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Ten Questions I Ask Before Going To A Restaurant

by Nick

Probably the most popular question I get from readers and friends is:

“When are you going to open a restaurant?!”

I usually disappoint these people with:

“Almost certainly never.”

I love to cook and love feeding people, but I don’t really think running a restaurant is for me. It would mean working incredibly long hours, rarely getting to see my family, and, frankly, I would probably fail at it.

More importantly though, I don’t see how I could add any real value to the world with a restaurant.

The second most popular question I get from readers and friends is:

“Can you recommend any good restaurants?”

Again, I usually don’t have a very long list. Betsy and I go out to eat like once or twice a month.

In general, I think most restaurants aren’t great and aren’t worth the cost of admission.

For this post, I thought it might be fun to work through the actual criteria I look for when considering if a restaurant is really worth going to or not.

Ten Questions

Here are ten questions I try to ask before going to a restaurant. If you can answer most of these correctly, then the restaurant is probably worth a shot!

It’s important to note that I’ve eaten at places that answer incorrectly to all of these questions. I’m not trying to be high and mighty by asking them. They are just the questions I ask when determining if a restaurant is actually good.

Q1: Does the restaurant have a drive-through?

If the restaurant has a drive through, I’ll never recommend it to anybody. That means that they can prepare the food in just a few minutes and they value speed and convenience over anything else.

I rarely go out to eat to get a fast meal. If I want a fast meal, I cook a quesadilla at home. I go out to eat to relax and try new things.

Q2: How many items are on the menu?

Good restaurants don’t try to do everything. Good restaurants focus on a few dishes and make them exceptionally. If the menu is six pages long, you can almost bet that they are taking shortcuts. It’s just impossible for a kitchen to make that much stuff fresh.

Look for places that do just a few dishes and you’ll probably be better off.

Q3: Do they have something you’ve never seen before?

I love restaurants that are trying new dishes and flavors. If there isn’t at least one dish on the menu that I’ve never seen before, then they aren’t really trying.

Q4: Do they have a host/hostess?

Good restaurants know how important it is to greet your guests. Hosts keep the place organized and also are a clue that the place is busy enough to need someone at the front.

If the restaurant relies on servers to greet guests, that’s pretty iffy.

Q5: Are the drinks good?

If the place serves drinks, I sometimes will just go have a drink at the bar before going to eat there. If the restaurant takes the time to develop a good drink menu, then it’s a good sign that they care about the details.

It also means that, at a minimum, you can drink until the food tastes good. Kidding. Kind of.

Q6: Can you see the kitchen?

Good restaurants have nothing to hide. In fact, they have plenty to show off. If the kitchen is behind two swinging doors that you can’t see into, that’s not a great sign.

Q7: Is the owner a chef?

This might be a bit tricky to find out, but red flags go up for me when at least one owner isn’t a chef. If the owner is a chef, you’ll probably have a better chance that the restaurant cares about the food they put out and not just about the dollars.

Q8: Do they change their menu?

Is the menu the exact same all year? Do they ever have specials or new dishes?

If the answer is no then it means the chefs have probably lost their passion and are just pushing out stuff. Chefs that love to cook get inspired by the seasons and change menus regularly to reflect new trends or just to try new things.

Q9: Do they make hard things from scratch?

There are some things that are hard to do in a restaurant environment and if the place in question takes the time to do them, then it is a good sign that they really care about the food they put out. Stuff like baking fresh bread, making homemade pastas, and curing their own meats probably means you are in for a good meal.

Q10: Do they work with local farms?

Restaurants that take the time to source local ingredients are the ones that are going to be making stuff fresh and putting a lot of care and time into dishes. I don’t care if every single ingredient is local, but having stuff on the menu that is grown around the vicinity of the restaurant means that it’s super-fresh and in season.

What I don’t ask…

I don’t think price necessarily equates to quality. I’ve been to great restaurants that only sell $3 tacos.

While I do read reviews of places online before going, I don’t put a lot of weight in them. I’ve been to places with horrible online reviews and been pleasantly surprised. The reverse is also true.

I don’t judge a restaurant based on website. Most restaurant websites are just awful.

What are your questions?

What are some questions you ask about a restaurant before going there? What are your huge red flags?! Leave a comment!

Awesome diner photo by Alex Rabb.

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20 comments on “Ten Questions I Ask Before Going To A Restaurant

  1. I absolutely agree, Nick with your list. Although here in PA, with our archaic state- run liquor system, many of the best places here are BYO’s, usually chef-owned and operated. Liquor licenses are big bucks here, and hard to get. So #5 doesn’t always apply, especially here in a Philadelphia suburb.

