Getting a free night to go eat out at a restaurant can be a challenge. Aside from the expenses, there’s the question of who will take care of the kids, where to go and how to get there. As a result, it’s important to know how to spend your dollars—and what kind of restaurants and dishes to avoid on your special date nights. Like any other industry, there are plenty of inside secrets and other things to know to truly have the best night out possible. So with no further ado, here are 35 restaurant red flags.
1. Don’t eat at seafood places that smell fishy when you walk in.
Although some of us might be used to a “fishy” scent when walking into a seafood restaurant, it’s actually a pretty bad sign. As it turns out, you should really only smell a kind of “ocean” scent when you walk in these places—meaning salt and ocean breeze. If you don’t smell that, it probably means the fish is already on the verge of being bad!
2. Don’t eat steaks that are priced at $3-4 on special.
As in many other areas of life, anything that seems too good to be true probably is. Fitting in with that category are those incredibly cheap steak deals. As it turns out, any steak you get that only costs three or four dollars is likely very tough, low quality meat—or else it’s pretty old. Either way, you don’t want to eat it.
3. If a restaurant can’t tell you exactly where their oysters came from, don’t eat them.
Shellfish like oysters and clams are notorious for having the potential to give whoever eats them food poisoning if they’re not cleaned and maintained correctly. For that reason, it’s important that restaurants do their due diligence when procuring these foods and knowing how the supply chain works. If they can’t answer these simple questions, it’s not worth risking it—and actually, that probably goes for a lot of other kinds of fish as well!
4. Try to avoid restaurants that have particularly dirty carpets laid down.
We all like going to a cheap greasy spoon or diner every now and then, but there are still limits. In general, the overall cleanliness of a restaurant is a good indicator of how seriously the staff takes things. If you’re eating in a place where the carpets are absolutely filthy, it should be a warning sign about the food.
5. In restaurants you’re not familiar with, do your best to avoid the specials.
If you have a favorite restaurant and you want to try their new specials, go for it—after all, the kitchen staff needs a place to test out new ideas and new menu items. Still, in places that are hit-or-miss or not familiar to you, you might want to avoid them. They’re liable to not be as good as the tried and true items, or they might be made up of stuff the chefs are trying to get rid of.
6. Beware a restaurant with an enormous menu.
Don’t get us wrong here, it’s great to have enough food options when you sit down to eat somewhere. Still, what you don’t want is a menu with so many options on it that the majority of them are definitely not fresh. Just remember: once a menu gets so broad that it can’t all be made fresh, you’re probably going to be eating frozen food.
7. Before going out to eat, check out the health inspector reports for your local county.
When you’re eating somewhere new, it definitely pays to look up what kinds of scores they got on any recent and relevant health inspections. Though it’s not something we always think of if we make our reservations or dinner plans at the last minute, this one can save you a lot of grief in certain situations.
8. Don’t eat there if the food pictures on the menu seem like they’re not pictures of the actual food served there.
Although this one might seem like a no-brainer, you’d be surprised how many restaurants do this. If a place has different pictures than their actual food, it probably either shows a lack of attention to detail or that the restaurant is trying to make their dishes look better than they are. In either case, it’s definitely not good.
9. If the area around the restaurant is busy but the restaurant isn’t, you probably shouldn’t eat there.
If you’re eating at a new restaurant, it could just be a lack of advertising that’s keeping the place empty. Still, if you’re eating somewhere in a busy area that’s been open for a long time but is still empty, the crowd around the area just might know something about it that you don’t.
11. Do your best to eat at places where the staff seems to get along and have a smooth system going.
Aside from the problem of bad service, having a restaurant staff that all likes working with one another and has a good flow generally means that the place is running well. On the contrary, if you have a truly dysfunctional serving and kitchen staff, there’s a chance your food is going to come out subpar as well.
12. In most places that aren’t the nicest, try to avoid getting your drinks with ice in them.
We don’t want to speak ill of all affordable restaurants, but the truth of the matter is that the ice buckets in restaurants can run into a lot of hygiene problems. Though the ice and soda machines ought to be cleaned quite regularly, many kitchens seem to forget this very important task… leading to less-than-clean drinks.
13. Although having to wait for a table on a weekend can be irritating, it’s also a good sign.
Nobody likes the experience of having to stand around when you’re hungry because there are no open tables. Still, weekends are a very busy time for restaurants in general—and any time you’re eating at a place that has no line at all during those busy times can be another warning sign.
14. Watch to see if there are any servers hanging out post-shift eating the food themselves.
While this isn’t always possible if you’re just dropping in on a new place, it’s a good idea to see if any of the staff stick around after their shifts or if they bolt out of the store. That’s because if they staff are there after hours, they genuinely like the food and are willing to spend their tips on it. If they can’t wait to get out of there, that’s a bad sign.
15. Do your best to avoid buffets and salad bars.
If you’re looking for a super cheap meal, sometimes a buffet is the right way to go. Still, often these untested buffets provide only basic food options that have been left out all day and get endlessly refilled. Depending on when you get there, the food could be dried up or worse.
