When it comes to dining out, there's nothing worse than having to pay for a meal that you didn't enjoy. Maybe your food was cold, you were given the wrong order, or your waiter was rude. Whatever the reason, we often don't know we'll receive poor service until it's too late. So how do you spot the signs of a bad restaurant earlier? For people who don't work in the foodservice industry, the signs of a low-quality restaurant aren't always clear.
Does the staff clean up properly? Are the chefs following proper hygiene protocol? If you didn't know how to spot these signs before, keep reading. From long menus to non-slip shoes, professional chefs have revealed the red flags to look out for in restaurants to help you figure out where to—and where not to—eat.
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#1 Rules for Specials
Former chef here. Some people will say, "don't eat whatever food on a certain day of week because it's leftovers." This is called utilization. Specials are just that. Things that we'd rather sell than throw out. Those of us who actually know what we're doing carefully cool down and store things so they have as much menu life as possible. Only an idiot would throw away perfectly good, saleable food if it didn't sell on the first night.
#2 Unhappy Staff
Overworked staff. What cleaning jobs do you think are getting missed if staff are far too stretched and unhappy at work?
#3 Spotting Good Food
You might have to be a chef to recognize this, but my red flag is going into a busy restaurant and noticing none of the tables have food. This usually means the kitchen is going down in flames. One time, I noticed this and could see some food slowly stacking up in the window, but no orders coming out. I mentioned it to the server and he replied, "I wouldn’t suggest ordering food." He brought our drink check and we left. He was tipped well for his honesty.
#4 Leave If You See:
Too many menu choices, dirty restrooms, and anxious server staff.
#5 Clean Soda
If there's a self-serve soda machine, go ahead and take a napkin around the inside of the Sprite/clear-soda-available nozzle. If your napkin comes out pink, brown, or orange SKIP THE SODA. A Sprite nozzle should come out clear. If it's brown, it's likely cola. But if the cola nozzle was put on the sprite dispenser and is still brown you know the nozzles aren't being cleaned properly. Also go ahead and look closely at the ice chute. I see green algae in those a lot.
#6 Grade Pending
For my NYC people, “Grade Pending” doesn’t mean that the restaurant is awaiting judgement on their health inspection. It means that they failed and are given a grace period to fix their wrongs.
#7 Dirty Salt
Salt shakers. If the holes are clogged and the top is dirty, that thing has been refilled 100 times without washing.
#8 Miserable Staff
Not a chef, but an ex-restaurant manager. How happy is the staff? Do they seem like they like their jobs? If the staff are miserable, you're not going to get quality food or service. It's worth seeking out restaurants that treat their staff well. If they're treated well, they'll treat you well.
#9 Where's the Seafood From?
Ask where your oysters come from. If they don’t know, you don’t want them. Works for most seafood.
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#10 Blue Towels
I worked at a KFC for a while, so here’s a KFC specific thing: There are two towel colors for cleaning use at KFC franchises—at least in American ones. There are yellow towels, which are intended for surfaces that cooked foods will touch, and blue towels, which are only to be used in raw chicken areas. This is to prevent cross-contamination. Cooked chicken never touches raw chicken areas, and cooked and raw areas are never cleaned with the same towels.
The thing to look out for? Raw chicken areas are usually not visible from the front counter, at least in most locations I’ve seen. IF YOU SEE A BLUE TOWEL, DON’T EAT THERE. Now, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. I would recommend asking the cashier about it if you see anything suspicious. When I went to Europe, a KFC location in Amsterdam had blue towels and a cleaning solution on top of all the trash cans in the lobby. They weren’t for raw chicken, they just had a different cleaning procedure there.
#11 Sushi and Pizza
Does it sound like it could be two or more restaurants? For example, sushi and pizza at the same place. They can't do either well.
#12 Sick Waiters
Sick waitstaff. If restaurant owners encourage their waitstaff to work while sick (or don't help to find a replacement), you can count on getting sick, too.
#13 Listen to Anthony Bourdain
Read Anthony Bourdain's book. He runs down a bunch: Brunch is just using up leftovers from the rush of the weekend. Generally worse quality food; a smaller menu is better; Mondays and Thursdays are typical new inventory days. Eat these days for the freshest food; only order shellfish from a SHELLFISH restaurant. Know what a restaurant does well, and order that.
#14 Large Menus and Substitutions
I've been a cook for 21 years and a chef for about 10. While I am in no way a complete expert and know it all, this is my take on just a few things. Large menu does not always mean frozen. We have a general rule of thumb where I am. If a prepped item can be used on three separate dishes, it can stay. The largest issue that can really happen here is you become a restaurant of all foods, master of none. A smaller menu is more ideal, mostly for taste quality and specialization.
