As customers, it’s important to be aware of warning signs that can indicate a poorly-run restaurant. These can include things like dirty or cluttered dining areas, rude or inattentive service, and a lack of consistency in the menu or dishes. Otherwise, we can end up with a nasty experience that could’ve been easily avoided.
However, most of us regular folk can miss a lot of these clues. So how about we educate ourselves a bit? For starters, let’s take a look at a Reddit post that asked chefs to share the red flags they look for when they go out to eat. It has received over 4.4K comments, many of which provide some really interesting insights into reading these places. Bon appétit!
I will never forget what the health inspector teaching my food safety class told me.
If they don’t sell popcorn and it smells like they just made some, tap out.
That’s roach spray.
Massive menus. A good restaurant, specifically finer dining, will not crutch on a large menu, but will have a consistent one – maybe a page or 2. Bigger menus usually mean that some items won’t get ordered as often, and will have been likely sitting, especially if they’re on the menu (i.e. lower cost).
Edit: Big menus can be very appropriate in context – such as those of ethnically specific restaurants. I’ve been to my share of Indian, Thai, and Japanese that had extensive menus, but expertly prepared dishes. This is mostly feasible though because a small number of ingredients are usually used in many dishes, such as rice or chicken.
Fish on the sunday brunch menu. It got there thursday and they are trying to get rid of it before it spoils. If the dish is fish with hollandaise DO NOT EAT IT!!! The fish is more than likely bad and they are hiding the smell with the hollandaise
I was a line cook for four years “special” just means that we have a surplus of or is expiring soon.
As a Chef it is always important for me to eat at a locally owned and operated establishment instead of a massive mega corp restaurant. There, even if you possibly have a poor experience you are at least supporting your community. Also I believe you greatly improve your chances of having a delicious meal made from the heart, rather than a plate designed for max profit in a board room.
A health inspector told me he never eats in 24hr restaurants. He said there’s never time to break down the equipment and properly clean it.
Not a chef but a 15 yr server. 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.
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 .
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.
A big one is definitely an empty parking lot during Lunch and Dinner. If the entire town is skipping out, you should too.
Line cook chiming in here:
1) Don’t knock places with microwaves, all the stuff that goes into mics (at least at my place) is just heating up sauces (mac and cheese base, caramel etc) or warming up the rice for a minute.
2) Definetly look at the employees, you’ll be able to tell if the food is gonna good or not, solely based on body language.
3) Dont get things that are out of place, example: don’t get the fish and chips at a sports bar (in the states/canada atleast)
Not a chef, but a restaurant manager for circa 10 years until I left the industry last year. Obviously I’m *extremely* aware of these red flags, as it was my job to notice them for a decade.
To name a few; huge menus, dirty tables, exhausted/anxious looking waiting staff, no cocktail menu, beer tastes “odd”, no beers/ciders on tap, no one greets you at the door, odd atmosphere, dead plants, overhearing waiting staff saying “I’m sorry that’s not actually on the menu tonight”, intros/listing specials when sat that takes longer than 30 secs, over-friendly/overbearing staff, sad/ill looking chefs if an open kitchen, inappropriate/inconsistent/too loud/no playlist (a personal hate of mine), anything that mention’s a chef’s name in the menu (Pete’s Chicken Special), menu descriptors that don’t describe what food you’re having… this is kind of inexhaustible, not gonna lie.
Sometimes, though… you just want a McDonalds.
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 noticably disgusting.
If a place is understaffed.
If the place has more than 30 seats and just one person working the floor and one in the kitchen (or worse, one doing both jobs), then I’m usually out.
1. If you can see whether they get ice with a scoop that goes back into its own container or with the glass.
2. By the condition of their garnishes.
Get out if they’re dried up, smells off, or plain looks gross.
3. What are they cleaning your tables with? Smell disinfectant? Is there a bucket?
Rags brown and greasy?
If the latter, never go back.
Worked in restaurants, dad owned restaurants and is a chef. These are basic things every person should watch out for. You won’t know if your food is clean or delicious until you order it but you can test it with a drink.
I’ve worked in restaurants where the ice maker would have dead roaches in it because they’re using buckets that go to the floor for transporting the ice upstairs.
Another restaurant doesn’t use disinfectant for their rags, just rinsing it in the sink with cold water!
Coffee shop doesn’t use soap for their mugs, didn’t run them through the dishwasher either.
Oh and flies landing on the raw chicken that’s sitting out on a summer day in the kitchen.
You know they don’t care in the back if the front of house don’t either.
Bathrooms. If dirty or missing paper. GTFO. Same with dirty menus.
Edit: For clarification purposes, a dirty restaurant does not necessarily determine the quality and taste of the food you would be eating.
Example: A restaurant has one bathroom for both workers and patrons. The chef uses that bathroom to poop, they wipe their a*s and head to the sink. They turn on the sink with their hands and wash their hands, but are out of paper towels, so they shut the sink off with their hands, the same hands that had poop on them. Now their hands have poop on them again and now their hand is covered in poop bacteria. The chef then opens the pull door with their poop hand (now imagine how many other patrons touched that door handle, so now their grossness is now on the chefs hand.)
Now one can argue that they may have a sink in the kitchen to wash their hands, my thought with this is that if a cook thought it was okay to touch the faucet again with no paper towels and to touch the door afterwards, that person is not going to wash their hands correctly out back either.
All I am saying is that your food will taste fine and there’s a tiny chance of you getting sick due to the cleanliness of the restaurant/cook. Point of it is that the chef still has s**t bacteria on their hand when they’re handling your food. In reality you are eating their poo
Also, recently when into the bathroom at my local grocery store, no soap, no paper towels. F*****g disgusting. I brought the attention the store manager and called health inspector. Not a lot of businesses realize the nastiness of their facilities.
