A top-class restaurant experience can put you in a good mood for days. All it takes is delicious, quality food and drink, service with a smile and the feeling that it’s been worth every cent — whatever you paid.
But at the other end of the scale, a bad experience can ruin your day if not your week. To increase your chances of a meal you’ll remember for all the right reasons, here are some red flags to look out for, directly from industry insiders.
Red Flag: Staff Members Couldn’t Care Less
A restaurant red flag you definitely want to steer clear of is unfriendly or apathetic staff.
“This says a lot about the overall quality of the restaurant and the management,” said Beverly Friedmann, who has experience as a server in the restaurant industry in New York and is a content manager at My Food Subscriptions. Put it this way: if your server doesn’t care about their job, do you really think they care about your dining experience?
Red Flag: The Host Is Bored And Inattentive
The same goes for the host. As the initial point of contact for customers when they arrive at the restaurant, the front-of-house person provides that crucial first impression, setting the tone for the entire dining experience. The manner of the host also tends to be a reflection of the rest of the staff.
“If you walk into a restaurant and the host is bored and inattentive, assume your service will be poor,” warned Yankel Polak, the head chef at ButcherBox who spent 15 years working lines in restaurants before becoming a chef.
Red Flag: It’s Empty — But Everywhere Else Is Busy
Nobody wants to wait in line for hours to get a table. But sometimes it’s worth the wait if the only alternative is an empty restaurant. This is one of the biggest red flags, says blogger Chris Michaels, who worked in restaurants for several years and also ran a small food franchise.
“Most people want to eat now and will go to the place with the shortest line and wait,” he explained. “It’s a red flag if all the diners are overflowing in the surrounding restaurants while your restaurant consideration is dead. There’s usually an obvious reason, from terrible food to service to cleanliness. If the restaurant was decent, there would be more diners.”
Tip: Remember, You Have The Right To Complain
It’s not rude to complain about restaurant food if it’s not what you ordered, isn’t hot or doesn’t taste fresh. Even the best restaurants make mistakes sometimes.
“If you’re calm and collected when you complain, you’ll usually receive prompt attention,” said Friedmann. “If your meal can’t be replaced, it should be compensated.” If your issue is with the service itself, ask to speak to the manager and trust that they will deal with it in the correct way. That is part of their job, after all.
Tip: Don’t Wait To Complain
It’s important to complain without delay. In other words, don’t tell the server your burger or steak was overcooked when you’ve nearly finished it.
“It’s tacky and poor form to complain after you’ve eaten most of it,” said Michaels. “Do that, and you’re immediately perceived as someone who just wants a free meal.”
Red Flag: Your Complaint Isn’t Dealt With
If you complain about something in a restaurant and it’s not dealt with, it’s best to cut your losses and leave. And strike that place off your list for future visits, of course.
“If the server tries to talk you out of sending your dish back, it probably means they have a cook who can’t take criticism,” said London chef Andrew Masters. “An ego like that doesn’t benefit anyone.”
Red Flag: Don’t Go For The $5 Steak
Everyone loves a bargain. But beware dishes that are priced too low (in addition to those you think are overpiced!).
“A super-cheap steak is more likely to be tough or fatty, and will only be hung as a carcass long enough to cool (three days or so) before it is cut up,” explained Masters. At the same time, don’t assume a restaurant charging top-end prices will be the best place to eat in town.
“Sometimes, the so-called ‘best’ restaurants don’t get the basics right,” said Masters. “It’s not unusual to get a better omelet at a small-town diner than in a fancy hotel.”
Red Flag: It Has Carpet
Carpet may be quieter than a wood floor, and less likely to become a danger zone if something gets spilled, but for those in the know, it’s a major red flag — at least in terms of hygiene.
“Think of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of footsteps trailing all sorts of dirt and debris across that carpet every week,” said waitress Anita Becker. “Sure, it might get vacuumed a couple times a day. But that only does so much. In the restaurant I used to work in, the carpet wasn’t shampooed once in five years. It’s disgusting.”
Red Flag: The Menu Is Too Big
The next time you grumble that a restaurant doesn’t offer enough choice, consider the alternative: a menu with everything on it. It might sound great, but it increases the chance of a dish that’s below standard.
“A restaurant with a one-page menu has cooks who have taken the time to perfect every dish, meaning you’ll get something great on your plate every time,” said Masters. “On the other hand, a giant, multi-page menu tends to be a lottery.”
Red Flag: Your Water Isn’t Poured In Front Of You
You wouldn’t think much can go wrong with a glass of water — but’s all about how and where it’s poured. Again, it comes down to hygiene.
