New to Town? Some Tips to Avoiding a Bad Restaurant.

Categories: Lists

zombie waiter.jpg
Warning sign: A waiter at a good restaurant would have tucked this shirt in.
We've all been there, done that. Come to a new town on business, pleasure, or for a change of venue, and wondering where to go to get good food. Some people seem to equate "good food" with "pricey", which isn't always the case, and tastes differ from person to person.

Others head over to online review sites -- all great resources as long as one's own taste is that of the average restaurant-goer. The same is true for local food media. Should I really believe Reviewer A who bemoans the lack of forks at a barbecue restaurant (answer: No!) or Reviewer B who thinks it's just great food that matters, sauces and forks be damned (answer: Yes). For my travels during the past two decades I've made a small list of things to avoid, and it's served me well so far. Obviously, barbecue joints are exempt from all these rules, but for the rest these seem to be useful. So, here it is, my Top 10 list of things I avoid when trying to find good food in a new town.

10. Running Televisions
I come to eat, have a great conversation, enjoy my food, and focus on the people and place. I'm really not interested in the Knicks, Cubs or Law & Order. If I was, I'd be at home, cooking, and watching the same content on my obscenely huge flat-screen television.

Restaurants running televisions may be forgiven in some cases (Superbowl Sunday, for example, or a national tragedy, but who'd want to eat quail during a national disaster?). Usually, thought, they are the culinary equivalent of a parlor trick: "Here, look at this shiny bunny (television) while I hide the ace (bad preparation, dirty plates, milky meat) behind my back."

9. Servers Wearing Street Clothes
Serving (and cooking) is a job. Jobs come with requirements. That doesn't mean that your average T.G.I McReallybad's uniformed flair-wielding servers are a mark of culinary quality, but if all else seems in order, this is a definite turnoff for me. Servers chewing gum, servers wearing stained clothing, servers wearing "flair" and servers playing with their hair or beard while standing around are other warning signs. Run!

8. Mispeled (See what I did there?) Menus
Apparently this one wields some kind of charm factor when it comes to Chinese and Mexican restaurants. Excluding those, however, a menu is the closest a chef will ever come to communicating directly with his or her diners outside of their dishes. Pride in one's menu, its design, spelling and contents, is inherent in good chefs. More than one of the greats I have met has agonized for days over their menus.

Spelling mistakes or generally unappetizing looking menus show either a lack of care and pedantry on the chef's side or -- worse -- a powerless cook in the back with an uninterested general manager pulling the strings. Avoid.

7. Menu Tomes
The more dishes a restaurant serves, the less care every single dish receives. That's not conjecture, it's experience. As a chef, I too am guilty of slapping together 40-dish menus and struggling to keep up. Good restaurants strike a balance between too little and too much selection, focus on the chef's and brigade's strengths, select good product and create great dishes. Six pages of food (or, even, three) require an insane amount of holding for service and a lot of cowboying to make things not go bad while the likelihood a dish is chosen goes down with every additional item on the menu.

Even worse, should you choose the one dish no one else ever eats you'll be subjected to food that's been held for hours, prepared by a cook who can barely remember how to make it.

6. Extreme Menu Adjective Abuse
"Seared to perfection," "a dream in...," "lovingly created" and so on. Also "zesty," "tangy," or any other overused adjective. Stay away from any place using "EVOO" on its menu. A good menu tells about the dish, its components, its name and, in rare cases, its particular reason to be on the menu. I want everything I eat to be made as close to perfection as possible and I want it to be lovingly created. I call this the DRC syndrome -- like the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is neither democratic nor a res publica, if you have to spell it out for people to believe it, it's likely not true.

5. Restaurant Reviews and Magazine Articles are Copied, Cut and Put
in the Window or Framed in the Foyer.

OK, OK, I have to qualify this. Small casual eateries, new restaurants, diner-style places, carts or taco trucks are exempted from this rule. We all remember our first review, good or bad, and we all proudly displayed our firsts. After a few years in business, however, our customers should come for reasons other than some local reviewer's opinion in the window (Unless it's a City of Ate review. Those are real treasures). Window reviews practically scream "Hey, please, eat here. We are liked..."

4. Bread Baskets on the Counter
They've been there for hours. If, walking into an establishment, you spot bread baskets on the counter, stacked two-high and three-across or so, walk out. This is another sign your chef cares nothing about good food: condiments on the tables placed there before you arrived.

