Signs you're in a bad restaurant

With over 15 years experience in the restaurant biz, from hostessing, to serving, to bartending, and even cutting up pounds of veggies for salads and pizzas, I have seen enough to know within five minutes of stepping into a restaurant whether that place is being run well. What are some signs that you're in a bad restaurant? Absent hosts at the door, dirty conditions, and an indifferent staff can all lend to a less-than-stellar dining experience. 

Nobody greets you at the door

It's one thing if the hostess is simply seating another table, and you only have to wait a moment before she greets you. It's quite another thing when you stand and wait for a lengthy period of time without being greeted when you arrive at a restaurant. This is where first impressions are made, and a restaurant that doesn't ensure customers are greeted at arrival is a restaurant that's likely having some major management issues. If you find yourself having to flag down a passing staff member just to inquire about being seated, you may want to rethink where you're dining.

You get ignored

There's a rule of thumb in the restaurant industry that says a table should be greeted within 60 seconds of being seated. Your server might be completely bogged down, and unable to get your drink order or tell you the specials in that time, but it only takes a moment to greet a table, and let them know you'll be with them in a few minutes. This little trick goes a long way in establishing a good rapport with guests. If the server is unable to do this (maybe they're in the kitchen arguing with a cook!) then teamwork should be involved. The host may tell you that your server will be with you soon, or the manager should stop by and greet you. If you find yourself sitting for a while, maybe without even a menu to look at, and staff is passing by your table without so much as a smile, this is a pretty sure indication that this ship is not sailing smoothly.

The menus or table setting are dirty

There's no excuse for presenting a table of guests with dirty menus or table settings. Menus can get dirty pretty easily, especially at restaurants that offer bread baskets, or the worst offender, chips and salsa. My high school years were spent hostessing at a popular Mexican restaurant on the New Jersey Shore, and I spent a good many hours wiping down the menus that were filthy with salsa stains.

Allowing dirty silverware or glassware to hit a table is also unacceptable in my book. While mistakes can certainly happen in even the nicest of restaurants, grungy looking silverware, or lipstick stains on glasses, could easily be avoided if the restaurant employs a little bit of teamwork. When a staff is trained to look out for every aspect of the guest experience, and not just their "own job," you're guaranteed to have a better meal.

Tables aren't being cleared

Do you really want to sit next to a pile of someone else's dirty dishes? I sure don't. It doesn't make a difference if customers are waiting for that table or not. I want to see a bus-person swoop in on that table within a minute of the party leaving. Back when I was waiting tables, if the busboy was too busy to get to a recently emptied table, I would grab a bus bucket and clear the table myself. And it doesn't end with cleaning the table. A quick sweep with a broom under and around the table is usually necessary, especially if there were children eating there. Condiments and salt and pepper shakers should get a quick wipe as well.

The staff seem miserable or distracted

Everyone in the service industry has suffered through their fair share of shifts when they just weren't in the mood to give you service with a smile. But those of us seasoned in the industry know how to fake it till we make it, or how to rely on our coworkers to give us a hand and get us through the shift. When you notice though, that the entire staff seems like they would prefer to be somewhere else, or that they are more interested in their own drama and socializing to see you frantically waving your empty water glass at them, It's a pretty sure sign that the restaurant is going downhill fast. If the staff has mentally checked out, it's likely that management has as well.

Managers don't help out

This one still remains my largest pet peeve. Managers and owners who sit around and don't pitch in when the rest of the staff is in the weeds. The best restaurants I have worked in were restaurants where managers and owners were not above doing every job in the restaurant if it meant the guests had a better experience. Whether it be running food, clearing a table, or taking a drink order — if the staff is busting their butts to get through a rush, management should be there to lend them a hand. At the end of the day, this means happier customers, and more money in everyone's pockets. 

I worked briefly at an uber-trendy restaurant in Manhattan, and made the mistake of asking the owner to run some eggs Benedict to a table while I juggled coffee and juice on a tray. He then loudly berated me, in front of customers, and told me he doesn't run food. Dude, those are guests of your restaurant, and they can clearly see that their eggs are sitting under a heat lamp. If you're going to run a restaurant, you need to be willing to get your hands dirty.

