I am an absolutely unapologetic foodie. But that shouldn’t be confused with being snooty. The truth is, I just love eating out. From burger joints to oyster bars, to five star Manhattan restaurants, and everything in-between. And after 15-plus years working in the restaurant biz, I’ve also developed quite the keen eye for what is going on behind the scenes at my favorite, and not-so-favorite haunts. Within a few minutes of walking into a restaurant, I already have a pretty good indication of if it’s a place I’ll want to come back to. What are the signs you’re in a good restaurant? Read on to find out.
The staff is happy and on the ball
I believe any dining experience can be elevated when the staff of a restaurant all seem to appreciate your business. I don’t mean faux-VIP butt kissing, I mean being greeted warmly at the door, smiled at by passing busboys, and pleasantly addressed by anyone who approaches your table. It may not sound like much, but it goes a long way in shaping my impression of a restaurant on my first visit, and may even allow me to forgive other areas where the establishment may be lacking. Bonus points if a manager comes by to check on me, even if it is just for a moment.
Clean floors and restrooms
I’ve worked in enough restaurants to know the condition they keep the front of the house in is a pretty good indication of the condition of the kitchen. Sure, not every place is going to be newly renovated with all the bells and whistles of a modern restroom, but I expect to see well-stocked paper products, functioning plumbing and fixtures, a garbage can that’s not overflowing, and doors that properly lock. Hooks to hang purses and bags is also appreciated. And let’s face it — the restroom should not smell like a restroom.
The floors throughout the restaurant should also be kept up with during a shift. I don’t want to stare at the crumbs and broken crayons of the family that left the table next to mine a half hour ago. Sticky floors are a major turn off, and slippery situations should be handled well before a guest might ever cross its path.
You might encounter one of these transgressions before they’re noticed by staff. At a good restaurant, politely notifying the staff of what you’ve seen will have them thanking you and jumping into action.
I’ve worked in places that practically threw me onto the floor with an apron the second I showed up for my first day on the job, and restaurants where I had to trail another server for three weeks and take tests proving I had memorized the menu before I was allowed to approach a table solo. Which do you think was the better restaurant?
A good restaurant is a restaurant that adequately trains its staff. A server should be able to intelligently answer any reasonable question you have about the menu and specials, and even the wine list, while also making suggestions based on your tastes. A good restaurant will encourage and even require servers to taste all of the food they sell, so they can guide you first-hand in your choices for your meal.
Bartenders should also have strong familiarity with the wines on offer, and a working knowledge of all classic cocktails. Too often you’ll see a restaurant put young, inexperienced servers behind a bar because they’re attractive, or simply because they expressed interest in picking up a bar shift. Unless another, more senior bartender is back there with them, that could be a recipe for trouble.
Restaurants run the smoothest when every member of the staff shares the goal of making every guest’s experience a good one. Teamwork ensures the proper utensils and condiments are on the table before you even need them, and that plates are cleared before your next course arrives.
From host, to server, to food runner, to busperson, a guest should never be made to feel that they can’t make a request of anyone who is involved with serving their table. Sure, the busboy and host can’t fetch you a drink from the bar, but they can certainly let your server know you’re ready to order another. Food runners should ask if there’s anything else your table needs, and not just assume your server will get it when they return.
When you spot a staff working well as a team, it’s a win-win for everyone. You’re going to get the best experience possible at that restaurant, and the staff will have a less stressful shift, that ends with more money in their pockets.
Attention to detail
It’s the little things that can really elevate an ordinary restaurant meal to an over-the-top event. Water glasses that are always filled. A server who is always nearby, without hovering. In an upscale restaurant, napkins that are folded for you when you leave to use the restroom. In a casual one, extra napkins being placed on your table without you having to ask.
When a staff can predict the small details that are going to make your meal a better one, and are able to be consistent with the details that make that particular establishment unique, you’re more likely to become a repeat customer.
The Right ambiance
The design of a restaurant takes more than just a keen eye and sense of style. The design and decor of a restaurant should complement the food the restaurant serves, while also matching the price point of the menu. While there are certainly exceptions to the case for restaurants that manage to churn out Michelin-star worthy food in hole-in-the-wall locations, your average, every-day restaurant is a place that you come to for a certain vibe, as well as the food. Are the seats comfortable? Are the tables large enough to accommodate the proper amount of plates? Do the staff’s uniforms match the character of the restaurant? When a restaurant conveys to you the type of experience you’re going to have as soon as you walk in the door, you know they’ve hit the mark.
Courses arrive at the proper times
Nobody wants to get their entree before they have finished their salad. Nor do they want to get their meal ten minutes before their dining companion gets theirs. A good restaurant will have a kitchen staff that knows the proper cook times to get entrees out together, servers who know when to “fire” each of your courses, and a manager “expediting” the delivery of food out of the kitchen so it gets to the correct table — with the proper side dishes. When everything comes out in a well-timed manner, with you never feeling rushed, that’s a sign of a good restaurant that knows how to manage their kitchen correctly.
Well, of course it’s about the food! Great service and attention can make up for quite a bit, but it won’t make up for terrible food. And while what makes food good or bad can certainly be subjective, consistency is the key when determining if you’re in a good restaurant. Does your favorite dish taste the same as it did the last time you enjoyed it? Does the salad always have fresh, crisp veggies? Are the specials really special, or do they just reflect the fish or meat the chef is trying to get rid of? A good restaurant is one that delivers quality, dependable food, regardless of the day of the week, or who happens to be working in the kitchen that day.
You know you want to come back again
At the end of the day, truly good restaurants, whether it be your favorite taco shack or the fancy place you go to celebrate a special occasion, are going to have one major thing in common. You want to keep coming back. And if you want to keep coming back, so do other guests. The biggest compliment you can pay to your favorite restaurants is to be a loyal regular. Even better if you spread the word about how great a place is. The more we can all support the truly good restaurants out there, the less we’ll have to suffer through the first-world misery of a mediocre meal. So share the love. And don’t forget to tip your server.
Written by Kitty Jay, mashed.com