 pages long. There must be over a hundred items. You cook steaks, pasta, salads, burgers, fries, pizza, and seafood?”

Maria: “Yes.”

GR: “Well, I’m going to order the garden salad, the Fettucine Alfredo, and the mussel platter.”

Paul: “I guarantee he is going to love the food.”

GR: “This salad is so lifeless and bland. When was this lettuce bought?”

Maria: “Every Monday, we get a shipment of all our vegetables.”

GR: “Once a week?! It’s Saturday. They’ve been sitting in the kitchen all week long? This is just terrible. I hope the pasta is better than that.”

Maria: “Here’s your fettucine”

GR: “Oh, no! Look at this. {tilts plate for the camera} The whole thing is swimming in oil. And the noodles are cold. When did they make this?”

Paul: “I cook one batch of noodles and put the extra in the fridge. I warm them up in the microwave to order.”

GR: “You can’t do that. These are all soggy and cold!”

Maria: “And the mussel platter.”

GR: “These taste awful. Come here, darling. Smell these.”

{Maria recoils in disgust.}

GR: “They’re rotten.” {makes retching noises and runs to a trash can and spits out the food}

15 minutes later…

GR: “The food is awful because you’re trying to cook too many items. You can’t cook a hundred dishes ahead of time and just keep it lying around, waiting for someone to order it. The problem is that your menu is too big! You’ve got to keep it simple: just two pages of your best dishes and then you need to cook everything fresh!”

15 minutes later…

GR: “In addition to the new chairs and tables, you’ll see I’ve streamlined your menu. Gone are the 10 pages of just way too many different dishes. Tonight you’re going to have just these 8 dishes for all your customers. You’ll have everything fresh and you’ll cook them AFTER the customers order, not before.”

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19. A Guilty Pleasure

Stay away from buffet and salad bars. A lot of the time it is the same stuff that just gets refilled over and over. Super gross.

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18. Cutlery Can Never Be Clean Enough

I’ve done bartending/waitressing for a few years, here’s my list:

First of all, ignore people who say “if the bathroom is dirty, the kitchen is dirty.” The people in charge of the kitchen generally aren’t in charge of the bathrooms, and it’s normally the servers’ job; if the restaurant area is busy we’re gonna skip that when we can, but we’ll probably give it a quick tidy if we use the toilets.

Most places opt for paper menus, because they can just be chucked away afterwards. It’s cleaner this way. However if the table is sticky (and the restaurant area is quiet) then there are probably a few other sticky areas.

Check your cutlery. Most cutlery barely gets washed, it gets rubbed with soap, sprayed with water and chucked in a dishwasher. It’s then meant to be polished with hot water when it’s brought to the table set up area. This is where we actually check it for leftover grime. If your cutlery is gross, chances are your wait staff aren’t doing their job properly.

Don’t order fish on Sundays. Most places get their fish deliveries on a Monday or on a Thursday. Fish goes off fairly quickly and by Sunday it’s really not great.

If your server has long hair and it’s not tied up, check for hair in your food. Kitchens tend to have really strict rules on their staff and you rarely see them with hair down and makeup on. If there’s a hair in your food it’s probably from your waitress.

When your (hot) food comes out quickly, your chef was probably a microwave.

If your server visibly has a cold and is still working, don’t eat there. They’re either not paying their staff enough to have days off or they’re forcing staff to work in conditions where they shouldn’t be handling food. The kitchen staff probably get the same treatment and probably have the same illness.

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17. Under New Management

 

One that makes me keep driving past is a sign saying “Under New Management!” or something similar.

It means the business has already failed (at least) once and either a new owner has come in thinking they’ll be able to cut corners better than the last owner, or it’s the same owner trying to save face by saying someone new is in charge when there isn’t.

Steer clear of these places.

Granted, this isn’t always the case. I’m definitely speaking from my own experiences from restaurants that have done this and also ones that my friends have shared in the past. I believe more often than not there won’t be significant changes done to improve these places and that while some people truly mean well, others are just trying to put lipstick on a pig.

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16. Seefood

 

The first thing they told us in culinary school when your learning the basic rules for food safety standards is if you enter a seafood restaurant and smell fish, leave.

If you enter a seafood shop or restaurant, it should smell like the ocean. Mostly like fresh air and saltwater. That means everything is fresh. If it smells like fish, it starts to become bad and if it starts, it is gonna be bad very fast!

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15. Mangia

 

If it’s an Italian place and they serve butter with their bread. Not a red flag, but really nice/authentic places serve bread with oil and vinegar.

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14. Dust Til Dawn

 

I look for dust. Dust on the ceiling tiles or in the air conditioning vents. I also have a habit of running my finger along chair frames after I sit down to check for dust.

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13. These Are The Worst

 

Seeing fruit flies. Fruit flies are an indication of a dirty kitchen.

 

The fruit fly eggs are transported into the restaurant on fruits and or vegetables. Once inside and hatched, they go to where food and water are left to mix, in order to lay more eggs (think under counters and shelving, sinks). If the food is not cleaned up properly after a few days, it starts giving off a vinegar smell. (Fruit flies are called vinegar flies in the pest control business.) This process is carried out within 24 hours. I can guarantee that if you have fruit flies, I can show you where your cleaning protocol is breaking down.

