In one case, a (now deleted) account asked “Chefs, what red flags should people look out for when they go out to eat?” wanting to know what should make someone leave a restaurant if they see, hear, smell, taste, or otherwise sense it in their gut.
Some amateur restaurant-goers chimed in, while others simply quoted Anthony Bourdain’s classic Kitchen Confidential, but it was largely restaurant workers who had the most interesting answers. You might not agree with them all, but here’s what gave us food for thought:
1. Something smells fishy
“The first thing they told us in culinary school when you’re learning the basic rules for food safety standards is if you enter a seafood restaurant and smell fish, leave.”
2. Salty chefs
“If employees try to argue with you about food quality in order to dissuade you from sending something undercooked back, just leave. It means they have a cook who can’t take criticism and your chances at getting a sneezer are greatly increased.”
3. Too many choices
“If a restaurant has a HUGE menu… It’s all frozen.”
4. Absorbent surfaces
“Not a chef but worked in food a lot.
Carpet. Yeah 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 when they remodeled (and put in more carpet). Vacuuming only goes so far in a restaurant and I know they never, ever shampooed it.”
5. Cranky waitstaff
“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.”
6. Disingenuous reccommendations
“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.”
7. No wait
“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.”
8. The smell of grease
“This is late but 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.”
9. Cutesy dish names
“In Culinary school currently and every single Chef Instructor says the same thing, if its misspelled on the menu it’s on purpose and it’s so they don’t have to sell you the real thing a prime example is “Krab Cakes.'”
10. Crusty cutlery
“I’ve done bartending/waitressing for a few years, here’s my list:
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.”
11. No proof of passing code
“One thing I haven’t seen mentioned yet: the amount of ServSafe certificates posted on their wall.
ServSafe is a national food safety training course that all managers have to take and pass to become managers. It is required in all food service establishments and for every ServSafe-certified employee, there should be a certificate visible to customers(similarly to health inspection).
So basically, the more certificates you see, the more employees that work there who truly understand food safety. It’s an incredibly tough test and you have to actually understand the material in order to pass.”
12. Mishmash dishes
“Never order the bouillabaisse/cioppino/seafood stew if it’s being run as a special. That means the chef has a lot of old seafood to get rid of and is putting it all in a flavorful broth to hide the taste.”
13. Germ-spreading behavior
“Server here: look at how the front of house is operating. If a pitcher of water touches your glass, it has also touched everyone else’s glass. Also, if you can’t see them pour your water, there’s something wrong.”
14. All buffets
“Don’t eat at buffets.
Yeah, it’s cheap, and often a “good deal”. That “all you can eat” thing sure sounds appealing.
No matter how well managed a buffet is, it can never be sanitary. It is not reasonably possible to run a sanitary buffet business.
This is true of salad bars, hot bars, dessert bars, or whatever other kind of bulk food in a trough they are serving you.
You are relying on the sanitation habits of the general public. Not even underpaid employees who wear plastic gloves, had to watch a video about food safety once, and get told to wash their hands by an assistant manager every few days or so.”
15. Good grooming
16. “Fresh” food’s nearest location
17. Sadly, you might not see the signs
“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.”
18. Damp plates at buffets
19. A filthy bathroom
“If the bathroom is trashed then they probably don’t clean the kitchen as often as they’re supposed to too.”
20. Burnt-out bulbs
“Worked in the restaurant industry for 20 years, front and back of the house. A subtle red flag is burned-out or missing light bulbs. It’s a sign that they don’t care as much about the appearance of the restaurant and it’s harder to clean in dark areas. Even places with soft or mood lighting, once the place closes at night it should be like daylight indoors.”
21. More insight on large menus
“Too many items on a menu is always a red flag to me.
First, it signals that the kitchen staff is being spread thin. Repetition is the foundation of quality. If you are making the same 10 – 20 items every day, that will constantly allow you to reinforce your good choices and amend any mistakes, as they will be fresh in your mind.
Second: freshness of ingredients. Everything goes bad eventually. More ingredients means more to keep track of and store. Additionally, individual ingredients are not being used as fast and are more likely to perish.
Finally, it is a sign of just poor management in general. A restaurateur who cannot decide on what they want their to be is gonna be wasteful, slapdash, and almost certainly just tacky. Bruce Lee said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who had practiced one kick 10,000 times.” Same sentiment applies to making food for people.”
22. Chefs in hygiene gear in the bathroom
“When a chef goes to the bathroom in skull cap and apron I don’t eat at the restaurant. Implys a lack of hygiene. Was one of the first things I was taught as a junior chef, hygiene hygiene hygiene.”
23. Messy kitchen stations
“If they have a open kitchen area always walk by and look if it’s clean, don’t mind the stuff on the floor but look at the workbenches if they are dirty, red flag.”
24. Same ingredient specials
25. Lack of knowledge about allergies
“Not a chef but something I generally follow: When the server is not sure about allergy information. No offense to anyone but there is a chance he’ll just make something up instead of actually going through the process of making sure.”
26. Mystery ingredients
27. Random items on a speciality menu
“Menu items that fall outside the restaurant’s main theme or area of expertise i.e. burgers at a seafood place, hot subs at a Mexican place, etc.”
28. No customers
29. A deal too good to be true
30. The place closest to a big event
“I worked at a restaurant for three years. If you go to a concert, don’t eat at the closest food place. Seriously imagine having to do quadruple work for a single shift. Thaw and prep every piece of food in the house serve tickets at max speed for 14 hours straight, with no breaks more than 4 minutes. The hour wait line never goes away, people are pissed before they are even seated. Nobody can help anyone else because everyone is overwhelmed just trying to maintain.”
31. Their grades
“There is a restaurant health grade system in place displayed to the public. It organized through letters A being the highest and being lowest. If there is a c or lower, it is probably not a good idea to go.”
32. Smelling a bit too clean
33. Staff that’s rude to the busboys
“See how your wait staff member treats the busboy, if she treats them like sh*t, then likely everyone in the restaurant hates the waiter. You probably will either get a rude waiter, one that checks on you once and then is easily distracted, or one that the cooks are so fed up with that they delay their tickets out of spite.
Former bus boy now a cook, had this situation with a waitress.”
34. Generic food photos in menus
35. Then again, maybe just give a place a chance
“You won’t know until and unless you try. Restaurants are mysterious go explore uncover and spread the love to your friends about it. I usually prefer to ask my friends before exploring restaurants in a new place. It might save your money and taste buds.”