Other customers seem unhappy

You may just be seated next to a Grumpy Gus, but if you notice more than one customer in a restaurant frantically looking around for their server, or see that people are sending food back to the kitchen, you may just be in a bad restaurant. Signs to spot include people waiting long times for their food, water glasses not being filled, and drink orders arriving after the food has already come out of the kitchen. If other people are having a bad experience at the restaurant, you may have to brace yourself for a less than satisfactory meal.

The kitchen or server makes more than one mistake

We are human, and we all make mistakes now and then, so one minor mistake by your server or the kitchen is nothing to get all worked up about. Consistent errors though, or errors that are not quickly and pleasantly corrected? That's a big clue that you're in a terrible restaurant. Some errors that should never happen include getting the wrong table's food delivered to yours, the server or kitchen staff delivering you something different than you ordered (and then insisting it was you who made the mistake,) meat cooked improperly, cold food, food that's been sitting too long under heat lamps, or a server forgetting to input your entire order to the kitchen.

It's up to you how you want to proceed when a number of mistakes are made in one visit. If the server isn't savvy enough to offer you something to make up for your bad experience, it's best to ask for a manager. Be polite, but clear, about the meal's shortcomings. A good restaurant will probably offer you a free dessert, or take something off of your bill. A bad restaurant? Well, let's just say you aren't likely to come back.

The bathroom is poorly kept

This one really drives me crazy. I have worked in enough restaurants to know that the way they keep their bathrooms is a pretty good indication of the way they keep their kitchen. At a good restaurant, the restrooms will be checked periodically throughout a shift to make sure that toilet paper and paper towels are stocked, and everything is in good working order. At the end of a shift, that bathroom will be scrubbed top to bottom with good, old-fashioned bleach. If a bathroom smells of urine, has visibly dirty floors, overflowing trash cans, and broken locks on the stalls, you can bet the kitchen is kept in the same state of disarray. That's a restaurant I would be unlikely to return to.

Your courses aren't timed properly

There is nothing worse than feeling like a restaurant is trying to rush you out the door. But that's exactly how it feels when your entrees arrive at your table minutes after you've received your appetizers. Seasoned servers know to time the orders going into the kitchen accordingly so this doesn't happen.

The worst case of this happened to some friends and I recently at a popular, chain restaurant. A couple of us are former servers, so we specifically asked our waiter to hold off on "firing" our entrees until we had time to enjoy our apps. Nevertheless, the food runner arrived with our burgers less than five minutes after we got our fried calamari and Mediterranean hummus platter. So what did we do? We politely sent the burgers back, and asked for new ones to be prepared when we were ready for them. So where did this particular restaurant go majorly wrong? The server tried to argue with us that we should take the old burgers that were still sitting around in the kitchen, and complained angrily to us that the kitchen wouldn't be happy with us. Needless to say, it will be a long time before we eat there again. At least we weren't afraid to speak up about what we wanted, though. Many customers in restaurants are shy about speaking up when they are unhappy. As long as you're polite about your complaint, you're doing your part to inch that restaurant toward being a slightly better restaurant for everyone.

Terrible food

Great service can make up for a lot, but nothing will make you want to return to a restaurant if the food is truly terrible. Watch out for flowery menu descriptions that don't accurately describe what you actually get, as well as cheap ingredients being subbed in for more expensive items. If a kitchen is being run poorly, you'll likely spot inconsistencies with portion sizes and food quality. Unfortunately, once great restaurants can go downhill, particularly if they lose their chef or key kitchen staff, or are having money troubles. I've worked in restaurants that quietly attempted to serve cheaper bread and butter, and cut down on the size of alcoholic beverages. Did the guests notice? Of course, they did.

Glaring errors on your bill

I hate to throw my fellow servers of the world under the bus, but sadly, there are a small handful of unscrupulous waiters and waitresses who will try to charge guests for items they didn't have, particularly if the guests are a large group, or have been drinking. While innocent mistakes certainly can happen, it is always smart to check your bill and make sure you actually received everything you're being charged for. Also double check that an item that was promised to be removed from your bill actually was. If you strongly suspect a server was up to no good, that's something you should definitely report to the manager or owner.