3. You are Made to Wait More Than Five Minutes When More Seats are Empty than Filled
To be fair, restaurants often have fewer staff than needed to serve the number of seats, especially during the week. Sometimes the only two servers' tables are taken and you'll be asked to wait for a few minutes. Nothing wrong about that. Where it gets iffy is if only three tables are taken, there's two waiters and you're still made to wait. Either the restaurant tries to look more exclusive than it is, or the host simply doesn't like you. Leave.

The same is true for reservations. Allow no more than 10 minutes above the reservation time to be seated. The restaurant will happily give away your table if you don't show in that time frame, so you should do the same. Or the place is almost empty and you're being seated next to the kitchen or toilets. What are they hoping for? Someone "better" to come along shortly?

2. The Manager Apologizes for a Gaffe, Offers to Take Something off the Bill, and Then Doesn't.
OK, the rule only applies after you've eaten at a place, so it's too late to help steer you away from a restaurant. But it's never too late to not come back. This is a common trick: Make diners feel good with a promise while "forgetting" to inform the staff. In the end, most diners are more likely to pay the tab than to ask to see the manager again. A win-win for him, a loss for you.

1. It's a Chain
... 'nuff said.

Follow City of Ate on Twitter: @cityofate.


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22 comments
Grumpy Demo
Grumpy Demo

Wow, all the comments by people that seem to think a clean restaurant, with a well written menu, that treats its customers nicely is elitist?

Explains by places by Applebee's and Taco Bell exists.

Nanda
Nanda

From what Jonus writes he sounds like every European chef I have ever met. We can use some more of that expertise of ppl like him in this town.

Scagnetti
Scagnetti

Great article.

Sloppily dressed servers is the reason I don't go to Cafe Brazil anymore. They look like they just came from a day labor pool.

Jason
Jason

You whiners are funny. If you want youre food handled by a waiter who just took the N-Judah to work and sat in puke, piss, and whatever else public transit seats are famous for go right ahead with it.

I worked in restaurants for sixteen years and I have seen some bad shit going on in the back even in Michelin places. You might find this list snobbie but for me it tells the truth of what goes in every restaurant I ever worked or knew someone who worked there.

Dominicide
Dominicide

I too, sense a little snobbishness. But, I agree with the chef. I am so sick of really nice restaurants anyway. Nicely rated restaurants tend to have menus chock full of gimmickry. If I see, "fume," "artisan," "sublime," I will gag. I like nice places as nice as anybody, but it seems like chefs have really lost what "sublime," really means. Like a baked chicken. Just that with some vegatables and some noodles. Can anybody do that in a 5-star way anymore? There is truly nothing more wonderful than chicken baked and sauced by a talented chef. Add friends, wine and a tablecloth and you have dinner. Sit and relax, enjoy your company. Then enjoy the confused faces of your friends and co-workers when you tell them you had the most sublime baked chicken ever last night.  

Lobster corndogs. Really?  

SurlyZ
SurlyZ

Snobby AND a little thin-skinned. I'd make a great DO writer.

Coleman
Coleman

A lot of the restaurants I constantly recommend to people from out of town usually break at least four of your little tips (certainly not the last four, which are pretty obvious softball tips that just about anyone with any sense would be weirded out by or avoid (that being said, some chains are really not not that bad and it's pretty snobby to avoid a place just because there's more than one location floating around)). Number nine is the definitely the most ridiculous "sign of a bad restaurant" I've ever heard. If I'm at a place where there's a dress code, it's more likely than not either crappy fast food or somewhere far too douchey to be enjoyable. I've half a mind to submit this article to the White Whine website.

loratliff
loratliff

Servers wearing street clothes? I don't care what my server is wearing as long as they are clean, presentable and personable.

You've obviously never eaten at many of the Michelin-starred restaurants in NYC where the servers are free to wear whatever they like—April Bloomfield's Spotted Pig immediately comes to mind.So glad I left the snobbish, wannabe Dallas scene.

Fake Norm, Real Me...
Fake Norm, Real Me...

Guess these writers eat five course meals at five star places every night.....

Baj1dallas
Baj1dallas

A shoddy, unoriginal, lazy piece of writing. How useless is a list that you have to have a separate list of places that are exempted? If you're already in a restaurant and you notice these things, you haven't really managed to avoid it, have you?

Bigjondaniel
Bigjondaniel

Again - this blog has been taken over by marketing majors trying to write (sigh)

Jonas M Luster
Jonas M Luster

That's OK. Submit ahead and eat and recommend by your own standards. I will continue to do so by mine.

Jonas M Luster
Jonas M Luster

Yes, I haven't eaten at many Michelin starred restaurants. Less than twenty for sure, which - given the candy-like handout of stars these days - isn't much.

