But those of us who do choose to dine out – and who look forward to going back to restaurants when this is over! – can make the best choice by knowing what to look for in terms of whether a restaurant is both safe and special.
Whether you’re traveling in another city or out and about in your own neighborhood, if you’re looking for a good meal, you probably want to avoid these 50 red flags. They’re usually a sign that the restaurant might be worth skipping.
And if you do have few choices and find yourself dining out in a place you don’t feel so comfortable, we have a few tips for keeping yourself safe (and out of the bathroom for the rest of the night).
1. The staff isn’t taking health precautions seriously
If any of the staff is maskless or constantly adjusting their masks, you don’t want to risk it.
And if anything seems dirty, your best bet is to turn around and try somewhere else.
If the things you can see are sketchy when it comes to cleanliness and following the rules, just imagine the things you can’t see.
2. The menus or parts of the table setting are dirty
One dirty fork might sneak through occasionally, but even then we’d be on guard.
And if it’s a fine dining establishment, you can expect that the table setting will be checked before you’re seated.
If you walk in and things don’t look right or the staff balks at getting you a clean wine glass, there are ways to gracefully excuse yourself.
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3. No one greets you at the door
If it’s a “seat yourself” kind of place, then it’s different. But someone should say hello and acknowledge your existence within the first minute, at most.
Employees who just don’t care are a sign of bad management – and it probably extends beyond the front door.
4. Vacant tables remain uncleared
Courses should be removed as they’re finished and unless someone was in a real hurry, most of the table should be clear by the time they get the bill.
Letting dirty dishes linger is a sign of a poorly-trained staff or a restaurant so busy that you’re probably going to have a less-than-ideal experience.
If you want out, you can always feign an emergency text and apologize while you move on to the next option.
5. The staff is miserable, unfriendly, or distracted
Sure, bartenders get overwhelmed and kitchen staff can be divas, but all of these things should be worked out far away from customers’ eyes and ears.
6. A manager chastizes staff in front of customers
If a person can’t manage their staff in a friendly and respectful way, they may be like that with suppliers as well. And that means they’re never getting the best of anything.
Even if your waiter or waitress did something very wrong, they should simply be replaced by someone else for the time being and you should get an apology from a manager. You shouldn’t see the fallout.
7. You have to keep waiting on drinks
A functioning restaurant maintains a good relationship between bar staff and wait staff so that customers don’t end up getting their glass of wine at the end of a meal, for example.
There may be lots of conflicting personalities involved, but that should be worked out in a way the customer doesn’t have to deal with.
8. You have to flag down your server more than once
However, if you have to try to get your server’s attention more than once for something like a refill or cutlery request – or simply because they don’t check in on you and you have a question or issue with your meal – then they’re not well trained and this is usually a sign of a lack of care in other areas as well.
If you’re in a busy diner and paying under $20 for a meal, then you have less to complain about.
Once you’re in white tablecloth territory, there’s an expectation (and the prices to match) that you’ll at least get the attention you need to have a pleasant meal.
Of course, if someone says they’re new, you should cut them some slack as long as it doesn’t ruin your meal.
9. All of your food comes out at the same time
And you shouldn’t have to ask or try to space out your ordering just to make sure the pace of your meal is correct – and that goes for any kind of restaurant.
A good waiter keeps an eye on their tables and knows when to put in the next order. Or at least they’ll ask how quickly you’d like your food to come out.
If you receive an entree with your appetizer, you’re well within your rights to say “I’m not ready for that.” And that should become a free meal for the kitchen.
Because when your entree does come out at the right time, it shouldn’t have been sitting on a warmer for 20 minutes.
10. The bathroom is dirty
But when you see soap pooled on the sink, an overflowing garbage can, or just a dirty bathroom in any way, that’s a bad sign for the hygiene of the entire restaurant.
You shouldn’t feel dirtier when you come out of the bathroom than you did when you went in.
11. There are errors on your bill
This is a problem especially if you’re dining in a large group and simply can’t keep track of everything that came out and whether or not the price on the bill matches the one on the menu.