    My big red flag is a dirty restroom. I interned with a local health department and went out on inspections. Usually the places with dirty bathrooms had multiple violations in the food areas. It’s one thing late at night at a bar-restaurant that’s been swamped all night. Total different story after there’s been time to clean.

    1. I agree – if the bathroom (a place they allow you to see) is filthy, imagine what the kitchen (a place you aren’t often invited to wander around) must be like.

  2. “Q7: Is the owner a chef?”

    I’m not sure about this one. Restaurants are businesses, and they fail if they don’t do a good job of balancing good food with good finances. A lot of chefs don’t have business training, and so their ventures fail (there was a piece about this in the NYTimes last year). I think what matters more is if the chef is good, and if she is given creative/culinary freedom (within a budget, so the restaurant can actually pay the rent).

    1. Ah… yea… that makes sense. I guess what I mean is that it’s important that the chef has the resources to do creative things, within reason. You’re totally right though that a lot of restaurants probably fail because they lack business skills.

  3. This is a nice post, and i agree with you, although, I think it applies to restaurants that serve primarily American or New American cuisine. If you used this criteria in New York or LA, you would miss some of the best dining experiences one can have with all the ethnic food gems. My mental list is a little simpler:
    1. can i make that at home as tasty or better?
    2. if so, would it take me all day?
    3. if not, is the cost of the ingredients worth it?
    While i cook most nights, on a weeknight in my hood I can grab a falafel platter or bahn mi or a dosa or bowl of steaming ramen for around $5-6. Nothing too unfamiliar or exotic, but darn tasty and somewhat labor intensive to make.

  4. Can the waiter explain the menu and the dishes well? Can they definitively recommend something they like? I think it’s a good sign when the waiter or waitress has obviously tried the dishes, is in love with a few, and knows how to recommend them.

  5. I agree with ruby – my criteria is generally more like, “Can I make this at home? And can I make it taste just as good or better?” With complex Indian dishes, Thai, Vietnamese, etc., the answer is “no” so I don’t mind going out to a restaurant. I’ve made chicken tikka masala and some other Indian dishes at home and they’re nowhere NEAR as good as our favorite Indian restaurant! And I love restaurants doing new and interesting or seasonal things – that’s always cool. But if I can make it at home I don’t really want to eat it in a restaurant. Which is generally why I hate going out for breakfast – I can poach an egg. I can fry an egg. I can make killer pancakes and waffles – and I can eat in my pajamas.

    Also agree with James – I hate when you ask the server about the food and they have no clue. I don’t expect them to have tried everything, but it’s nice when they have an opinion and can recommend their favorite dishes. There have been times when I’ve had an impossible time choosing what to eat and I’ve just gone with the server’s suggestion. Most of the time it’s pretty good (although not always).

    Regarding your criteria the best restaurant I can think of is Poste in DC – open kitchen, chef in the middle of the action, menu always changing, etc. I’ve had soup so good there I almost passed out.

  6. Uh, Nick, I have a problem with your list. It seems that Applebees runs afoul of almost all of these questions – just not Q1 or Q8 (they just added 2 for $20!). That doesn’t make sense, because we both personally know how good it is. Also, I propose you add a Q11: “Do they serve airport beers?”

      1. Let’s see how it does with your list:
        1) Nope, no drive-through
        2) While the menu might look large, it really only offers about 5 real items
        3) Their take on pork chops looked pretty unique
        4) …
        5) Steller assortment of 40s
        6) We’ll let that one slide
        7) The dude on the menu (adam?) looks like he could be a chef!
        8) Why change something that works so well?
        9) We asked the waitress, she didn’t know.
        10) I’m nearly certain those clams came from local AC waters.

  7. I’m with whomever mentioned the bathroom as a criteria. I know as a guy, it’s not really something you think of, but if they can’t keep the bathrooms clean, can they keep the kitchen and dining area clean?

  8. Specific to BBQ restaurants, I have questions for the wait staff that quickly let me know whether I want to eat there.

    1) What kind of ribs do you have? (seeing if they know the diff between spares and loin back)
    2) What kind of wood smoke do you use or what kinds of smokers do you all use?

    If the wait staff can’t answer that at a BBQ place, the owner/operator has some work to do.

  9. I’ve been to excellent restaurants that do not have hosts/hostesses. In fact, my favorite ones don’t- and they are ethnic cuisine (Indian, sushi). So I’m not sure that is a good indication at all……

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