16. If your server recommends an item that isn’t the highest price thing on the menu, get it!
Though this one is a little bit unusual, the point is that servers often make recommendations based on whatever is the most expensive if they’re talking on behalf of the restaurant. If they’re talking on behalf of themselves, they’ll recommend whatever they actually like regardless of price—and if they do that, you know it’s probably pretty good.
17. As a general rule, skip on the lemons in your water.
The thing about restaurants is they often prepare their food and side items in bulk. Although there might be fresh lemons used in the actual cuisine, the lemons for drinks might be cut up and sitting in a side container somewhere separate. Because of that, they’re often old and a little bit unsanitary. It’s best to just avoid them altogether.
18. Beware a restaurant where the waiters don’t want to take your food back to the kitchen.
Even at the best restaurants, customers will sometimes ask for the food to be taken back to the kitchen. In most cases, these requests are handled by the waitstaff without any significant issues. If the waiters and waitresses are defending bad food or refusing to take it back, however, your best bet is to get out of there—this usually means they’re afraid to go face the cooks (which is definitely not a good sign).
19. Stay away from restaurants that have two (or more) distinct food styles on the menu if it’s not a fusion restaurant.
Although a lot of places seem to want to offer customers as much as they can get, it’s generally not a good idea to eat at a place that has, say, Mexican and Japanese food on the same menu. That’s because it generally means that the kitchen is spread too thin and neither cuisine will get executed correctly.
20. If a place keeps claiming that they’re under new management, you should probably steer clear.
In some cases, having new management is not a big deal. Still, if you know a restaurant that seems to have been “under new management” for the entirety of its time open, it’s probably just an excuse to hide the fact that the kitchen isn’t doing it’s job correctly.
21. Stay away from places that offer customers coupons for good Yelp reviews.
Although the existence of Yelp has really changed the relationship between diners and restaurants, it’s not always in a good way. Though Yelp can sometimes give you a heads up about restaurants, it’s not good when the restaurant staff is begging its customers for good reviews. If the food is good, it should speak for itself.
22. Don’t go into restaurants that seem to have a “street team.”
Generally speaking, restaurants who have people out on the street with sandwich board signs or other enticements are not doing all that well… and it may be because their food is not all that good. In general, restaurants that are good can speak for themselves and don’t need a bunch of hype men to get people in the door.
23. If the place is empty but you’re still waiting to be seated, you may want to cut your losses.
As with many of the other tips on this list, the main thing is to read between the lines. Although you might have to wait a while to be seated at a nice place if it’s really busy, there’s not really a good excuse for waiting forever when there are plenty of tables open.
24. If nobody greets you at the door, it’s not going to get much better from there.
Having a friendly greeter is pretty common practice for most professional restaurants you might care to go to. If that ingredient is missing, prepare yourself for the rest of the evening to be lacking as well.
25. If it’s really busy and the managers aren’t helping out, you might be in a bad restaurant.
We’re not saying that the managers should always be outside scooping up dishes and greeting customers… but it’s a little unusual to not see any managers at all milling around while you’re eating. On a good restaurant team, the managers will pick up whatever slack the servers can’t. If they’re not, that’s a red flag.
26. If the bathrooms are in bad shape, the rest of the place is likely to be in bad shape as well.
If there’s any lesson to take away from this list, it’s to look for patterns and to pay attention to the details. In line with that thinking, if you’re in the bathroom and things look messy or dirty, you can safely assume that the restaurant is cutting corners in other areas of their process as well.
27. If the parking lot is filthy of your cars are facing open dumpsters and what not, walk away.
Much like the other clues, this is another basic guideline that sets a pattern for the rest of what’s going on in the place. If the outside looks terrible and they don’t care about the cleanliness there, they probably also don’t care about the cleanliness of the inside.
28. If most of their promotion and positive reviews online are from influencers, be careful.
Although it’s not a bad idea to look online to see what people are saying about a certain restaurant, you have to be careful about who is saying what. If the Yelp reviews show mixed or negative reviews but a handful of famous influencers or critics are giving it rave reviews, it may all be hype.
29. Stay away from places that are populated exclusively with tourists.
This tip is more applicable when traveling, but the basic point remains anywhere you go: if all the people eating in a place are from out of town, they’re probably just doing it out of convenience. Most of the time, each city has plenty of their own unique and delicious restaurants—put in some time to figure out what those are instead of eating at the tourist traps.
30. Avoid eating at fast-casual places where the person handling money is the same person making your food.
Last but not least, if you’re eating at a less fancy place, just make sure that they have two different people cooking and dealing with the customers. This is for health reasons—the people making your food should be using gloves, whereas the people handling money probably aren’t (and there are tons of germs on money, obviously). If you see this isn’t happening, stay away.
As you can see, there’s a lot more that goes into picking a good restaurant to eat at than it may initially seem. Though everyone loves a nice night out on the town, nobody wants to get food poisoning or waste their money on a subpar experience. Fortunately, if you follow these basic guidelines, you should be good to go. Happy eating!
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