Not doing substitutions... This can also simply be a product of the restaurant being in an area where demands that are unrealistic are common, or can drag down the speed of the kitchen. When I am in the middle of a 400 person dinner and have substitutions all willy nilly, we don't get food out on time. The kitchen is too small for the amount of food that I do.
#15 Another Take on Subsitutions
In addition to a super large, diverse menu being a huge red flag that you're getting frozen meals run through the microwave, watch for "no substitutions." If the place makes its own food, they can sub virtually anything for anything else. While they may try to play it up as "our food is perfect and we refuse to change it on moral grounds," its almost always a sign of "this was made two months ago and all we do is reheat it."
#16 Empty Venues
My two biggest red flags are anything with a really large menu and any big space that's empty during a rush period.
#17 What Kind of Crab?
If you ever order something with crab, always ask, “What kind of crab is it?” Even though it might sound like a snobby question, it will reveal whether it’s canned or not. My favorite answer when I went out one time was, “What are you talking about?” This clearly indicated it was not fresh.
#18 Dirty Draft Beer
I clean beer taps and the number of restaurants with visibly dirty beer taps is not small. I always say, if you want a draft beer wait until you’ve seen them pour someone else’s first. If they put the tap in the beer, get something in a bottle.
#19 Uncovered Food
If your meat or pasta has dry spots as if it was left out to dry for a good time, the kitchen is not properly covering or storing their prep correctly. For example, if they leave raw chicken out by mistake, it forms a skin looking almost like jerky. It would be chewy and an orangeish/yellow color. That spot won't go away because someone has cooked it. The same thing goes with pasta but the pasta is always pre-cooked, waiting for you. There is no reason for your sensitive products should be left uncovered for that long.
#20 Hot and Cold Food
Hot food should be hot and cold food should be cold. Also, look for food handlers and notice their hands. If they look like they are greasy and not using gloves, that’s a big red flag for me. I'm a chef.
#21 Listen to Mom
My mom was a chef for 30 years. This is what she told me: "You're better off sticking to restaurants you know are good if you can. Find a place you know is doing things right and give them your business. But if you need to find a new place—like if you just moved cities or something—order something you know pretty well. For me, that's always the soups. If it's something you know really well, then you'll know if it's good or not. And if they do that well, then the rest of the food should probably be alright too. But if something's wrong with your order, like it's too salty or undercooked or whatever, then there's something wrong with the restaurant."
She also said that while a low price isn't indicative of a terrible restaurant, be wary of places that price too high or low for the type of food they serve. A burger place shouldn't cost you more than $15 for a meal, and even that's being generous. And if your fine dining experience is running less than $10 a plate, something is wrong.
#22 Dirty Dining Room, Dirty Kitchen
If the dining room that you can see is dirty, the kitchen you can't see likely is as well. Specials are typically food they are trying to get rid of. Sometimes, this stuff has been in the freezer for months. Other times it might be on the borderline of expiring.
#23 Coffee Machine Steamers
If the restaurant has a coffee machine visible, take a look at the steamer. If it's covered in white, means they don't clean after frothing the milk. Most likely they don't run steam after heating up the milk, meaning that there is residual milk inside the nozzle of the steamer, which gets burnt and generates bacteria. Don't order coffee in there. Also, this is most likely because the cloth used to "clean" the steamer from time to time is disgusting and used for more than just wiping the milk out of it. A restaurant with a good philosophy about health and safety cleans the coffee machine every night.
#24 This is Gross
A friend of mine said that in his restaurant they usually reuse the vegetable garnishes from previous customers if they didn't eat them.
#25 Health Code Violations
My friend is a sous chef and has worked in small restaurants as well as some of the fanciest restaurants. She said that all restaurants break health codes at some point. All have an employee that doesn’t wash their hands or picked up your steak off the floor and served it to you. It’s not always the restaurant’s fault, good restaurants will fire the bad employees. So, if you don’t want to be exposed to health code violations, stay home.
#26 Non-Slip Shoes
My ex-husband was a chef. We always left if he saw workers not wearing non-slip shoes. He says that’s super important and if they don’t care about that, he doesn’t even want to know what that kitchen looks like.
#27 Don't Be the Last Table
Don’t be the first table and don’t be the last table! In fact, never be the last table. We’ve all been here for hours in a hot, smokey kitchen without breaks and you’d like entrees and mains five minutes before closing? Dude, your meal isn’t getting looked after, it’s getting done as quickly as possible. If you’re interested in the special, have it Monday. If you want a burger, go to a burger bar. If you want tapas go somewhere Spanish. Don’t turn up at an Italian place and ask for french dressing.
#28 Health Inspection Scores
If you can’t see their health inspection score posted out in the open, it’s probably not very good. I’m not sure how it is for other states, but all you have to do is search on Google and you can view most restaurants’ scores online for free.
