I thought this was an original idea for a post but, just to be sure, I Googled the title. Turns out there are several posts with the same name. That almost caused me to click “delete” but then I thought, “Well, if I don’t read any of those posts and write my own take on the subject, that might still be useful.” So here you are, based on my own experiences as a frequent diner at restaurants (the above photo is from a recent meal at Cafe Boulud in West Palm Beach) and as someone who cooked in almost 50 restaurant kitchens while researching my cookbook, 10 Signs You’re in a Good Restaurant.
1. The bathroom is clean. I’m putting this first because to me, it’s such a useful way to judge a restaurant’s attention to detail. Also how clean they’re cooking in the kitchen. Sure, there are divey restaurants with wonderful food that are still worth going to that have filthy bathrooms…but that’s a different thing altogether. I’m talking about special occasion restaurants in this post and if you’re coughing up big money for a special night out and the restaurant has a dirty bathroom? Chances are you chose poorly.
2. A server comes over quickly. Nothing irks me more than sitting down at a nice restaurant, excited to begin the meal, and then waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting for someone to come over. I understand that servers are busy people, but the better restaurants seat you according to a server’s busy-ness. If a server just had a table seated in their section, you shouldn’t be seated right after that table. So if you’re waiting forever just to get a “hello, welcome to dinner” you may be in trouble.
3. The items on the menu are in season. If it’s winter and they’re offering up an heirloom tomato salad? You should worry. Same with fresh corn. And asparagus. If you see asparagus on a restaurant menu and it’s not spring? You’re not in a good restaurant.
4. You can hear the other people at your table. Sound design is actually something that restaurateurs consider as they plan a room. Some even spend money on sound proofing to help with acoustics. A big part of this has to do with how many tables are crammed in there: the higher the prices on the menu, the less tables they have to turn a night, the more space they can put between them, the quieter the room. So it’s fair for you to judge a restaurant based on sound–if you’re spending a fortune and you can’t hear anyone, you’re being gouged.
5. The servers are knowledgable and authentic. You can tell pretty quickly when you ask a server a question about an item on the menu if they’re genuinely excited about the food at this particular restaurant or if they’re delivering a rehearsed speech. The telltale sign is when, in the middle of describing a special, they consult their notebook. What this indicates is that the server probably wasn’t even allowed to try this dish; so how could they be expected to remember it? At the best restaurants, servers have a deep familiarity with the menu because they actually get to eat the food. (I know this from experience: when I was a server at Murphy’s in Atlanta, the chef would bring that day’s special out on a plate for 9 servers to fight over before service. I rarely got a bite and couldn’t really convey much enthusiasm when describing it to customers.)
6. The restaurant is accommodating, within reason. This is a thorny subject, because chefs hate it when customers ask for sauce on the side or a salad with no dressing (there was an uproar when Gjelina in L.A. refused to accommodate Victoria Beckham’s request for a dressingless salad). I think restaurants should be accommodating within reason. If you’re allergic to nuts, they should agree not to put nuts in your salad. If you’re a vegetarian and you want to know what your options are, that’s entirely fair. I think it comes down to tone: if you thoughtfully make a special request, the restaurant should be thoughtful in return. If a server snaps at you that “the chef doesn’t honor any special requests,” there’s a nicer way to say that and you should spend your money elsewhere.
7. The bread and butter are good. There’s an inverse theory of this–I feel like Nora Ephron or Calvin Trillin came up with it–that the worse the bread at a restaurant, the better the meal. Maybe. But nowadays, there’s so much good bread out there, so much good butter being made, that there’s no excuse for that part of the meal not to be wonderful. At the very best restaurants–like The French Laundry or Daniel–bread service is a significant part of the meal. The bread is baked fresh there every day. That’s not required for a restaurant to be good, but the restaurant should care enough to offer good bread at the start of a meal.
8. The food all comes out at once. Has this happened to you: you’re out to dinner with a group, everyone gets their plate except for one person. And that person’s waiting and waiting and he or she is telling everyone “just eat” but nobody wants to start eating because they feel bad? That shouldn’t happen and doesn’t happen at a good restaurant.
9. The plates are cleared quickly but not too quickly. Again, another delicate subject. I don’t like it when servers take away one person’s plate while someone else is still eating. That makes the person who’s still eating feel bad. Also, it makes you feel like you’re being rushed out the door. On the flip side, when you’re sitting there with dirty plates in front of you for a long while, you can start to feel neglected. So the clearing of plates, and how that’s handled, is a good way to judge a restaurant.
10. The little details add up. At the Gramercy Tavern, they used to send you home with a muffin for you to eat for breakfast the next day. (Maybe they still do!) At El Bulli, before your meal, you were toured through the kitchen and introduced to the chef (who happened to be the best chef in the world, at the time: Ferran Adria). These little gestures add up to a complete picture that often separates the truly wonderful restaurants from the just OK restaurants. So if a restaurant sends over a little plate of chocolate truffles at the end of a meal, even after dessert, you know you’re being taken care of…and that this is a restaurant you’ll want to come back to again and again.