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.
1) It’s a Friday/Saturday/Sunday night, and there are barely any guests in a restaurant/bar/club. Those are the 3 busiest day of the week. Any restaurant worth its keep should be at least 50% full, if not have a waiting list on these days.
2) This got mentioned earlier, but usually if the bathroom is messy/dirty I can expect the kitchen to be the same. Granted there may be exceptions, but they’re usually rare. It shows that people aren’t cleaning the common area for patrons properly, or often enough, which probably means the kitchen is the same way.
3) A manager who is disrespectful/abusive to his/her staff. This usually means that they see themselves as superior to their crew members. They may have a superior title, but we’re all people. If they don’t see themselves as equal to the rest of the crew, that means that when there’s a rush, the kitchen, as well as other parts of the restaurant are down a person.
-Aprons. If I see anyone with an apron on and they’re heading to the bathroom, or if they take it off and set it on a table or booth, they’re probably not too conscious about cleanliness. They touch that apron a lot, and then touch your food.
-If the plate is extremely hot, your order has been sitting in the window for an extended period of time. Meaning it’s already pretty dried out and the cooks aren’t cooking to order. Nothing dangerous, just a bit of a turn off.
-The cleanliness of the dining room, including the floors. If they aren’t keeping it decently clean or sweeping the floors in the areas you are, just imagine what the areas you don’t see look like.
Edit: in all the restaurants I’ve cooked in, the plates were never kept extremely hot or in a hot box. They are usually kept at room temperature or a little above. I have been told time and again that this is because although a hot plate would keep the food warm longer, it also runs the risk of injuring a customer. The rule was always that if a plate is too hot for the server to carry it, the expo should switch out the plate. This is why I said “extremely hot”, not just hot or warm.
Not a chef exactly, but I make a lot of the salads and dips at the deli I work at. We have a hot case with fried foods, my boyfriend is the night fry cook. My direct manager makes these weird burritos. If a customer asks what’s in them, he says, “a little bit of everything.” When we asked him what that meant, he told us that he grinds up most of the left over fried foods that get stored in the walk-in and wraps them in tortillas. Even worse then that, I texted him while closing asking what to do with the unsold burritos at night. He told me to put them in the walk in and he would grind those up and make new burritos at some point. The next day I couldn’t tell if he’d just put the same ones out again or if he did make those “new” burritos. My boyfriend and I refuse to make, eat, or recommend those.
Long story short; if someone tells you something is made of “a little bit of everything” but won’t specify what, DONT F*****G EAT THAT S**T!!!!!!
Not a chef but grew up in the restaurant business, bad fish smell or the overabundance of garlic smell. To try to cover up smells restaurants will burn garlic and it’s a tell tail sign.
If I’m somewhere that fries a lot of their food, I’ll look for exceptionally dark fried foods or food with the “dirty fryer” taste. If this place makes their money off their fryers and they aren’t having their oil regularly changed and cleaned, then they aren’t doing any other important cleaning either.
Mixed food items. If your sliced egg has bits of lettuce in it, your sandwich edges have a sauce that doesn’t belong there… These are all signs that the cooks aren’t cleabing their knives between items. Good chance of cross contamination from raw ingredients.
This isn’t always the case, but I do extra research before eating in a restaurant that proudly exclaims:
> Family run
I think the term is a double edged sword. Too often this means stale menus, decades old decor and standards that have laxed over time. Occasional infighting between the staff and power struggles.
Not always the case, of course. Japanese restaurants that are family owned for generations tend to be great, 50/50 with Indian, but with Italian restaurants… More of a mixed bag.
My dad’s a chef, and I’ve worked with him in a couple kitchens.
A couple things I generally look out for:
1. Tables, are they clean? Generally the wait staff should be on top of this, if you walk in and and most tables are dirty then this might indicate poor management, so who knows what the kitchen looks like.
2. Is the restaurant area clean in general? If you’ve watched Gordon Ramsay, you’ll see him visit restaurants and find dirt everywhere. If they can’t be bothered to clean the area the customers can see, god knows what the areas they can’t see are like.
3. Much of the menu isn’t in stock. If you’re in a restaurant and a lot of the items aren’t available this rings a few alarm bells for me. The head chef should have a good idea of what to order for the days service.
4. Rubber seafood. If seafood (calamari, scallops) is advertised as ‘fresh’ but comes out rubbery, either they’ve cooked it wrong or it’s frozen.
6. Other diners. Do they look happy? Are they arguing with the wait staff over the bill? Are things being sent back a lot?
Cash only establishments- its not always the case, but could mean fishy finances and payroll. Side note, most of the restaurants that I go to that are cash only tend to have lesser quality products, such as canned green beans and sweet potatoes, and yes, I can taste the difference.
Any manager or waiter that is willing to defend the doneness of a dish, when it’s raw and it’s not supposed to be, tells me something is wrong. For example, I had a pasta dish with a poached egg on top, it came out raw, like not even splashed with warm water raw. I brought it to their attention, they argued it’s “supposed to be like that” but I wasn’t having it, so they brought it back, now the egg had cheese on it, and the bowl was super hot. This tells me that they microwaved it or broiled it, instead of giving me a new one. I was pissed, didn’t eat it. Asked for a refund and just sat there because I didn’t want to make a scene. I feel really bad too, because my grandparents were in town wanting to spend a night with their grandchildren at dinner.
Any menus that say “no substitutions!”- look if I can’t have home fries instead of ham with my biscuits and gravy, why are you even open? Seriously, this is a legit problem.
Any restaurant that serves a meal in a bizarre way, including food served on a red flag.
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