Should We Eat There? An Insider’s Guide to Spotting Shoddy Restaurants

If you’ve never felt the debilitating pain and humiliation of a bout with food poisoning, do yourself a favor and keep that track record sparkling by using this guide to recognizing the signs of quality, or disaster, in restaurants.

I worked in the restaurant industry for three years. Definitely not a lifer. Sometimes when I tell people I worked in the restaurant industry, they reply, “Oh, me too! I was a waiter for sixteen years!” I might not have had two decades of restaurant experience, but I had enough material to write a book and so that’s what I did.

I’ve seen it all … well, one exception: I never got to see two people goin’ at it in the walk-in fridge over your soon to be fajitas. But I have seen cocaine snorted off the bed of a pick up truck before a dinner rush, kitchen-knife fights (you could say I started it and you’d be wrong, kinda), waiters shaking off an all night meth binge, and drunken managers with fresh off the operating table breast implants.

So, what is the takeaway from the three years I spent in the restaurant industry? The prolific drug use? The disdainful way managers treat their employees? Struggles of immigrants? They’re all important, but there is one that affects us all.

Is it safe to eat there?

Picture this. You’re at home on a Friday night and your girlfriend says she wants to go out. You’re like, dammit, not while I’m playing my Xbox. But she yanks the controller out of your hands. You’re all like, What about sushi? And she’s all like, No. You toss ideas back and forth, disagreeing, of course, on everything. She wants Thai. You don’t. Finally, you both choose Italian.

The only Italian restaurant in town without a twenty-minute wait is eerily quiet. On a Friday. At dinnertime. This is when your alarm should go off. But it doesn’t. You should just hit up the nearest Chipotle. But damn if you don’t now have a craving for Carpaccio with grilled asparagus and veal tenderloin with golden polenta and osso buco vinaigrette. …what? So I choose Del Posto over the Olive Garden.

You take your seat and the first thing you notice, besides the lack of patronage, is that the details of the place are unclean. The carpets need vacuuming, the linen on the tables are stained, and the leather seats resemble your uncle’s 1950s Pontiac—cracks full of breadcrumbs and … is that a dime? Even the roaches are like, dude, this place is gross. You’ve got two choices: One, brave your meal and hope you make it out alive. Two, mumble a poor excuse to the confused Italian waiter. Wait, you want money for food?

But what if the restaurant is jam-packed? And the dining room is clean? It doesn’t mean the kitchen is. So is it cool to hunker down and eat? Here are some things to consider…

Clean Team

Are the waiters clean? If they don’t care about their appearance and their managers aren’t cracking down, chances are the managers are overlooking the kitchen too. Is the staff proactive? Do they clear tables quickly or leave filthy plates until a busboy snags them? Are their towels filthy and stained? If so, why haven’t they replaced them with clean ones? If there aren’t clean towels for the waiters, wouldn’t you wonder how the kitchen gets cleaned?

Keeping up with Appearances

Aesthetics mean a lot, but they don’t mean everything. And while perception is reality some of the time, don’t let it fool you all of the time.

Does the restaurant have nice glass and stemware? Is the silverware polished? Can you see your reflection in the spoon? Can you hang the spoon on your nose? Good. Now, dance like a monkey!

What about the napkins? Are they quality or is the stitching coming undone at the seams? Little things can tell you a lot. Is the place beautifully decorated? Can you tell they’ve spared no expense? Is the menu leather bound or laminated and covered in day old salsa? If the owners take pride in the decor and their staffs’ appearance, chances are they care about the cleanliness of their kitchen.

Of course there’s always the fear that they’re just superficial and only care about the appearance of cleanliness.

But here’s a contradictory thought to confuse you: Sometimes, a restaurant isn’t about the glitz and glamour. They’re not trying to wow you with decor and fine linens. They’re in the business of food. Sometimes the best restaurant is the one with the plastic tables and the old guy behind the range workin’ the line alone.

Ball and Chain

You’d assume that the Big Box Restaurant Corporation has the strictest of sanitary policies. And they might. But I’d wager most of them aren’t enforced on a daily basis because, well, who cares? Say you’re the manager of the Big Box Restaurant Corporation. Is this what you dreamt of doing as a child? In my experience, no. Are you really going to waste your time making sure kitchen policies are enforced? (Sure, there are good managers at big box restaurants out there. I just haven’t worked for them.)

Same can be said for the kitchen staff. Chances are, they’re in the same position as the manager. It wasn’t their lifelong dream to become a line cook for the Big Box Restaurant Corporation. Enforcing cleanliness policies mean nothing to them. Typically, they’re not there because they’re passionate about food or determined to create the most quality dishes imaginable. They’re there to reheat and toss stuff on a plate. Mostly, though, they’re there because the job pays money and, as it happens, they require money to live.

Additionally, these Big Box restaurants do not use the freshest or highest quality ingredients. See the recent salmonella egg scare. Those eggs came from a jumbo farm. And jumbo farms are usually where your neighborhood Big Box Restaurant obtains their cheapest ingredients.

You shouldn’t have to be told the ingredients you’re eating are fresh—that should be a given. So when the waiters emphasize the words fresh over and over and you see that word next to things like salmon and other less popular vegetable dishes at Big Box Restaurants, chances are they’re frozen, packed in cardboard boxes and shipped across the country. Or globe— depending on where it’s cheapest.

Location, Location, Location

What about location? If it’s on a block with dozens of packed restaurants and clubs, the back of house is probably packed with all sorts of four legged guests who didn’t make reservations. If the front door is propped open—or the windows are opened—they’re basically throwing out an invite for roaches to march right through the dining room.

Final Thoughts…

Avoid chain restaurants, filthy dining rooms, and places that should be busy on Friday nights but aren’t. Stick with places that get positive reviews, tons of good feedback, and have stellar reputations. If a chef or owner is well known, the last thing they want is a health code violation.

But sometimes, you must be willing to brave the elements. Is it a good idea to eat at the strip club where a bunch of horny and sweaty line cooks are just feet away from smokin’ hot naked girls because, dude, the burgers are so good! Probably not. Is every restaurant going to sparkle and shine? No. But occasionally you’ll find a place that might be worth overlooking the roach motel only because the food is just so damn good. Call me a hypocrite, but sometimes good food is worth taking that chance.

And stop arguing with your girl. If she wants Thai, get Thai. It’s delicious.

Kenneth Suna is a writer and full time, self-employed stock trader who lives in Washington, D.C. His first novel, Roman, was recently published. Follow him @KennethSuna.

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  • http://passersbyillustrated.blogspot.com Steven

    I am super adventurous with dining. I love going into the dirty places because that food tends to taste so good. I think the status quo taste buds are too boring. There’s one Chinese place here I love and when I first started going there the walls were dirty, and I’d never use their bathroom. They’ve cleaned up a bit since then, but whatever.

    I’ve hit up a few restaurants with B ratings in my day. (In most counties in California, they use a letter rating. A is best. B means they’ll get another inspection in a month, and if they don’t get an A on the second inspection they fail.)

  • http://www.primermagazine.com Andrew

    Steven, thanks for the comment! I definitely agree. Some dumpy places have really great food. Sometimes you have to weight the risk and the taste. ;)

  • http://www.itsamiracletheyaintdeadyet.com Kenneth

    Thanks for the comments, guys!

    Steven, I wonder why California is the only state (that I know of) which requires health notifications to be posted on the front door? That public information would make a lot of restaurants clean up their act!

    Andrew, agreed with the risk-rewards gamble. I’d just feel bad if that gamble was taken on a chain restaurant. That’s why people should be like Steven when taking a chance!