“If the pitcher of water touches your glass when it’s being poured, you can bet it’s touched everyone else’s glass, too,” said Becker. “And if you don’t see the server pour the water, you have no idea where it’s come from.”
Red Flag: It Smells Of Fish
A seafood restaurant should smell like fish, right? Well, not exactly.
“If you walk into a seafood restaurant that has a very strong odor of fish, this is a definite red flag,” said Friedmann. “It means that the food isn’t fresh — fresh seafood should not have a strong scent. And it’s important to be especially wary when it comes to fresh quality options at seafood establishments, as you can become quite ill by consuming food that has gone bad or is past its expiration date.”
Incidentally, the myth about not ordering fish on Monday because it’s old is just that, a myth.
“A place either serves fresh fish or they don’t,” said Polak. “If they are known for their fish, every day will be a fresh day. If they aren’t known for it, probably best not to order it, anyway.”
Red Flag: Something Is Misspelled On The Menu
A misspelled item on the menu isn’t necessarily something to draw to the manager’s attention, but it could be a red flag for that particular dish.
“Misspellings are often deliberate,” said Masters. “A common example is ‘krab cakes.’ It means they don’t have to sell you the real thing.” In other words, you don’t really know what you’re eating.
Red Flag: Your Server Doesn’t Rate The Food
If you want to suss out what’s best to order in a restaurant, watch your server’s response when you ask their opinion on a certain dish.
“If you ask, ‘How’s the lasagne?’ and their response seems insincere, it’s best to give the lasagne a swerve,” said Becker. “They know what happens in the kitchen, they know how often customers complain about each dish, and they know what items are likely to get sent back for freshness or temperature issues.”
Red Flag: It Smells Sterile
A great restaurant should smell of one thing only: good food.
“If it smells too clean — like a fragrance or something sterile — that could be a sign that the staff are trying to hide something nasty,” warned Becker. “Ideally, you want a general smell of food that’s not too overpowering or pungent. And a burning smell is never a good sign, for obvious reasons!”
Tip: Order Based On The Kitchen’s Strengths
As the customer, you have a big part to play in creating the very best dining experience.
“Work to the strengths of the kitchen,” advised Polak. “Pick the most popular items on a menu, or choose what the spot is known for. If it’s a grill-heavy menu, assume the grill cook is the most experienced and order off the grill. Do expect a perfectly cooked steak at a steakhouse, but don’t order steak at a diner. Order a grilled cheese at a diner instead.”
Red Flag: It’s Too Noisy
A bit of chatter is a restaurant is always good — it adds to the overall ambiance, and who wants to eat a meal in total silence? But if a restaurant is too loud, it can distract you from the pleasure of good food and make you want to get out of there as soon as possible. According to Consumer Reports surveys, excessive noise is the top complaint diners have, ahead of service, crowds or even food issues. If you don’t want a side of headache with your dish, find somewhere quieter.
Red Flag: All Staff Members Look Frazzled
If you notice that all staff members look frazzled when you enter a restaurant, it’s not necessarily an indication of a serious problem, but you might want to avoid it on that occasion.
“It might be that they had someone call off that shift and they’re scrambling to make up for it,” said Polak. “But whatever the reason, a staff that looks like they’re scrambling and dramatically trying to make things work isn’t good.”
Tip: Manage Your Expectations
If you manage your expectations, you can vastly improve your overall restaurant experience. For instance, don’t expect quick service at the peak of the dinner hour. Don’t expect clean bathrooms at a sports bar or clean draft lines in a dive bar.
“No restaurant does everything perfectly, and many do only one or two things very well,” said Polak. “The key to all of it, and to your having a positive experience, be it around cleanliness, service, freshness or food preparation, comes down to managing your expectations. Once you do that, it’s pretty hard to have a bad experience.”
Red Flag: Your Food Is Too Fast
Speedy service is great, but if you get your food very quickly at a restaurant, it can be a sign that you’re receiving food that isn’t fresh.
“Behind the scenes, you’re likely receiving food that’s been frozen and even microwaved (if you’ve ordered a hot meal). Fresh food takes time to prepare, so be wary of ‘fast food‘ in normal restaurant settings,” said Friedman.
Red Flag: The Dumpster Is Overfilled
If the restaurant dumpster is overfilled and looks like it’s never been emptied, it could simply mean it’s been a busy week, but it’s more likely that they’re trying to save money by using a dumpster that’s too small for their needs.
