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Ten Signs Your Next Meal Will Suck

by Nick

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.

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20 comments on “Ten Signs Your Next Meal Will Suck

  1. Your list is on the money! My addition: Rude or uncaring waitstaff. If the manager/owner doesn't care enough to hire staff that will make eye contact and some pleasant conversation, then they're unlikely to care much about the food.

  2. While I mostly agree with your assertation that it's better to wait, I would add slow service in dead restaurants. When you enter a place that could seat 300, yet it takes one of the waitstaff over five minutes to come see if you want a drink when they don't have over four tables going, it's time to be concerned.

    Though the place I'm thinking of in particular also has #'s 1, 6, 10 & often 7, so maybe it's just a coincidence. And I know what you're thinking, but my signifigant other always offers to buy and I don't turn down being bought lunch, even there.

  3. How about when they deliver your food, there is a bite already taken out of it. (true story!) But, as we learned recently, sometimes there is not a hint that the food will be bad…all the elements are there, but the product doesn't deliver!

  4. Great list. I'd add misspellings on the menu (though they're ubiquitous now) and waitstaff who can't pronounce ingredients or explain menu offerings — which means they weren't trained. I had one who said "ar e GU la."

  5. Haha. Great additions everyone. Keep them comin'

    @John. I wouldn't turn down free lunch even if it was at a fairly bad place – except maybe at the Golden Arches.

  6. I'll add to the list:

    -If your wait-person doesn't care enough to check on your water/bread/drink status before your app or entree is brought out, they probably won't care enough to bring your food out quickly. If she's in the weeds, I'll let this slide and hope for the best, but usually it's a sign of someone who just doesn't care about their job.

    – Bugs. If I see a roach or an ant, I'm out of there. I don't care if I've put an order in or not. I'll pay for what I've put in my mouth (which hopefully was nothing) and leave.

    – If a chef emerges from the kitchen and starts swearing at a manager, you're probably going to have some really crappy food. (True story and the food was pretty bad.)

  7. Nick the only thing I have to disagree with is the the whole "No Expediter". The kitchen I just recently did my externship in, had no expediter – it was the Executive Chef – who was also cooking. Only 3 people on the line. Him, Proteins and Pantry. So Jake not only cooked but I guess really he expedited too.

  8. Dirty water glasses, utensils, menus, etc.

    I have dietary restrictions and my experience has been that of restaurants that don't cater to people with my type of diet, my friends are often more pleased with their "normal" dishes from restaurants that willingly accommodate me and less pleased with those places that are rude and make my life difficult. So refusing to answer questions about ingredients or to modify anything is usually a bad sign. (And yes, as much as possible, I call ahead.)

    Also, someone making hamburgers with their bare hands then making pancakes with their bare hands and not washing their hands in between.

  9. Also one caveat about specials: some restaurants have creative specials, but sometimes you have "gotta sell people this leftover stuff" specials

  10. Great list Nick!

    A couple:

    Ordering an item on the menu only to find out 10 minutes later that it was 86'd. Repeat. Seems like management does not have their shit together?

    A whole wack of servers for next to no business, and service is still slow. True story: You can have a hostess, drink server, a meal server, someone to explain the menu to you, a suiter, a back server, a runner, and an expediter. The food still takes 45 min? Probably noone knows what the hell is going on.

    Just one thing as well though, don't lump the kitchen in with the FOH. I can tell you honestly that I have seen hell on Earth behind the bar, but you better believe that my kitchen is spick and span. Unfortunately, it is hard to put the fear of God into a bartender! LOL

  11. Everyone here has described the food/service of a typical Dutch restaurant. If you're not treated rudely you should worry :)

  12. Exception to the Five Minute Rule – I would say that the five minute rule would apply for a lot of restaurants except for Vietnamese Pho restaurants. It does not take long to assemble a good bowl of pho. The broth should have been stewing for hours so that all the flavors come together. It should only take five minutes for the kitchen to assemble the bowl with noodles, meats, veggies and to pour the delicious broth into the bowl.

  13. Excellent list. :)

    However, I wanted to point out that a lot of these signs don't apply in really small restaurants, especially those without a bar or license to serve alcohol. I work in a place that has a maximum *building* occupancy of 71; it's simply not feasible for us to have even half of the staff you mentioned as being part of a good dining experience–we'd be running all over each other.

    So I'd add, as a corollary to what Jason said, you may have a bad meal if the restaurant has too many staff relative to the amount of work space available. Even if the place is busy, when things get way too crowded, no one can work efficiently. Also, if you're constantly in each other's way, you're much more likely to make mistakes because you're focusing more on not colliding with your co-workers than you are on properly making or serving the food.

  14. Excellent additions everyone. And yea… there are definitely exceptions to some of these things.

    Jenna makes a good point that in a small place it's hard to have some of the staff I mentioned. Still possible to make good food though ;)

  15. Before you order check the bathrooms……..if they're dirty that usually means poor management and that just spells disaster in the rest of the place. I've worked in enough restaurants to know.

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