Ten Ways To Tell a Restaurant Will Suck Before You Take a Bite

Categories: SFoodie

FOODRADARISON.jpg
​Foodar -- the sixth sense for good restaurants -- is hard to explain, but if you have it, you know what it feels like.

Some tiny nondescript place in a strip mall inexplicably calls out to you, and it turns out to have amazing food. Or a place is crowded with happy-looking people, yet you just know it's going to suck.

But how do you know?

Intuition is often your unconscious mind processing information that, if you stopped and thought about it, would make perfect sense. Because I care so much about food, I've been trying to unravel the clues behind foodar for years. Here's what I've come up with.

fried shrimp550.jpg
Jason Lam
A dish of fried shrimp doesn't require any fresh ingredients
​10. It's ethnic food, but nobody of that ethnicity is eating there

You don't have to ask other diners if they're Korean or Japanese or Chinese, but if there isn't anybody who might be, get out of the tofu soup house.

I102c_th.jpg
​9. Many diners are wearing t-shirts sporting the name of the town you're in

Restaurants for tourists don't have to be good, so usually they're not.

8. Miller Light paid for the menu

If you see big color pictures of mass-market beverages, assume your food will be made about the same way.

7. Seafood has a large section of the menu, but all of it is shrimp

Shrimp is almost never fresh. Restaurants that don't want to deal with fresh foods will choose it over fish every time.

6. Nobody's eating there when nearby restaurants are full

Sometimes price can be responsible for this, or a restaurant might be brand new (though in this town, that's an advantage). Bad restaurants usually don't get a lot of repeat business from neighbors.


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51 comments
Atheist/Sceptic
Atheist/Sceptic

I'd add - if a restaurant has a very long menu with lots of different dishes, that means most of it is pre-prepared, frozen, and unlikely to be fresh.

Berwick
Berwick

The first thing to do is check the restroom...the condition its in has a direct correlation to the conditions in the kitchen...

Srqpete1535
Srqpete1535

Louis Lunch, New Haven, Ct. Period.  Perhaps the first burger in the US, they use an upright grill so fresh ground beef is seared very quickly. Served on Pepperidge Farm toast with a paper thin slice of tomato and onion, Velveeta (that's right I said Velveeta) if you want cheese. They are such purists, heaven forbid you ask for ketchup or any other condiments, you may be politely shown the door.  A line out the door during their limited hours of operation speaks for itself.

Flashman
Flashman

Blake,

Another item for your list:

Ethnic restaurants, diners, or delis that are owned and / or operated by people not of the respective ethnicity. 

In Davis (CA) there was once a great Italian deli. It did a brisk business but was sold to a Chinese man. I'm sorry, but it just didn't work, a Chinese guy making hot meatball sandwiches, or slicing and serving Boars Head hams. 

There is the opposite, a caucasian serving in a Chinese restaurant. It just doesn't work.

Great food, even good food, is not just a mixture of ingredients, it represents the soul of a people. 

(Note: one can have a pan-asian type restaurant, or a 'fusion' restaurant, without regard to ethnicity of chefs or front of house personnel (Morimoto does a wonderful job for instance), but these are not "ethnic" restaurants. 

Techabsolute21
Techabsolute21

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Russbeecher77
Russbeecher77

Help wanted sign outside, everytime i eat at a place that has one, the service sucks people are rude and the foods bad.... or look for anyplace named applebees

murri5
murri5

really so obvious: this is not advice for discerning diners, just dud-ly diners.May I suggest: the sidewalks outside the restaurant are layered in grease from dragging out the trash. (how clean can the kitchens be?) Same kinda lighting you see anywhere: votives on the table. (Please.) Interior decor does not hold together with things like menu design, signage etc.(indicates sophistication and care) Hostess does not greet you quickly or kindly and you arrive to a table that still has crumbs or seats have crumbs.  Seating is not comfortable.Try those.

Examinator
Examinator

There's maybe 5 or 6 good Ideas here.  Next time go with a shorter list rather than trying to stretch something into an even number,  You Sir, are no Dave Letterman.

W Blake Gray
W Blake Gray

David Letterman writes about food? Really? Tell me where, I'd like to read it.

