I don’t really go out to eat all that much anymore. I grab a sandwich for lunch pretty frequently, but I would say that Betsy and I only venture out to dinner once, maybe twice, a month.

Of course, I have Macheesmo to blame/thank for this. I’ve been cooking up a storm lately and it’s kind of rare that I have a night without a meal planned. That said, I actually really enjoy going out to eat (who doesn’t?) if not just to try some new food and get inspiration from professionals.

Unfortunately, I’m sometimes horribly disappointed. I have a pretty high standard when it comes to what I consider good food in restaurants. If I’m paying for it (and in DC that usually means I’m paying a lot for it), I expect it to be fantastic in quality.

That said, I almost never send my food back if I’m unhappy with it. While I expect good food, I don’t actually have high standards when it comes to whether or not I will eat it. It just means I probably will cross that place off my list. My two exceptions to this rule are steaks and eggs. If I order either of those two things cooked to a specific temperature and it isn’t correct on my plate, the kitchen is going to have to try again. Sorry boys.

It gets worse. After years of working in restaurants as a server and bartender, I can usually tell right away if my meal is going to be good or bad – excellent or forgettable – before I even take a bite. And so I present to you:


1) Iceless water. If you’re brought a glass of water without ice in it chances are that A) the water has been sitting in a prep area for a few hours, B) the house doesn’t care enough to provide you with cool water or C) their ice machine is broken. None of these are good signs for what’s to come.

2) A mess of a bar. If you are sitting at the bar, which I like to do a lot when eating out, take a quick peak over the bar to see what’s going on under there. It’s been my experience that if the place let’s the bartender keep his area filthy, they probably allow the kitchen to do the same.

3) Kitchen Bickering. Working in a restaurant is an incredibly stressful job. That said, if you can hear the people in the kitchen shouting and fighting then that means things are not going well. Be prepared to suffer the consequences.

4) No daily specials. This doesn’t apply if you are at a place where the menu changes regularly, but if not then take it as a likely sign that whoever is in charge of the kitchen has lost whatever spark they maybe once had for preparing awesome food.

5) Dead Flowers. I’ve been in a few restaurants that have dead flowers littering the tables. The thing about this is that they might take a lot of work to replace but they take almost zero work to remove. And no flowers is better than dead flowers. Somebody is droppin’ the ball.

6) The Kitchen Sink Menu. Does your menu look like an encyclopedia? That’s probably because the kitchen really can’t cook anything well so they figured they might as well try it all. Anything over a few pages is asking for trouble.

7) 86ed. That’s the restaurant term for something that is out of stock. If you have to get to your third or fourth option before you find something they have on the menu then that’s a clue that management and kitchen aren’t working together. Your meal probably isn’t their primary issue.

The exception to this is if you happen to be eating on a Sunday afternoon after a long, busy weekend. On a Friday at 7PM though, a kitchen that cares about its food will have 95% of the menu.

8) 5 Minute Service. Anything you get five minutes after you ordered it was probably mostly cooked before you even got in the door.

I’m not going to put the reverse of this on the list because there are a lot of occasions that I can think of that I’ve had to wait for food, but it has been worth the wait. Rarely am I in love with anything that is rushed out of the kitchen maybe with the exception of soups and salads.

9) Your drink sucks. Good restaurants hire good bartenders. Maybe give the guy one more shot if he is in the weeds or looks new. After that it is probably a lost cause. It’s a sign that the restaurant’s hiring procedures might be lacking. It’ll probably translate to bad cooking also.

10) No expediter! Most good kitchens will have a guy called an expediter that isn’t actually cooking anything but in charge of managing each ticket and making sure the food is ready at the same time and goes out together. The expediter also acts as quality control. You’ll know when you are at a place without one because you’ll probably receive all your dishes 5 minutes apart and they will mostly suck.

Ok. Now I’m being a bit dramatic. Honestly, running a restaurant is one of the hardest businesses to pull off in my opinion. I wouldn’t storm out of a place or anything if I notice one or two of these items when I sit down to eat. But mark my words… the more of these items that you notice, the higher the chances that the meal you are about to eat, and pay for, is going to completely suck.

Got any other signs to add to the list??

Photo by Jaako.