I've worked at a few, and I can tell you with certainty (or is is "certitude", I's have to ask someone who isn't a shoddy, unoriginal, and lazy writer), that even at the Spotted Pig most servers change clothes before and after shift. The équipement décontractée of TSP fits into the "gastropub" image April wants to project (next time you're there tell her hi from me), but it's still part of the image and not shoddiness or laziness.

Even if we posit that Slanted Door, Spotted Pig, Voux, and Noma servers might be wearing street clothes, it's still a major turnoff, Michelin starred or not. You're welcome to follow your own list of determinants of what makes a good or bad restaurant and good or bad one, above are mine.

Alicia
Alicia

This is funny. You Dallas foodies have been sucking the d¤cks of your mediocre local chefs for so long when you see a real one you call them marketing majors.

loratliff
loratliff

Hey, I didn't call you a "shoddy, unoriginal or lazy writer" like the other commenter, but seriously, this list reeks of snobbishness, particularly if you're talking about finding good food in Dallas. What would you rather have—good food or sartorial sense? I go to restaurants for the former, Barneys for the latter.

I would bet that 90 percent of Breslin and Spotted Pig employees don't change before their shifts. I know the one I live with doesn't. ;) Same goes for some similarly-styled restaurants—Roberta's (whose chef was just named to Food & Wine's Best list), Flour & Water (San Francisco great), Bolsa, all of Gabe Stulman's places, etc.

Obviously you're entitled to your opinion as much as the next bloke, but I'm also entitled to think it strange and navel-gazing at best.

Bigjondaniel
Bigjondaniel

I am not a foodie, and hate that term. I was speaking of writing style. I have no idea of who  this guy is, nor do I care

Baj1dallas
Baj1dallas

Yeah I would have missed virtually every restaurant I frequent if I went by this list. I live in Plano, but I'd have never gone to Jasmine Thai, Big Easy, Umeko, Little Sichuan, the counter in the back of Taj Mahal, the bakery inside Ranch 99, Pappadeux (best oysters value in town), Kenichi (best sake list in the state, maybe the country), a bunch of little taquerias that have magazine articles cut out, probably just about any barbecue place (not that there are more than 3 worth going to), Urban Crust, maybe Tei An depending on your definition of menu tome, and probably a lot of others. Nobody would ever eat at the Neighborhood Services places (I've never been to eat, just drink), La Duni, not sure about Nuevo Leon in Farmer's Branch, and many more...

I just think it's worthwhile to go eat in a place, even if it has TVs or mispellings, if it's local or does one thing particularly well. Maybe you get a mediocre meal but it's hardly the end of the world. There aren't so many great places in Dallas or most other cities that you can't take a chance on a neighborhood place.

Jonas M Luster
Jonas M Luster

It's not a guide. It's a list. My list. If you're new to town and want to avoid bad restaurants (and, as we discussed, you might as well skip one or two good ones but that's what getting to know your neighborhood is for) you're welcome to try it.

And for someone who just told me that my list doesn't work since people have to walk into the place and look you seem to rely an awful lot on doing that yourself. Or, well, you could pull the foodie buzzword bingo card and look for "well prepared, seasonal, and interesting food and servers" which I am sure you can detect much more easily than, say, the running TVs.

Also, no. As some others wrote and I can confirm - fine dining are the biggest offenders on the list. It's simple, really. Don't go anywhere where the decision about the menu isn't made by the guy or gal in the back (aka "chains"), don't go anywhere where you might meet people that just view it as a job and not a calling, and don't eat in places that don't show the necessary pride in their work. Simple. That, by the way, excludes many fine dining joints, too.

I'd be wrong of me to expect that mindset of the majority. Half the people I know either go out for dinner because it's more convenient or because they fetishize food, restaurants, specific cuisines, or some of the people who cook that stuff.

And, finally, "why guess at whether these unrelated criteria will apply to the quality of food or service when there's no statistical evidence of correlation?". Hmmm, good question. I can't answer that. What I can offer, which you can take or leave, is the fact that I have worked in this industry for more than two decades, seen more kitchens in that time than I care to admit (I worked seasonal for six years, that means three, four, fine dining gigs in a ski resort during the winter months, popping in for a few weeks while someone was out, then moving on, and and another five six gigs in casual dining, often parallel between two or three, in beach or summer activity centers. That adds up.) I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. And, for some reason, ugly and bad seems to correlate much more with places with misspelled menus, huge menu tomes, and running TVs than not.