Gourmand
Gourmand

You can't always make too much out of the ethnicity thing.  Consider Chinese food, for example.  Outside of select areas of several large US cities, Chinese restaurants almost always serve American-style Chinese food that isn't authentic.  That doesn't mean it isn't delicious. 

And also consider that sometimes people won't go out as much for food they can easily prepare at home . . . I know my Korean mother-in-law only rarely wants to go out for Korean because she feels she can make it better at home.  Americans seem awfully hung up on the idea of "authenticity" as though that is synonymous with well-prepared, tasty food.

Flashman
Flashman

If your mother-in-law "rarely wants to go out because she feels she can make it better at home" you are proving Blake's point. If a given restaurant WERE serving great food (in this case Korean) your mother-in-law would probably eat there.

Joe Michaels
Joe Michaels

The smell is the first giveaway. Also...has anyone tried broasted chicken? If so, what are your thoughts?

Ravenbooks
Ravenbooks

One more: A huge menu that spans a lot of styles ans ethnicities.  It's unusual to cook Chinese, Italian, seafood and Indian well at the same place.  And it's nearly impossible to cook 150 different dishes well.

W Blake Gray
W Blake Gray

While it's a point, the caveat is that often when you find incongruous ethnic cuisine on a menu, it's the very best thing because it represents what the owners eat themselves. Example: Some friends took me to a New Jersey diner where they always eat burgers and chicken-salad sandwiches. I noticed a few Malaysian dishes in the corner of the menu, ordered them, and was rewarded with the best roti canai I'd had since I last visited KL.

smileystorm
smileystorm

I would say that the exception to #9 is if they're all wearing sports teams' shirts. There's this awesome burger joint in Austin by the University of Texas, and most everyone in there is either a college student, a parent/family member of a college student, or one of the millions of people in Austin who LOVE their college football! And, of course, they're all wearing UT shirts. (Although, not necessarily AUSTIN shirts, I guess)

W Blake Gray
W Blake Gray

Fair point. An SF Giants shirt is not the same as an "I left my heart in San Francisco" shirt.

Steve
Steve

11) Pictures of the food on the menu.

niffyat
niffyat

I have not been to Japan yet, but one of my textbooks (majoring in Japanese) seemed to indicate that it's common practice to include photos of the food on the menu, so maybe that rule wouldn't apply for Japanese food…

Zeke
Zeke

Asian restaurants in general, actually. If there are picture menus, it means that the waiter doesn't even have to speak enough English to explain jjajiangmyon.

Flashman
Flashman

Exactly.

There is a killer Thai restaurant in the South Bay, not fancy, with garish signs on the walls, open floor plan, with cheap tables, and a fully illustrated, laminated menu.

Food = GREAT.

Of course, the first thing I noticed on entering was that almost everyone there (and the place was packed) was Thai. 

Billg
Billg

Check the bathrooms: if they can't keep the bathroom clean, the kitchen will be disgusting.

Smart guy
Smart guy

I can usually tell how good a restaurant is by how many cars are in the parking lot at feeding time. A nearly empty lot (might just be employee cars) often saves me a trip inside.

Bleh
Bleh

You must be really confused when you come to SF.

Dan Smith
Dan Smith

Yelp first

W Blake Gray
W Blake Gray

It's a good point. I don't find Yelp all that reliable for finding good restaurants, but it's excellent as a warning system for bad ones.

Eric Gabriel
Eric Gabriel

Not all 50% off places are bad. One of the best sushi bars in my town (and there are many) is 50% off for lunch. I've never had a bad experience there and I've eaten at a lot of sushi bars. I can certainly understand why such signage would raise a red flag, but you could also miss out on a reasonable price and a great meal. Just sayin'

Michael Yee
Michael Yee

FWIW, sushi bars have one of the highest food costs of any type of restaurant. I would be suspect of any "cheap" sushi and of any heavy discounting unless they're selling a LOT of booze. Caveat emptor.

Jenrose
Jenrose

Interestingly, the cheaper the sushi, the better, in my experience, because they know where to buy the freshest, most in-season fish direct. 