“If the area around a dumpster is filthy, that’s a big bright red flag for me that they’ve cut a corner somewhere in managing their waste,” added Polak. The restaurant may be cutting corners elsewhere.
Red Flag: You See Fruit Flies
Speaking of hygiene, fruit flies and great restaurant experiences don’t go together. While the risk is low, they can spread bacteria and disease — and besides that, they look gross.
Nowhere is immune to them (they’re attracted to trash bins, decaying meat, unclean drains and large spillages of sugary liquid, like soda and alcohol), but eating establishments with good hygiene practices deal with them promptly, and learn from the experience to ensure the unwelcome bugs stay away.
Tip: Don’t Judge An Unkempt Restaurant
Some people think a dilapidated restaurant is a no-go, but there are different levels of mess.
“I’ve been to total hole-in-the-wall looking places that served amazing food,” said Polak. “To really raise a red flag, those unkempt features need to be clues that a restauranteur isn’t maintaining code. Things like needing a new coat of paint don’t set me off, but if there’s a leaky ceiling or something, that’s gonna make me think twice.”
Tip: Avoid Dining At A Restaurant After A Holiday
Some restaurants close on holidays like Christmas, and the preparation for closure (including selling out of all perishable/fresh food items) starts a few days before. It may not be a massive red flag, but it’s still something to bear in mind, said chef Firoz Thanawalla.
“The Bolognese you may have ordered might have been frozen and defrosted for selling purposes,” he said. “The best option would be for you to carry food from home. Better to eat fresh home-cooked meals than having to eat frozen food.”
Red Flag: Waiters Who Don’t Know Where Your Food Was Sourced
If your waiter can’t tell you where the food comes from, that’s another red flag, says Masters.
“It’s part of ongoing staff training and a sign of good management for waiting staff to know provenance,” he explained. “At the very least, they should be able to tell you if the produce is local and/or organic. If they don’t know where your prawns came from, you probably don’t want them.”
Tip: Look Out For Deals
Special offers can lead you to restaurants you might not have discovered otherwise. You can get two meals for the price of one, free drinks or big discounts on your bill.
“Always be on the lookout for the deal of the day or simply a Groupon or coupon,” said Thanawalla. “Just don’t forget to take it with you or sign up for it to save time when it is time to pay for your meal.”
Red Flag: Online Reviews Are Bad
Nowadays, you don’t have to wait for a food critic to publish a restaurant review in your local paper to figure out if it’s worth a visit. You have all the feedback you need at your fingertips, thanks to online reviews. If the restaurant you’re thinking of going to gets consistently bad reviews and poor ratings on sites like Tripadvisor, Yelp, OpenTable and Zomato, you might want to go somewhere else.
It’s particularly concerning if reviewers criticize a certain aspect of the dining experience over and over again — that suggests the proprietors either aren’t paying attention to the feedback or don’t care enough to do anything about it.
Tip: Remember, Manners Go Both Ways
Rude, unfriendly waiting staff can make your dining experience miserable — regardless of how good the food is. Likewise, a customer with a bad attitude can ruin a server’s day. Manners go both ways.
“If you treat restaurant staff with respect, they’ll enjoy serving you — and will be more likely to go the extra mile to make your experience a great one,” said Jessica Wilde, who waits tables in a Florida steakhouse. “The ultimate no-no is correcting the staff. It comes across as pretentious and is sure to put them on edge.”
Tip: Raise Any Issues Directly Before Venting Online
It’s tempting to vent your frustrations about a bad restaurant experience on social media. It’s quick, easy and avoids direct confrontation. But it’s good manners to alert a member of staff at the restaurant to any aspect of your meal that has been below par — this gives them the chance to resolve the issue. Of course, if your complaint isn’t taken seriously, or you remain disappointed with your meal, then you have every right to share your experience online.
Red Flag: People Get Ill
If you get ill after eating a restaurant meal, always let a member of staff know. You might not be the only one, and they can take the necessary action to ensure nobody else gets sick. An isolated case of food poisoning or a food-related allergy isn’t a huge red flag, but if you know of more than a couple of instances of illness linked to one place, best give it a wide berth. Remember, it can take up to three days for certain food-borne viruses to rear their head, so make sure you know the facts before you point the finger.
Tip: Invest In Your Dining Experience
To get the real measure of a restaurant, try to get the full experience. This means spending the requisite amount of time (and money). In other words, don’t skip courses or beverages just to save. And if you don’t know something, just ask.
“Most waiting staff are very happy to help out with food or drink selections,” said Becker. “At the end of the day, we want you to leave the restaurant happy and satisfied.”