You don’t need to study it for 30 minutes, but do glance at the bill and make sure that you received everything on there.
And sometimes you’ll get the pleasant surprise of a comped item. It’s most ethical to point this out when a waiter doesn’t mention that something was “on the house” though.
Even if they do comp you, you should always tip based on the amount you should have been charged without special favor.
12. You’re getting the bum’s rush
If you’re told at the door that there’s a 90-minute limit on your dining, you have to understand that it’s just a fact of life right now – and a way to ensure people’s safety – during the COVID-19 crisis. And you will probably be asked to leave with your food packed up if there’s someone waiting. (Sure, it can be startling, but things are pretty strict right now.)
But if you feel rushed with no warning, that’s a problem. You might even ask if you need to hurry as a way to point out to your waiter how they’re making you feel.
13. Staff is touching the rim of your glass
Waitstaff as asked to wash their hands frequently, but that’s simply no guarantee that the plate they just cleared didn’t have germs on it that are now dangerously close to where you’re about to put your mouth.
Feel free to mention it and send back your drink if you waiter sets your glass down with their fingers around the rim. But do it nicely.
Also, it might sound snobby, but a wine glass should never be held by the globe, only by the stem.
14. Things to avoid: lemon or lime in your water
But that doesn’t mean they don’t stick leftovers in the fridge overnight and try to use them up the next day.
Not only are lemons and limes often dried out and unappetizing, but they’re often filthy since – even if a bartender is wearing gloves – hands go in that receptacle all day long. There’s bound to be some germ transfer.
15. Something stinks
No restaurant should smell like the garbage needs to be taken out.
If you walk into a restaurant and are greeted by an unappetizing smell, walk right back out.
Smell is an important part of how we experience our meals, so even if it’s just someone’s cologne that’s overwhelming, you’re better off eating somewhere else.
16. Things to avoid: ice
But ask for an ice-less drink when you can since ice makers and containers are breeding grounds for bacteria.
And if you see a bartender use the drink ice to stash a bottle for chilling, just order the wine.
17. The waitstaff answers questions with “I don’t know”
It’s ok if a waiter doesn’t know the answer off the top of their heads, but they should be willing and eager to find out for you ASAP.
And beware the restaurant that won’t tell you when the last order of seafood came in or whether something has been frozen first.
18. The outside of the restaurant is a mess
Now, in a city, you can’t always judge a restaurant by its parking lot (though lots of people insist you can) or the sidewalks on either side.
But you can judge it by its own sign, windows, the cleanliness of the area in front of its door, and even its flower pots.
Cigarette butts littering the sidewalk and plastic flowers in the window boxes mean you’re not walking into a fine establishment (of course, there are plenty of good dive bars out there that don’t have curb appeal but do have great food!). Just make sure the image matches the prices on the menu.
19. The menu is huge and the restaurant does specialize in anything
But if you’re paying for a good meal, you’d best beware the 10-page menu with multiple sections.
There’s no way a restaurant can keep the amount of food fresh, so much of it is bound to be frozen or canned – or just not fresh at all.
20. The seating is inconvenient or uncomfortable
Sure, the overhead costs of a restaurant are high and the furniture chosen may not be what it is at the restaurant at the Four Seasons (the hotel, not the landscaping company), but if you’re going to have a nice meal you need to be comfortable.
Of course, small bistros may have small furniture and comfort is subjective, but skip the restaurants where you want to finish eating quickly just because you can’t sit comfortably.
21. The specials aren’t seasonal
In that case, order the special!
But if the special is comprised of mainstay ingredients, the restaurant may just be trying to get rid of food items about to go bad.
Try it if you want, but in that case, you get what you pay for.
22. Reservations are not honored
Standing by for a minute or two because the place is slammed is one thing, but reservations should be well-thought-out and honored on time.
If you requested a special table and someone is taking forever, there’s often not much to be done, but in that case, you should at least be offered a different table with a complimentary cocktail – or something similar – for the trouble.
23. They beg you to leave reviews or give you incentives for doing so
If a restaurant mentions that they’d love a review after they know you’ve had a great meal, that’s fair.