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12. Be Skeptical

 

There is an abundance of kitchen ‘wisdom’, popularized by books like Kitchen Confidential, that aren’t always true.

“Don’t order fish on a Monday.”

“Specials are made with leftovers or food that’s going bad.”

“If the toilets are dirty, the kitchen is too.”

“Chefs bleed into your food.”​

It really depends on the venue. Any chef worth anything is never going to serve bad fish, out of date meat, or bleed into your food. The fish thing could be accurate some of the time, but works on the assumption that restaurants have purchased their stock in bulk the previous week, which is often completely false for smaller establishments. That, and the concept of well-done steaks being deep fried or crappy, older cuts of meat may have been true ten or fifteen years ago, but the culinary world has changed so much in the last decade with the rise of cooking shows and celebrity chefs that venues can’t afford to cut corners or pull dodgy tactics like that with even mildly clued-in diners that know what they’re eating.

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11. Cluck Cluck

 

I used to work in a fancy kitchen. Any place that is charging more than $25 for a chicken entree is a complete scam.

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10. Oh God, There’s No Escape

 

After spending 30 years in commercial kitchens, there are so many flags you will never see. The people handling your food you may never see. The moldy bucket of something in the back of the cooler you will never see. The pantry person with their finger up their nose you will never see. The sketchy cook who doesn’t wash his hands much you will never see. As nice as the carpet may be, you still can’t trust any of it.

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9. There’s A Lot Of Trust Involved

 

If a chef doesn’t know the difference between vegan, vegetarian and gluten free cuisine chances are he doesn’t know much. It’s literally their job to know that basic kind of stuff! There are people with food allergies that you can kill or make very sick if you don’t know those differences.

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8. Even Bad Guys Think You’re Bad

 

My first boss was an ice cream…. Chef? Dunno. He made ice cream. He had a nasty ass kitchen and stuff I would never eat because I know just how old that cookie really is, and I’ve seen how he makes that chili…. Ick. (Yeah, chili and ice cream. I don’t know. It was a weird time.)

So when he told me never to eat at the place across the street, you know it was bad. Really, really bad.

His criteria happened to be knowing the health inspector and how often that guy shut a place down, and what for.

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7. Waiting For Waiters

 

I’ve worked in restaurants with 15 years. If the servers take 10+ min to greet the table when the restaurant isn’t full, it has always been a poor experience overall. It tells me nobody is managing the entire restaurant correctly. And that carries over to food.

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6. Probably Should Have Closed

 

I’m sure others have said this but the general smell. Not only can smell deter me from visiting a restaurant but the restaurant I work at recently had our pipes replaced and the dining room smelled of raw sewage for about 2 weeks. We lost a lot of business because of it.

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5. The Fountains

 

I worked as a server and occasional line cook for several years.

Number 1 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. Im 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.

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4. Recommendations

 

Kinda backwards, but if your server recommends something that isn’t the highest priced thing on the menu, appetizer or entree, you should probably get it. You best bet it’s their personal preference, but they eat that food daily, as do us cooks. And if we can eat it after weeks/months of cooking/serving it, it’s probably worth your time.

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3. A Pleasant Surprise

I agree with most of these tips but, man, I remember my trip to Malacca, Malaysia. We walked up to a stall where an elderly lady was squatting down just in front of the sidewalk with a plastic basin and washing the dishes in it. Stray cats were coming in from the alley and licking at dishes.

My first question was “is this a restaurant?” Upon closer inspection: yes, it was.

My second question was “who on earth would eat here?” Then our guide brought us inside. Looks like we would.

Food was amazing and delicious and despite fearing the worst, nobody got sick.

To answer the question “why would you even eat there?” Our trip up until that point had been very well planned. Stayed in a great Holiday Inn with a delicious international breakfast buffet. Tour bus was very clean. The highlight of the trip was when they took us to a pineapple farm and we got to sample (hint: supermarket pineapple has nothing on the fresh stuff).

Most of the restaurants we had been taken to were, by Western standards, quite clean. This one was definitely an outlier in that regard but by this point we had developed a trust in our guide. I would never have even thought to walk into this place on my own accord, but then I would have missed out on some amazing food.

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2. Run Away!

If employees try to argue with you about food quality in order to dissuade you from sending something under cooked back, just leave. It means they have a cook who can’t take criticism and your chances at getting a sneezer are greatly increased.

Back when my husband and I were dating, we went to a Thai restaurant. Ordered broccoli and noodles and when the dish arrived, we saw there were lots of black specs all over. Looked closer and they were aphids. Grossed out, we called the waiter over. He took a look and tried to argue with us that it was black pepper, not aphids. Dude, there were obvious legs and wings! He wouldn’t budge so we walked out and never went back.

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1. Sad Is Bad

The great French chef Fernand Point left us some advice: “If I go somewhere new and the chef is very thin, I know my meal will be bad. If he is both thin and sad, I leave as quickly as possible.”

I rely more on the sad thing than the thin thing. If I walk into a restaurant and I can feel sadness and anger from the staff — I leave.

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