W Blake Gray
W Blake Gray

Jenrose, I cannot agree with that. If you have found such a place, I'd like to know about it. But most very cheap sushi places cut corners that I don't want cut.

erodahs
erodahs

Yeah  I'm going to have to go against number six as well, there is an Indian place in town that is never buys, but has to be one of my favorite places to dine if I have the chance.

Gus
Gus

It's not always true that restaurant staff and owners who don't share the same ethnicity as the food they prepare will do a bad job. I shared the same prejudice walking into a hole in the wall Mexican place in Sacramento. I almost walked out when I saw everyone in the restaurant was Korean. I'm glad I persevered. The Mexican food was great.

Bronko
Bronko

At first I read it like this too, but what they said is if there aren't people of the ethnicity of the restaurant eating there, its usually a good sign.  I've found this to be true.  When you see a bunch of cabs lined up at the Pakistan Tea House in NYC, you know its authentic!

Sj Sebellin-Ross
Sj Sebellin-Ross

If it smells like grease, guess what's for dinner. And if the bathroom is filthy, just imagine what the kitchen - where the public never enters - looks like.

Joshua Frazer
Joshua Frazer

Pretty good list, except I haven't found number 6 to be true. There's quite a few restaurants around my apartment (I live in downtown china town), and I eat out pretty often. I've notice that on a day to day basis its often pretty random which restaurant isn't crowded. Some of my best dining experiences have been in the empty place.

  One day all the places will be full except place A, the next day place A is full like the rest.  It's only true on a consistent basis over time, many days in a row, that a terrible restaurant will be empty while the rest are full. That isn't how this would be used to evaluate a place, you are not going to spy on a place for days on end.

jay
jay

If you don't like 5 guys then what do you like

icecycle66
icecycle66

Five guys tastes like the burgers I make at home.  They aren't bad at all, they just aren't good.  There is nothing different about them. No particular flavor that you have to go only to Five guys to get.  They are also strangley expensive for what you are buying. And the Giant cup of fries is nice, just not anything particularly special.  Five Guys is oddly average and a little overpriced.

Burger joints I do like are In & Out (Eastern US) and Steak & Shake (Central US).Both of these places are reasonably priced. Each of these places have a distinct flavor to their burgers.  They are tastes that can be craved a satiated only by their food.

takurospirit
takurospirit

The 5 Guys here (northern MW) tastes way better than the Steak and Shake. But we only have one of each unless I want to drive 20 miles. I say this only because one Wendy's is foul and the one in the next town is tasty. So maybe their employees just suck major ass. I agree 5 Guys costs a lot though and the fries are certainly nothing special.

lumpia91791
lumpia91791

Don't forget about In & Out's "Secret Menu"...

weathergirl87
weathergirl87

Steak 'n' Shake FTW (coming from a lifelong midwesterner)Though I was out west last summer and had the In-N-Out experience and I have to say, they just might be better.  But yeah, they are definitely not in the eastern US...

SydneyMom
SydneyMom

Yes, Steak-n-Shake ARE in the East... the Southeast... I grew up with them in Atlanta, and still go there every time I'm in Atlanta.

Bob
Bob

In n Out are NOT in the eastern US, hell only, CA, NV, AZ and just now in TX.

paplund
paplund

5 guys blows............

Cecilia
Cecilia

dont go into a restaurant for the first six months of it opening. (most new restaurants dont last this long) specially the HOT NEW trendy ones

Nicholas Duddy
Nicholas Duddy

Can't say I agree with this. I've eaten in plenty places that are newly open, they were good then and they are good now...then again I do know better.

Emadagil
Emadagil

Cecilia has no idea on new restaurant. some do their best to impress in the begging then you have to pay the host to be seated once they gain everyone's approval. plus you need to try new things in life even they don't last. how else would you enjoy and learn in life.

William Stoneman
William Stoneman

I'm with you on that one!   Throw the help on the wall and see which ones stick.  Let them clean house before I come to dine.   If they haven't done their homework in the first six months, they won't last.   I live in Tennessee...and as for Steak and Shake...I don't care for their pedestrian food. 

Angelheartcs
Angelheartcs

Well if no one goes there for 6mos, no wonder they don't last.... DUH!!

Ted
Ted

First six months is when you should support them. Give them a chance to impress you. If nobody goes there for six months what do you think will happen?

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