Will I miss a neighborhood gem over this? Heck yes I will. I worked places that had a chef that couldn't spell her own name after a decade of drugs and work, but cooked wonderfully. With a Maitre d' who didn't think it was necessary to change clothes but who controlled his floor with enthusiasm and extreme dedication to the diner. And we had 43 meals on the menu, in the old Chinese style (where 80 dishes can be made from the mise on a 6x2 table). It was a great place, we served 400 covers for brunch every Saturday, and the food rocked. I'd have passed that place by, blaring TVs and misspelled menus six pages long and all. I would have discovered it a few weeks later since every one of my friends went there for brunch on Sundays, but - yes - not by myself.

That's not what the list is. If you are looking now and try to minimize your chances at disappointment, try it one day :)

luniz
luniz

It's such a subjective, pretentious, and inconsistently applicable list as to render it completely worthless as a guide. What's the point of a list of rules when you have to selectively apply them. What's your definition of "street clothes"? I agree that the floor, staff, tables should all appear clean and professional, but does that rule out a clean, plain long sleeve t-shirt? Does your server at your favorite Thai restaurant have to be wearing a button up shirt, even if the food is great? Why guess at whether these unrelated criteria will apply to the quality of food or service when there's no statistical evidence of correlation?

Why make something so simple, so complicated? Here's how you avoid bad restaurants: Learn what makes a restaurant good (it's not the menu grammar, staff dress code, or expensive decor), and avoid restaurants that don't have what you want (things like good tasting, well prepared, seasonal, and interesting food and servers who put some effort into delivering and enjoyable dining experience). You write from the perspective that the only place worth going to are fine dining type restaurants and that's why you come off as a pretensious snob.

Jonas M Luster
Jonas M Luster

Well, most of them you can see from the outside. The reviews, the menu is usually displayed at the entrance, and a quick glimpse inside does give me some ideas of the place. I'm known to get up and leave if I don't like something. I don't make THAT much money and if I spend it I want to spend it well :)

For me it's a "some of the bunch" kind of deal. And as I said above, this is my list. Might not be anyone else's, but it' served me well. After a few decades in this industry I see things, I guess, that others don't (waiters using glasses to scoop ice instead of a scoop, my number one pet peeve). Maybe I'm missing one or two of the good ones but it generally pays off for me :)

loratliff
loratliff

Nah, I liked the "If you're already in a restaurant and you notice these things, you haven't really managed to avoid it, have you?" part of the comment.

My waitress at F&W back in April was wearing a blue and white striped shirt. I specifically remember it because I complimented her on it. (Otherwise, as I said, i don't notice or care.)

I think perhaps what we're disagreeing on is the ambiguous term "street clothes." April's servers wear street clothes in that it's not a set uniform with rigid restrictions, but yes, there is a certainly a "look" and cohesion. 

I generally agree with your points—some of them (misspellings, stale bread, manager's promising comps and not delivering) are inexcusable. I also abhor TVs but there are plenty of good restaurants that have them, sadly. Not so much in NYC, but when I lived in Dallas, I remember being very disappointed by the TVs at the bar at Neighborhood Services Tavern—that's the biggest offender that I can remember in Dallas.

Jonas M Luster
Jonas M Luster

No, you just "liked" the comment. Guilt by association :). Well, if you live with a SP employee you can ask her or him to query April on the discussions we had on this topic. I believe that it doesn't have to be suit and tie, but it has to be different than the dude who walks past me on my way to work. Simple as that. It's the hospitality business for a reason, not the "we feed you food, be glad we came" business.

Have you noticed that every service staff member at F&W wears black and/or white shirts? No T-shirts reading "I <3 Dick" or "I am So Emo, I listen to Thrice" jackets. Dave makes sure of that. That might change with Central Kitchen, who knows, but at the moment with the exception of Incanto, Nopa, and weekdays at Provence, every restaurant I know of in SF does have a dress code for its waitstaff.

As to the snobbishness. Yes! Yes! I believe we have to be snobbish about our food. This isn't 1999. For the price most restaurants in the area, here or in SF or NYC, demand, we can demand 110 per cent. Good product is still king, no matter what else, but the above gives us a glimpse into the minds of the people who run and work the place. From TVs to spelling errors on the menu, from bread baskets on the counter to, yes, waitstaff in street clothes, these things come together to form one uniform body of information as to how much pride the purveyor has in their craft.

By snobbish I don't mean to salivate after people just because they happen to cook or collect Michelin reservations like pokemon cards, trading one-upmanships about one's dining experiences with equally train-spotterish foodie friends. By it I mean that anyone who desires to sell me food and hospitality better be spot on in both categories to deserve my patronage and money.

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