But if they hand you a card with a 10% off coupon for your review on your way out the door, beware.
By all means, take a look at the reviews and check multiple sites if you’re planning a special occasion or about to spend big bucks on a meal. Just try to read between the lines.
24. The place is in a state of disrepair
Yes, there are little hole-in-the-wall places with amazing food.
But typically if you’re trying out a new place and want to get a sense of how much the owner cares about their restaurant, you can see it in the age of the paint, the condition of the light fixtures and furniture, and the cleanliness of carpets and dishes.
25. The plating is a mess
There are typically standards for plating food in a restaurant and if things get jumbled they go back to the kitchen. After all, food is also a visual experience.
If your food looks unappetizing, then you’re probably in a place that doesn’t care about your dining experience.
26. There’s little description of the menu items
If the menu includes a lot of seasonal items, a waiter should immediately tell you that they’ll go through the menu with you.
But you shouldn’t have to ask too many questions about what comes with an entree.
27. The condiments on the table look less than their best
If you wanted a half-filled, 10-month-old bottle of ketchup you could just stay home and use your own.
28. Most of the menu items come “smothered” in something
Not only will it hide any imperfections, but the sauce will also overwhelm any bad tastes.
And the truth is you need to know when your food isn’t fresh because it could make you sick.
29. The waitstaff can’t tell you about the food because they’ve never tried it
If you see a Chipotle bag getting delivered back to the kitchen, that may be a sign that the staff won’t eat the food even if it’s free. And that should tell you something about the quality.
30. Big picture menus in the windows
If you’re in a big city and a restaurant’s menu has lots of photos and is printed in more than 2 languages, that usually means overpriced tourist food.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean the food is bad. But if you have the option, you might opt for someplace a little more refined.
Tourist restaurants don’t care about repeat customers, so they don’t have to be consistently good.
31. The wait staff is all teenagers
But shelling out over $100 on a dinner for two at a restaurant where everyone is learning the ropes of their first job might lead to a less-than-satisfactory experience.
No offense, teens, but we’ve been there and we know how little we cared about catering to others at that age.
32. You can’t look anywhere without seeing a television
There’s no reason to avoid restaurants with televisions, but you need to know what you’re getting into – and it’s not a fine dining experience.
33. Salad bars and buffets abound
If we’ve learned anything from cruise ships and shared food it’s that communal eating is a germ-fest.
And if you’ve paid for a meal, chances are you want to keep it in your stomach.
34. The waiters look like they’ve been in a street fight
If someone comes in looking rumpled, they’re usually asked to change because they truly are the face of the restaurant.
And if they can’t be bothered to care about themselves, what makes you think they’re going to care about your dining experience?
35. You see food sitting on a tray or in the window for more than a minute
A restaurant should have enough staff helping out that at least someone can bring you your food as soon as it’s ready.
That’s when you should look to see if a manager is helping out or simply watching things burn.
36. The wine list has no detail
And while it may seem rude to break out your phone during a meal, if you plan to plunk down some serious cash on wine, you might look it up first.
Expect to pay at least twice the online price (and make sure it’s actually a wine that’s available to buy instead of a rare one that’s out of stock), but more than that and you probably want to read some reviews first or ask the sommelier some questions.
If a wine list doesn’t list vintages, always be sure to ask. And when they present the wine to you before opening it, read the label and be sure to year is correct!
37. The place is empty when it should be full
But that’s now always the case.
Are you in a city where things get hopping a little bit later? Is there a big event going on that lets out late? There could be reasons for a light crowd. Luckily, we all carry little computers in our pockets now that allow us to make a quick check of reviews just to make sure they’re not all 1-star.
38. The items have kitschy names
If you chose a theme restaurant, then sure, expect the unexpected.
But it’s pretty juvenile to give things silly names when the food should speak for itself.
39. There’s no online presence
A restaurant should be proud of their food and ambiance photos and have some way to get an idea of the menu before you make the trip.
40. The staff is different every time you dine there
You have to wonder how the staff is treated if they quit quickly. And high turnover means people are always being trained and still learning the ropes.
In that case, you may not get the best service.