#29 Ask to See the Bathroom
My dad would always walk in and ask to see the menu and then ask to use the bathroom before deciding on whether or not we would actually eat there. Going to the bathroom often means walking near the kitchen, which gives you a bit of a window into the cleanliness. The bathrooms themselves can also tell you a lot about the overall standards of the place. I think he turned down at least two out of three places on average.
#30 High Turnover
High turnover usually means poor management and that means unhappy employees. Unhappy employees means that they don't give a hoot about you or your food.
#31 The Two-Minute Rule
If your food comes to you really quickly, it most likely means it's pre-made and not fresh. If you can order a bacon and egg breakfast and be eating in under two minutes, its premade (this has happened to me before).
#32 Blowing Noses
I once saw a cook eating in the food court outside his restaurant. He picked up the hem of his apron and blew his nose on it. I would say that was a red flag.
#33 Do It Yesterday
Dirty chef coats and aprons do not mean a messy cook or chef. It's a sign of a hard-working chef. I look messy after a shift but I also know I'm clean enough where you could eat off my cutting board. Also, almost all restaurants are going to have bugs to a small degree. It's what they are doing about it that is the issue. And while I don't agree that a dirty front of house automatically means it's dirty in the kitchen, it doesn't look good in terms of morale and energy and staffing. And it's just disgusting. Clean it up if you have bug issues, and do it yesterday.
#34 Dirty Menus
Dirty menus. If you can't keep them clean, nothing else is going to be clean.
#35 Avoid Non-Homemade
If you order a burger or sandwich with beef and they don’t ask how you’d like it cooked, it probably means it’s pre-heated. As for desserts, if some say “homemade” and some don’t, avoid the non-homemade. It’s probably been in the freezer for a week. If the staff doesn’t know the menu well, it’s because they don’t eat the food, which can be a bad sign.
#36 A Warning
Not necessarily a red flag, but a warning: A clean dining hall doesn't necessarily mean a clean kitchen.
#37 Young Wait Staff
I was a chef. I'd say the age of the staff can be a red flag. It's not 100 percent reliable as some people are young and clean, and old and dirty and management can play a huge part. But for the most part, younger people (maybe 16 to 18) don't understand safety. Also if you can see the kitchen: Do you see food on the counter that no one is working with and isn't on ice or in an insert on the cold top? Has it been there and hasn't been attended to for the 20 minutes you've been waiting for your drink and ordering your food? That food could have been there for an hour before you even got there.
#38 Specific Fish
Avoid ordering fish that a server is pushing when that specific fish itself isn't one of the specials. That's because there's a good chance that the fish is about to expire and they're trying to use it.
#39 Dimly Lit Restaurants
This doesn't work 100 percent of the time, but my roommate, who is a chef, said it's not worth the risk to dine at places that are very dimly lit. He said some restaurants do this to cover up the lack of cleanliness.
#40 Follow These Rules
They can't do your steak rare; the toilets are gross; they use reusable wooden chopsticks rather than metal or disposable; they're situated in a tourist-heavy area.
#41 Microwaved Food
If the plate is hot and the food looks like it has a film texture to it (especially if there is a sauce on it)..it has been microwaved.
#42 Big Menus
My best friend is a chef and he says avoid restaurants with a large menu. Chances are, a lot of things on a menu means that they are frozen. Also, it's difficult to train people to be good at making 40 different dishes, so the quality is going to suffer. Some places, like Chinese or Indian restaurants, that are different combinations of about 30 fresh ingredients are an exception.
#43 No Need to Flex
I always look for lengthy descriptions with lots of adjectives on the menu. Here's an example of a steak off Applebee's menu: "Lightly seasoned USDA Select top sirloin* cooked to perfection and served hot off the grill. Served with steamed broccoli, garlic mashed potatoes, crispy onions and a Signature breadstick. Choose from one of three mouth-watering pastas (Smoky Mozzarella Ravioli, Fettucine Alfredo or Stuffed Rigatoni)"
Versus Capital Grill's steak: "DRY AGED NY STRIP - 14 OZ. Our highly flavorful, hand-cut New York strip."
All the modifiers, descriptions, and frivolous words on the first one are trying to make up for the fact that it's lower quality. Capital Grill knows what they got and they don't need to flex.
#44 Don't Go in the Last Hour
If it's within an hour of the establishment closing, don't order anything that requires the use of the kitchen.
#45 Kitchen Nightmares
If you can smell the fryer from outside the building, get back in your car and drive on. If they don’t maintain the fryer oil, they dont deep clean at all. Another nifty tip: If you have to go to the bathroom soon after you eat, you have low level food poisoning. Now think of the last place you ate that didn’t happen. That’s a good restaurant.Sadly, they are truly few and far between. That’s how Gordon Ramsey made so many episodes of kitchen nightmares.