After many years of writing about restaurants, I’ve developed a spidey-sense for when an experience is going to be an unsatisfactory one. Typically, I’ll flee when the alarm bells start sounding.
You, too, can avoid the unfortunate ordeal of a bad meal, because when one is about to unfold, there are often multiple tells. Here are a few ways to know, and save yourself the singular sadness of having thrown good money after bad.
1. The place is empty at peak hours
Trust the wisdom of the masses. Can you hear the chirp of crickets? Do the staff outnumber the guests? Something is probably up. Not always, but often. One way to save the potential humiliation of turning on your heel and running back to your car like the engine is on fire, is to politely ask if you may view a menu. Right there in the vestibule, you can glance at a menu and scope things out. There will likely be additional tells on the menu (see below). But even if there aren’t, you can act like you just don’t see anything to your liking, and high-tail it out of there. High five. You just saved yourself a bunch of cash.
2. The menu items are overpriced
If something seems overpriced, then it probably is. This is not proof that you're a cheapskate. If you dine out even semi-regularly, then by now you probably know what the going market rate is for a roast chicken, a sushi roll, a bag of donuts. Unless you are at a place known for the best-of-the-best of any of the above, then you probably shouldn’t be paying more than the market rate. If a roast chicken has a $29 price tag on it, then it better be at the finest dining place in town, and it had better deliver. Unfortunately, you won’t know until after you’ve ordered it. So decide if that price tag seems ludicrous at the outset, and if it does, maybe just leave that particular bird in the kitchen.
3. The staff doesn’t seem happy to see you
Did the people tasked with greeting you in fact greet you? Or did they continue having a chat among themselves, registering no more notice of your existence than would a teen being told to turn his music down? Did they give you the subtle expression of disdain you give your one uncle, the one with the mullet, when you see him at Christmas? It might be time to just spin on your heel once again, and go.
This is not the same as punishing a person who is mid-task (for instance, helping another customer) because they didn’t notice you in the first nanosecond of your presence. There was a local establishment (which one slips my mind; remind me in the comments if you know it) that had their staff wearing t-shirts with this phrase emblazoned on the back: “If you can read this sentence, I’m helping another customer.”
That is probably true. If a staff person looks busy, then they’re usually helping someone else, and will probably be along to help you, too, tout de suite. That said, it takes exactly zero extra seconds to look up from one’s task and say, “Hi, welcome, I’ll be right with you!” I’ve considered having this phrase tattooed upon my forehead. If you don’t hear it, or something like it, within the first one or two minutes, get the hell out of there.
4. Something smells bad
This one might seem strange to include, but off odors are a kind of obvious indicator that other things are off. It doesn’t have to be food that’s gone dodgy either. There’s a prominent and beloved dive bar that I simply can’t drink at anymore thanks to the thick aroma of urinal cake that permeates the entire room.
Why so, so many urinal cakes? Because nobody is regularly cleaning the urinals. What else are they not regularly cleaning? Depending on where you dine, old or questionable plumbing might just be a necessary evil, in hundred-year old buildings, for instance. But if the room reeks of old mop water and bleach, if more than one fruit fly dive bombs your drink in a sitting (a single bugger can happen to the best of us) or if you do in fact smell fermented food and you haven’t ordered any, you know what you should probably do.
5. Your server answers questions with "I don't know"
While it's perfectly fine not to know the answer to a question, the appropriate rejoinder is a cheerful, "You know, I don't know but I'll go find out!" In fact, this answer is infinitely preferable to an obvious guess. Guessing games in a restaurant setting can be annoying at best (I got gin when I wanted vodka) and deadly at worst (there's shellfish in that sauce after all).
But more importantly, good kitchens know that the service staff is the communication vehicle for food, and they want said staff to be as knowledgeable as possible. Does your server seem reluctant to go into the kitchen to get an inquiry answered? There might be bad vibes between the two, or at the very least, the training efforts aren't thorough. In either case, you may not want to eat there. Another very bad answer is "I don't know, I don't eat meat/fish/pasta/ice cream/anchovies." Nobody cares what you eat. Get someone else to give you an accurate descriptor of what it is like, because I eat all of the above and might even like to eat it in your restaurant.
6. The drinks and starters aren't right
If all else fails, and you start to detect that something is amiss after you've sat down and ordered a drink, tread lightly. There's nothing that says you must go into a meal headlong. Order a snack or a salad. How are they? For a long time I've done what I affectionately call the "Caesar Check."
If there is a Caesar salad on the menu, as classic a dish as they come, and it isn't executed properly, chances are some other things are going to be less than stellar. A Middle Eastern chef friend of mine says he does the same thing with hummus and tabbouleh. If those aren't right, nothing else will be. No kebabs please, and definitely no shawarma. Move on to the next spot for the main event.
Dining out is expensive, and keen heartbreak follows when an expensive night out goes all wrong. You may find yourself dwelling on it for days after the fact. Employ these sleuthy skills, even at the risk of coming off as a demanding Minnesotan (horrors!), and GTHO (get the hell out) while you're still having fun.